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Dyson at Large: Why editors should beware of politicians’ praise

So there I was last Thursday, enjoying my daily peruse of regional media news stories on HoldtheFrontPage, when a disturbing headline nearly made me choke on my coffee.

News chief praised as MP blasts ‘political stance’ of editors

“What the hell is this all about?” I spluttered, quickly sharpening my mental pencil to express my opinion at the politician and news chief concerned.

Those of you who’ve read the article will already know that it reported the strange but true tale of Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West, tabling an Early Day Motion (EDM) that congratulated South Wales Argus editor Kevin Ward on four years in his chair, and praised the paper’s “fair and commendable political balance”.

Excuse me while I’m sick… BLUURRR!

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve met and dealt with Kevin, below, in the past, both when he was in the chair at the Worcester News and in his current role, and I’ve no reason to believe he’s anything but a fine example of an editor.

Kevin-Ward-2014But why would any politician, anywhere, congratulate an editor on being in the chair for four years? Four years?

It may have been justifiable for an MP to have tabled an EDM congratulating Peter Barron on retiring after 17 years as editor of the Northern Echo – and not just because 17 years is a tenure worth congratulating.

Peter was regularly in MPs’ black books for telling them where to get off with their London-centric policies, regardless of their party.

And so it would have been great, for instance, to read what James Wharton, the Tory MP for Stockton South and the supposed ‘Northern Powerhouse Minister’, thought about Peter’s enviable tenure in the House of Commons this week.

I say ‘great’, but it would also have been unlikely, given the regular rows that Peter’s Northern Echo has had with that particular MP, whose latest response was to call on local readers to boycott the paper.

Now that – in my humble opinion – is how editors should get on with local politicians: at best uncomfortably, at worst pretty badly, but certainly never in a way that might confuse a local reader.

An editor, I believe, should start any relationship with any politician of any party under a cloud of heavy distrust, and should make the councillor, mayor, MP, MEP, minister, prime minister (or whatever sort of politician they are) sweat profusely for local people before they ever earn the right to grace the paper under favourable headlines.

Even then, as soon as the said politician indicates any sort of cosiness, an editor should challenge their latest policy, get a cartoonist to lampoon their dress code and looks, and invite readers to tell him or her what action they want next.

An editor’s battle honours in politics should be politicians they’ve fallen out with, not ones who’ve mentioned them in dispatches.

Not that I’m saying there’s anything wrong with Newport MP Paul Flynn: for all I know, he’s quite possibly one of Wales’ better politicians.

But because he’s a politician – that profession that sets out to win votes regardless of facts – he needs to be handled (if we’re in a good mood) like the worst door-to-door vacuum salesman and (if we’re in a bad mood) like something you’re putting into a small black plastic bag.

As it was, I was left scratching my head at editor Kevin Ward’s response to the praise that was heaped upon him, saying – amongst other things – that he was “flattered”.

Yes, yes, I know it was all qualified, in that Kevin was pleased that his editorship and papers were seen as unbiased politically, and willing to give all parties a say.

That’s all well and good, but that sort of behaviour should really go without saying, shouldn’t it?

It’s not Kevin’s fault for being made the subject of an EDM, of course, but to me it was a bit like being congratulated by a defence counsel for carefully reporting a court case with evidence from both sides. Would that be flattering?

A better retort – surely – might have been to ignore what was (in my opinion) such a silly EDM and, if pressed, to make your comment one that invited the MP to answer angry questions at the next controversial public debate on Labour’s policies in Wales.

That way, no-one’s left in any doubt that you’re always watching, always suspecting and always scrutinising everything that any politician says, which is no bad place for an editor or a local newspaper to be.

But perhaps I’m being too pernickety: what do you think, HoldtheFrontPage readers?


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  • March 9, 2016 at 9:21 am

    Well said that man. Excellent piece.

    Peter Barron is a great example of an editor who’s regularly prodded politicians. He did it in a more “diplomatic” way than I could ever manage and was more effective because of that. Then again, he didn’t have Peter Mandelson to contend with :-)

    Steve ifever you find Mandelson on record saying anything nice about me you can let me know and I’ll definitely choke on my coffee.

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  • March 9, 2016 at 11:06 am

    “An editor, I believe, should start any relationship with any politician of any party under a cloud of heavy distrust, and should make the councillor, mayor, MP, MEP, minister, prime minister (or whatever sort of politician they are) sweat profusely for local people before they ever earn the right to grace the paper under favourable headlines.”

    Why? Are all politicians automatically evil ? When the community campaigner you have reported on for years stands for the town council does he suddenly become someone with a hidden agenda, not to be trusted?

    Yes, journalists should not take everything politicians say as gospel, but perhaps the relationship should be based on results gained and the commitment of the individual to the area and to stand up for it, not on automatic dislike.

    Sad to say not many newspapers really report their MPs actions properly anyway. Editors should get their own house in order first. I know of one Welsh paper which in my opinion just runs two press releases a week from its MP.

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  • March 9, 2016 at 12:50 pm

    Toecurling – both Flynn’s original comment and Kevin’s reaction.

    Only this week Vincent Kane, that great crusading Welsh broadcasting journo of yesteryear, received a standing ovation at the Welsh Media Awards when urging his successors to constantly scrutinise and take those in power to task.

    God knows what he’ll make of this…

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  • March 9, 2016 at 1:31 pm

    You weren’t the only person spluttering over their coffee, Steve.

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  • March 9, 2016 at 1:50 pm

    Choking on coffee? Don’t think so. Liquid seldom goes into the trachea, causing choking. Liquid entering the area above the vocal cords is more likely to trigger paroxysmal coughing. This is because the cough reflex is stimulated if the area above the vocal cords is violated by the slightest drop. When this happens in future, Mr Dyson, breathe in through your nose, to reduce the coughing.

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  • March 10, 2016 at 1:48 am

    I know Kevin from way back and would bet my last pound he’s done nothing to provoke this EDM, but he sadly seems to have been soiled by it.

    A Newsquest editor’s current challenge is to produce a newspaper with inexperienced staff (note the now infamous Penarth Times comes from the same stable).

    I would suggest the Argus – while maintaining neutrality – is opting to keep it’s very left-wing readership content (anything pro-Tory will just not do in most parts of Gwent) and this has been misinterpreted by Mr Flynn as political balance.

    Kevin’s made a slight, understandable (particularly in these dark days of Newsquest), error in allowing his ego to be stroked, but the major issue is that the MP thinks the Argus stands out as a balanced local paper. Whether or not local journalism is going down the pan and surviving on regurgitated press releases, I think we’d all agree there must only be a handful (and I can’t name one) of papers that have any political bias?

    TLDR: A left wing politician has – predictably – seen an opportunity to promote himself in parliament,

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  • March 10, 2016 at 8:01 am

    A few MPs I have dealt with have been grounded, helpful, funny and forthright (though of course for their own ends). Some were just so average and a waste of time. Some, mostly the junior government minister variety, were arrogant bullies. I treated them all with the same disdain (likewise local councillors, who are now a well-rewarded but strange breed who need to be very closely watched, not sucked up to). Throughout it all my company would, for its own ends, encourage (demand) editors to have sycophantic relationships with these people, so they could be used to enhance self-serving campaigns on dead horse issues like VAT and public notices – and, most disturbingly, maintain advertising streams. County councils, particularly, remain cash cows for regional dailies. Some of the toadying that goes on now is sick worthy. Pass the bucket Steve…..

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  • March 21, 2016 at 10:06 am

    Surely that should be perusal (noun) not peruse (verb) in the intro Steve?

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