My faith in the public’s interest in local newspapers was bolstered when the Sutton Coldfield Observer arrived through my letterbox at the weekend.
The free weekly’s two-page spread of letters was almost entirely devoted to Plebgate – quite rightly given the town’s MP is Andrew Mitchell, and that the 5 December edition was readers’ first chance to express their views on his failed libel trial.
But what caught my eye was the annoyance of two readers that the verdict had only made a small story on an inside page of the previous week’s edition, dated 28 November.
“A story that was front-page news in national press was covered with a few column inches on page nine of your publication last week,” wrote reader James Lapworth, adding: “I would have thought it was worthy of a bigger headline in our local paper.”
His views were echoed by another reader, Tim Cooper, who wrote: “Our local paper, reporting on local issues, hid the story on page nine [when] surely this is the most important news article … why?”
Fair play to Gary Phelps, the Observer’s editor, who felt these queries deserved a full answer on the same pages, although I didn’t agree with his reasons to sideline what was huge breaking news.
He told readers that it had “become a tradition” to devote the Observer’s front page to details of which charities benefited from the town’s annual fun run, revealed at an evening presentation the same week.
Despite the fact the Plebgate verdict came within an hour of deadline, Phelps wrote: “We did not feel the Mitchell case should take precedence over the 7,000 local people who took part in the Great Midlands Fun Run, or the £345,000 they raised this year.”
More pertinently, Phelps also pointed out that the Local World title, “being a free local weekly newspaper, has limited resources and was unable to send someone to the High court in London for the case.”
Hinting at the BBC-reliant position that many local newsrooms find themselves in today, he added: “We have to wait for public news organisations to report the outcome of trials, before putting together a story using the facts available.”
Other letter writers concentrated on Mitchell’s future as their local MP, with Anthony Tomkins – the former deputy chairman of Sutton Coldfield’s Conservatives – announcing: “Your time is up.”
Tomkins, who once ran for the Conservatives in the neighbouring Erdington constituency, added: “I believed him to be arrogant and to have absolutely no concept of what made ordinary people tick. There now remains only one decent thing Mitchell can do and that is to resign.”
But reader L Doona disagreed, and wrote: “Whatever anyone may say about the incident which has blighted our MP’s life for the last two years, I know from speaking to friends and neighbours just how much he is supported in Sutton Coldfield because he is a dedicated and respected MP.”
These views were endorsed by reader Suzanne Webb, who praised the way Mitchell had spent time backing her campaign to protect Sutton’s greenbelt despite his personal problems.
She wrote: “At a time when his attention over the last few weeks could have been distracted he remained committed and focused during the public examination of the green belt issue …
“From my experience working with Andrew I am very glad we have him on our side and I hope that a line can be firmly drawn underneath what has happened.”
Meanwhile, in what the Observer claimed was Mitchell’s first interview since the verdict on page four of the 5 December issue, the beleaguered MP insisted that he had “no intention of standing down” and “will be standing again” at the next General Election.
He added: “I am now looking forward to a quieter life getting on with looking after my constituents, [and] I hope this experience will assist me in working to help people who fall foul of the system.”
As a Sutton Coldfield resident myself, I feel I should say – regardless of political leanings – that Mitchell does fulfil the role of a genuinely committed local MP.
That said, he has no chance of a quieter life, as he’ll be one of the main focuses of the national and regional media circus in the run up to 5 May next year, including – I hope – the front pages of the Observer.