Reporting in Kent, where Brexit is a very local news story
For Paul Francis, political editor of the Kent Messenger, there are few issues which are not impacted in some way by Brexit, thanks in part to the face Kent is both the Garden of England but also the Gateway to Europe. Here he looks at how reporters in Kent are covering Brexit in a very local way
While the increasingly rancorous debate over Brexit plays out at Westminster, the ramifications of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU have a particular resonance for Kent.
It may be known as the Garden of England but the county is also known as the Gateway to Europe and is in the eye of the Brexit storm perhaps more so than any other part of the country.
With the Port of Dover and the key motorway network for freight traffic running through the county, the Brexit cliff edge is more than a handy piece of political shorthand. The prospects of disruption, road gridlock and delays after the end of March are — for Kent — very real.
So, how are we covering the biggest political issue in decades and one that is right on our doorstep?
Beyond the attritional warfare in Parliament, the practical impact of Brexit is front and centre of our coverage and there is no shortage of material.
Take last week. It began with us revealing how schools in the county had been warned about what education chiefs described as “lockdown” because of Brexit.
Then came an announcement from the government that it was allocating £29m to the county council for Brexit related contingency plans to improve road schemes. This was followed by a report that one of our councils was spending £100,000 on laptops for staff who might be unable to get to work because of Brexit road gridlock.
The week ended with an exclusive story, based on a report leaked to us, that the government’s Department for Exiting the EU had issued guidance to councils and others on how to resist Freedom of Information requests about — guess what — their contingency plans for Brexit.
The revelation the government had tried to shut down disclosure of information by arguing that it would not be in the public interest was an irony not lost on some.
This is not an atypical week. And while it is frustrating to see our stories routinely lifted often without attribution by the national media, it is reassuring that we are making the right calls.
We know there is a danger of Brexit overload but Kent is on the frontline and the risks associated with it are very real for residents and businesses and the those responsible for the provision of important public services.
While our focus has been primarily around the practical repercussions, we have not ignored the political debate — with 17 MPs — many in constituencies where Brexit is an overriding issue — it would be hard to.
When the vote on Theresa May’s deal took place, we broadcast our nightly live news show on KMTV from Westminster.
We have run and revisited backgrounders on the key issues; run rolling live blogs and polls to complement our news coverage. And — while accepting it is only an indication — the number of comments on our online stories shows there is an appetite for informed insight and coverage.
We have also created a section on our Kent Online dedicated to our Brexit coverage.
Sometimes, we face the inevitable charge of running ill-informed fake news. When we broke the story of the guidance provided to schools, we were accused of scare-mongering — with online comments somehow suggesting that it was us providing the guidance. It was a story with a clear public interest — Kent has hundreds of schools and is the largest education authority in the country.
It is commonplace for journalists to say that there is no such thing as an ordinary working week: Brexit and the current feverish political climate as we inch closer to the March 29 deadline make it especially true.