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07 May 2012

It's Called Democracy

I had a good day on Friday; my Leeds Trinity postgrads were all employed by the BBC as stringers or runners at election counts across West Yorkshire, so I took the opportunity to volunteer for a shift myself. I ended up as a runner-come-reporter for Radio Leeds assisting at Leeds Town Hall. It felt so liberating to be back in harness, working on a developing story.

I've covered a fair few elections in my time.

I saw Labour trail a bunch of red roses out, unpresented, shredding petals on the ground, from the Batley and Spen count in 1992 when the Conservative Elizabeth Peacock held what was Neil Kinnock's seventh target seat that night against all expectations.

Five years later I remember asking one of my trainees, who was acting as a reporter for The Pulse of West Yorkshire, if she was sure .. I mean absolutely sure .. that the unknown New Labour youngster Chris Leslie really had taken Shipley from Tory grandee Sir Marcus Fox. Moments later I announced it on air, as Tony Blair swept to power.

Back in the day a local election count meant a press room full of telephones and wire baskets into which runners (from the council staff) would deposit result forms still warm from the photocopier. The trick was to intercept the runners at the door, grab a sheet and start 'dialling'  (as in, dialling with a rotary dial) the desk whilst the competition was waiting for the post to be delivered. But there was always a case of Brown Ale, paid for by the ratepayers, to help the evening pass more pleasantly.

Journos mixed freely with Councillors. We were on the floor of the counts having signed a 'Stat Dec' (a Statutory Declaration in front of a Magistrate) to the effect that we wouldn't interfere with the process of the counting. I got my best political stories that way. Confidences shared or unguarded remarks from party hacks gave the best steer on the way things were going. And we could always get access, and interviews.

I noticed a change in 2005.

I wasn't even meant to be working. An undergraduate student (not one of mine) decided at the last minute he had more important things to do than work all night at a count, so rather than let The Pulse down I begged a pass from Kirklees Council and went in to watch them weigh Barry Sheerman's Labour vote in Huddersfield. The shock came as I arrived at Huddersfield Sports Centre. Press were barred from the floor. We had to go in the public gallery.

I suppose what really hurt was the docile way the other journos there just accepted it.

I don't suppose any news organisation sent their attack dogs to the Huddersfield count, as the result was a formality. That said I appeared to be the only hack there incensed over being corralled in the balcony with (as I recall) a few stray drunks and a delegation of taxi drivers riled over some licencing issue. I demanded to see the Returning Officer who told me she had taken the decision 'on the advice of the Police' because there were fears the presence of a BNP candidate could result in a public order problem.

So let's get this straight.

The mere possibility of a breach of the peace is enough to have the press confined to a pen away from candidates and their teams? 

Right. But there's more.

Other authorities, certainly Bradford amongst others, started herding reporters into a room with a big screen showing the page from the Council website where results were posted. The same page the public could see from home. Meanwhile the count takes place in a different room, a different building, and the reporters on the ground miss the story of the election.

It starts to be normal. Call me old fashioned, but this actually matters. 

It happened again at last month's Bradford West by-election won by George Galloway. Biggest political story in West Yorkshire for years, and those trying to make sense of it were confined to the margins. And again at last Thursday night's Bradford Council counts. Sidelined.

If we accept that the press can be casually relegated to the public gallery, or locked away in a room watching an internet screen, we accept that our local politicians live in a world with less scrutiny, less contact, less communication with the electorate. And at a time when the public is already cynical about politicians, that's serious.

That's why I was pleased on Friday to see that Leeds City Council allowed reporters free access to the count. Security staff were vigilant to ensure we had the right badge, but once inside I was able to take the temperature of the count, talk to the players, steer the right people to the microphone at the right time. Its an important freedom, and one that's worth fighting for.  

I'd hope other journalists will take up the battle to stop the fear of some vague disorder being an excuse for their exclusion from the story.

Otherwise the thugs, the bullies and the bigots have achieved more impact than they ever could by turning over a table or scattering a few ballot papers.

2 comments:

  1. Len Tingle- BBC Yorkshire Political EditorMonday, May 07, 2012

    I'm with you Richard- confined to the balcony at the Bradford council/mayoral vote. Hand signals down on the floor to potential interviewees for BBC Look North/Dimbleby/Radio...the excuse? So many observers and "guests" that the crowd was too big for us to operate safely on the floor. That's a new one for me.

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  2. Great post Richard. Good local media reporting is essential for a healthy democracy and we'll all be poorer if we lose it.

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