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Dyson at Large: The hidden treasures of court reports

The detailed lists of magistrates’ convictions published by so many regional papers can be rich hunting grounds for great, offbeat stories.

Try this one for size: ‘WILKINSON, John (65), Cavendish Road, Heysham. Breached ASBO x3. Four weeks jail suspended for 12 months, costs £180.

This was the 40th of 41 single paragraph case summaries that appeared on page 14 of the Lancaster Guardian on Thursday 21 November, and it had me thinking of all sorts of follow up angles:

  • What had a pensioner done to get an ASBO in the first place?
  • What were the hat-trick of incidents that were deemed to have breached these orders?
  • What did his ‘victims’ think of the fact that he had been spared jail – despite persistent law-breaking?
  • And – thinking more widely – how about an FOI request to the police to find out how many pensioners were currently subject to ASBOs in the area.
  • Come to think of it, another FOI: who’s the oldest recipient of an ASBO in the area, and why?

Whatever the detail, a follow up story on old boy Wilkinson’s misdemeanours would surely be a must-read for residents in Heysham – where he’s bound to be notorious.

And an industry-wide point: any title that publishes what are often court-supplied lists of convictions should have someone on the rota to read them thoroughly, spotting any diamond cases.

For all we know, the case of ‘WILKINSON, John (65)’ might have been looked into and, if so, this would show good news instinct at the Lancaster weekly; if not, this ‘tip’ can always be followed up for a future edition.

As it was, there was more than enough going during that week to offer the newsroom a choice of splashes.

The story selected was ‘Machete pair put man in hospital’, which made for a good headline – but with no victim’s details, it was a bit of a frustrating read.

Much better was the ‘Priest guilty of sex assaults’ court story that led page 10 – and which, in fairness, was one of the write-offs on the front.

Stephen Shield, 53, was a Canon at Lancaster’s Catholic cathedral before his arrest, and it’s likely he was widely known in the university city. Other good stories included:

  • ‘Stop crashing into my car and driving off!’ leading page three, a tale about the damage caused by residents racing for scarce parking spots;
  • ‘Cuts blamed for rise in problems on city estate’ leading page five, reporting on claims that a lack of funds for a community centre led to youths causing trouble;
  • ‘Head’s backing for hospice in dad’s memory’ spread across the tops of pages eight and nine, a touching tale of a local school leader’s efforts for much needed funds; and
  • ‘I’m no big bad wolf!’ leading page 11, a headline that couldn’t fail to pull in readers, using a quote from a householder furious at a council fine over his extension.

There were 220-plus stories on 60 news and features pages – some of them very tight – and another 40-plus reports on eight sports pages; not bad for a 104-page book.

I have some fond personal memories of the Lancaster Guardian, one of the first papers where I had work experience during my NCTJ course at Preston in 1990.

Back then it was an enormous broadsheet, with a busy staff of ten or so, including subs, under the editorship of Mr W. W. Crayston (always Mr Crayston to placements like me).

I clearly remember the staff eagerly awaiting an old tea trolley from the finance office in Church Street, Lancaster, every Friday, dishing out brown envelopes containing carefully-calculated expenses in cash – and then to the pub!

The Guardian is a tabloid now, of course, and shares its editor, Nicola Adam, with the Garstang Courier; it’s subbed elsewhere in the Johnston Press kingdom; it’s based in the neighbouring seaside town of Morecambe; and there is probably no longer an expenses’ trolley (nor many expenses!).

Despite these changes, it still felt like a strong, newsy paper, and I was pleased to see as many as four news reporters writing stories and several bylines – possibly freelance – in sport; long may it remain decently-staffed.

The Guardian’s sales were last recorded as 12,103 a week in the last six months of 2012 – a steep dip of -17.6pc year-on-year.

It should, however, be noted that this plunge came at the same time as a 12pc cover price rise from 80p to 95p – although it’s as little as 71p for long-term subscribers. 


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  • December 11, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    Hi, many thanks for the review.

    The good news is that the story had been spotted and Mr Wilkinson is in fact Heysham’s famous pigeon man, who has provided many stories over the years with his bird-feeding ASBO.

    I thought I also better clarify that I am not Editor of the Garstang Courier – that falls to Lancashire Evening Post Editor Gillian Parkinson.

    I am Editor of the Lancaster Guardian and The Visitor (Morecambe)

    And I can sadly confirm the tea trolley is no more.

    Nicola Adam

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  • December 11, 2013 at 6:44 pm

    Fantastic, Nicola – a great news story, and obviously well spotted.

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  • December 11, 2013 at 7:37 pm

    The editorship of the Lancaster Guardian, 1999-2001 – unequivocally my happiest days in journalism (shedloads of awards and whopping circulation increases – but then again Bryan Carter, Sue Riley, Louise Bryning, Richard Machin and the Yorkshire oik as t’boss, did things the ‘old fashioned’ way!) Not sure that local papers these days understand their readers’ appreciation of humour, irony, investigation and, where local politicians are involved, an old-fashioned journalistic smack in the teeth. My team gave them the lot, every week. Happy, mega-profitable (and fast disappearing) days.

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  • December 12, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    It’s not just the tea trolley that’s gone, I’m afraid. The Guardian has just lost its last two photographers and news editor to JP’s latest cull. The paper’s glory days that Mr Lockwood rightfully speaks so fondly of are long gone.

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