The importance of ‘being in the room’

Eddie Bisknell

By Eddie Bisknell, LDR for Derbyshire

I’ve been the local democracy reporter for Derbyshire for a little more than a year now — and it is safe to say it is just the first step on a long road.

The aim of the Local Democracy Reporting Service, to appoint 150 reporters, hired solely to scrutinise council affairs, was an ambitious one, and I am proud to be part of it.

It was, and still is, an exciting prospect — to be at the forefront of the fight back.

Taking to the trenches — or council chambers — has shown, at least from my experience during the first year, the glaring need for more scrutiny of local authorities.

But more than anything else, what I have learned is the importance of just being in the room.

Some councillors quipped “oh a member of the press, we aren’t used to seeing one of you here” during the first few months of my time in post.

I’m glad that this has turned into comments like “you’re here more than most of us councillors,” “do you ever go home?” and “back again”.

Although I am very much still at the start of my career, I have achieved and seen a lot in my first few years — working the local news beat in Manchester, Gloucestershire and Derbyshire.

In each of these places, I have come across hardened, and possibly extremely cynical, journalists who comment about the good old days when weekly and daily papers had dozens of reporters.

This army of reporters would cover councils and other local authorities faithfully and consistently — with couple of editions of the paper each day, and many area specific copies.

To get back to those days, and the oversight it brought, will take a lot longer than a year — but I feel that I and the other “LDRs” are making a great start. And for whatever pitfalls the LDR service may have or come across — at least the courage was sought to make that start.

Some councillors and other public officials need some further work to remember that journalists have a right to not just be in the room — but to report on what is said, so that the wider public, which we are in the room to represent, can pass judgement.

This will require more “troops” — but also for papers up and down the country to fully appreciate the value of the work that is being produced by LDRs.

Council and NHS stories may not always get the hits that many companies fixate on, but they often provide the early warning signs that our industry must provide for the public.

Often, when a scandal breaks, questions are asked about “who is to blame?” and “how did it come to this?”

For these to be answered, consistent coverage must be provided by reporters and prominently published by news companies — both on the web but also in print, for those without the access and who are often the most vulnerable.

There are a couple stories which I am particularly proud of producing — and both came about because I was given the time, through the LDR service, to delve deeper.

The NHS is facing an uphill struggle of its own against rising demand for services but less funding to provide care.

I was invited to spend the day at Royal Derby Hospital to find out the impact which a small minority of patients — visiting A&E and calling 999 hundreds of times a year — is having on the NHS.

This found that patients often feigned injuries to get ambulances and access to addictive medication — possible at the expense of those in real need.

Another tale was the delay to construction of a Derbyshire secondary school, David Nieper Academy, caused by the collapse of Carillion.

A year on, the school has been left looking like a building site and shows the local impact of the construction giant.

An ongoing saga has been the battle for parents of kids with special educational needs to secure proper support in school. Battling losing tribunals over the right of parents to secure this support has cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of pounds in the last year alone.

More stories like this will follow in the coming year — but I do worry about how many have been missed while coverage of local authorities lapsed and some news companies lost sight of what really matters, and their purpose.

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