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Editor's blog: Society reconnects with regional press

The Society of Editors conference is always one of the highlights of the year in media reporting. Not only is it an opportunity to debate the burning issues facing the industry, just as importantly it’s a chance to meet up with old friends and colleagues and renew acquaintances forged over previous SoE gatherings.

Each year the Society elects a new president who then gets to choose the location of the following year’s conference, with Southern Daily Echo editor Ian Murray understandably plumping for Southampton as this year’s venue.

Ian set out on his presidency a year ago with the avowed aim of “reconnecting” the Society with the regional press and if the attendance in Southampton was anything to go by, he has certainly gone some way to achieving that.

I counted 33 regional newspaper editors and executives at the gathering which, while by no means rivalling the attendances of the old Guild of Editors days, was certainly a big increase on last year’ turnout.

That said, there were one or two missed opportunities to involve the regional press more in some of the panel discussions.

An example was the session on the challenges facing journalists over coverage of sport which took place on Monday afternoon.

This really could have done with some input from one of the growing number of local editors whose titles have been banned by their local football clubs over the past year – Newcatle United, Southampton, Swindon Town and Rotherham United among them.

And as the Mirror’s Kevin Maguire pointed out, the session on devolution – presumably predicated on the web traffic and circulation increases enjoyed by Scottish titles during the independence referendum – lacked a panellist from Scotland.

However the panel discussions were something of a sideshow at a conference dominated by three big setpiece speakers – new IPSO chairman Sir Alan Moses, BBC director of news James Harding, and culture secretary Sajid Javid.

Sure, there was an element of crowd-pleasing and probably also electoral calculation in Mr Javid’s announcement that a majority Tory government would enact a new Bill of Rights containing legal protection for journalists, while his attack on ‘town hall Pravdas’ elicted yawns from an audience which can spot reheated old news a mile off.

That said, his determination to prevent criminals abusing the so-called ‘right to be forgotten’ and police forces abusing the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to uncover journalists’ sources was self-evident.

This was also due recognition of the excellent campaign that has been fought by Press Gazette on the RIPA issue. We may be rivals, but credit where credit’s due.

Former Times editor James Harding’s speech held out hope of a content-sharing partnership between local newspapers and BBC websites and highlighted the bridge-building that has taken place between the corporation and the regional press since he took up his current role.

It also underlined the view that to attempt to paint the BBC as the enemy of the local press – as Theresa May did at last year’s conference – is a wilful misunderstanding of the current challenges facing the industry.

As for Sir Alan, his masterful Society of Editors Lecture on Sunday evening was the proverbial iron fist within the velvet glove – a charming address delivered by a regulator who is clearly going to stand no nonsense.

Listening to the speech, I couldn’t help thinking that Sir Alan thought he was still addressing the Court of Appeal, but anyone who still thinks IPSO is a sham regulator in the pockets of the industry should go and read it in full.

As a final aside, the conference coincided with an announcement that the Newspaper Society, the representative trade body for the regional press, was merging with its national counterpart, the Newspaper Publishers Association.

Whatever has brought this about – and I assume the reasons are financial – the timing seems bizarre in that the Leveson Report clearly exposed the differences in culture between the national and regional press while the commercial pressures facing the two sectors are very different in nature.

I understand that not all the regional newspaper executives who served on the old NS board were in favour of the change and it is to be hoped that the newly-merged News Media Association will prove as doughty an advocate for the regional press as the NS has been.

If that is not the case, it may well be necessary to reinvent it.