Brexit: Upsetting political factions is a price worth paying to make sure local news is told
Richard Porritt works for the Eastern Daily Press, and also on Archant stablemate The New European, a publication which launched just days after the country voted to leave the EU. Here, he looks at why journalists need to be prepared to upset vested interests more than ever in the pursuit of local news:
I have covered massive stories for both regional and national titles.
Terror attacks, celebrity deaths, murders, major scandals — each and every one is now a moment in a history, a hook to hang a certain time upon.
But Brexit has always felt different — it will define now just this moment but also the coming decades.
Covering politics on a regional is a tightrope walk. The bias that is so evident and encouraged across Fleet St is obviously not appropriate.
Every piece of political coverage is analysed and discussed by MPs and local activists. Any hint of an agenda and emails are fired off, angry letters to the editor hastily scrawled and annoyed MPs hit the phone.
During the 2017 snap election I had three complaints in one day. And I was delighted.
The first was from a ruffled Liberal Democrat convinced our coverage of his Tory opponent was fawning. The second was a Labour candidate demanding we ran less Lib Dem stories. And the third was a sitting Tory convinced both Labour and the Lib Dems were getting favourable coverage as part of a conspiracy to dethrone him.
As I explained at the time to my poor, put-upon editor “if everyone is annoyed, I am doing my job”. He didn’t quite see it that way but I stand by my comment.
But Brexit is very different.
In almost 20 years in journalism I have never worked on a story that has divided the readership so clearly. Our letters pages are a constant back and forth of Leavers and Remainers and the old, party battle lines have become blurred.
Add into the mix that I have also worked heavily on Archant’s national anti-Brexit title The New European and that tight rope begins to resemble a fishing line.
In order to protect the independence of the regional titles I have had to switch between two hats — the fiercely politically independent and the screaming Remainer.
But there has never been an issue — and not one reader, to my knowledge, has complained.
For some ex-hacks though the duplicity has not gone down well. “The current political editor of the EDP spends most of his time promoting his anti-Brexit podcast on Twitter rather than digging out local news stories,” screamed one grizzled former staffer. Another commented: “How can you not have an agenda when you work for The New European?”
Well, here is the secret: I leave my politics at the door. The view that your political views must mirror that of the title is ludicrous. If that were true every regional journalist would be completely apolitical.
But it has been a challenge to report Brexit in the regions. The amount of comments, surveys and events it has generated could have filled the papers and websites from front to back almost daily. It has been as much about saying ‘no’ to potential stories as saying ‘yes’.
I have consistently had to ask myself if the story is backed up: Is there any evidence to stand up these claims? If only such rigour had been applied to both Leave and Remain campaigns back in 2016.
The stories that have been the most successful are those with a human face. Not the local Brexiteer Tory banging on about sovereignty or the arch-Remainer demanding a second vote.
Brexit is about the fishermen who believe the European Union is to blame for the struggles of their industry, the mother who has lived in the UK 20 years yet now must prove she has the right to stay, the small family business facing ruin if they cannot trade freely across borders.
These are the stories regional papers tell so well. And if they upset the new political factions of Britain then so be it.