Coronavirus is demonstrating the value of traditional journalism skills

The Cheltenham horse racing festival went ahead in March despite fears that mass gatherings could spread Coronavirus. Days after the festival, the UK went into lockdown. Dogged determination by local democracy reporter Leigh Boobyer led to the story returning to the headlines last week. Here, he reveals how:

Journalists using their contacts to source stories has become as important as ever due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Government’s lockdown of the UK, imposed on March 23 to reduce the spread of the virus, meant journalists have had to do the work they did before but without going outside, or even putting their shoes on.

For local democracy reporters it was extra difficult as their main source of news — council meetings — had vanished, which led to their remit being broadened to write more journalism within the public interest.

Without many pages of council reports to delve into, the journalists’ contact book took its place.

From free food delivery services for the vulnerable to letters being sent to every household, councillors, community activists and local business owners have been sharing with journalists how their area has positively responded to the coronavirus crisis.

However, one of my contacts believed there was a different kind of response which was in the public interest to report: the Government’s decision not to cancel the Cheltenham Festival in March.

More than 250,000 were in attendance across the four-day event from March 10–13, which ended 10 days before UK lockdown measures began on March 23 and three days before social distancing measures were announced on March 16.

The contact, who will stay anonymous, was in possession of a data map which showed that an area neighbouring Cheltenham Racecourse had the highest number of coronavirus hospital admissions in Gloucestershire, as of April 3. After some persuasion, they decided to leak that map to me.

Leigh Boobyer

I discussed the map with my news editor and went straight to The Festival’s organiser, The Jockey Club, and the Department for Health for comment.

The Government & The Jockey Club defended their decisions not to cancel the event, with The Jockey Club adding it followed “clear guidance from the Government and science experts” and it introduced special hygiene measures for the meeting.

I broke the story on Twitter the moment I could and the thread received more than 1.5million impressions, more than 3,000 retweets and nearly 5,000 likes.

Not long afterwards during my daily exercise in which I took my dogs for a walk, my Twitter account was showing I had many notifications but couldn’t load them.

The map which almost broke Leigh’s Twitter timeline

Thinking it was a lack of internet connection in the countryside, I left it. Then my friend sent me screenshots which then proved why my notifications feed wasn’t working: the BBC’s Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg and GMB host Piers Morgan, who collectively have more than eight million followers, had retweeted my thread.

The story was praised and shared by other national journalists such as ITV News’ Business and Economics Editor Joel Hills and Guardian and Observer writer Carole Cadwalladr.

Over the following days it was picked up by newspapers such as the Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Times and the Daily Mail, as well as leading BBC Points West’s main stories on its evening news show.

Already chuffed about the level of recognition the story received, on Sunday morning I was more than pleasantly surprised to hear broadcaster Andrew Marr over my breakfast use the data to challenge the Government on its coronavirus strategy on his BBC show.

Marr namechecked ‘GloucestershireLive’ and put my story to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab as he interviewed him live on TV.

I had an idea that this would be a story of national importance, but perhaps still didn’t realise how much attention it would get.

A conclusive answer as to whether Cheltenham Festival, and other large gatherings held at the same time in the country, had an impact on local cases may never be found, but the decisions to allow them to go ahead deserves scrutiny. I’m proud to have been part of a story which gives people the insight they need to judge the Government’s handling of the lockdown.

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Behind Local News

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