Friday, 30 October 2009

No news to report? Are you sure about that?

A tweet by Jay Rosen led me to this online news story by the Jackson Sun, which says that there have been no newsworthy incidents in the area overnight. So far, so boring right?
I wonder. Because I have also played the 'there is no news' card - and there was a very calculated reason for it, although it is a bit of a long story...

In the mid-ninties I was working for the Gloucester Citizen as a senior reporter, somtimes helping out on the newsdesk, mostly just bemoaning the fact that I had missed out on covering the Rose West trial because the only hotel room left in the whole of Winchester was a twin bed one, the other reporter assigned to cover it for the Citizen was a bloke (who had covered the West horrorfest since the start, to be fair), and the company didn't feel able to have a co-ed bedroom.
So as I kicked around the newsroom, complaining, an unexpected thing happened; the editor's door opened, a shaft of sunlight appeared and a voice issued forth saying: "I need you to go and relaunch the Forest of Dean edition". Truly, I was blessed.

For anyone not in the know, the Forest of Dean is a breathtakingly beautiful area of countryside on the Gloucester/Wales border, where sheep roam the roads freely (and get smeared along them by speeding motorists just as often) and tiny lanes lead to dizzying hilltops from which you can gaze across some of the most amazing views in Britain. In the mid-nineties. it also had one of the most bloody miserable, unhelpful, intransigent police forces that it's ever been my misfortune to have to ring on an early shift.

Nothing happened in the Forest according the FoD police. Nothing. Even when a serving police officer - who went on the run from the North East following a string of dubious incidents, including how he attained the status of widower - turned up dead in a bathtub in a Cinderford semi, after assuming a false identity and joining the local am dram group. The Rapture could have happened in the Forest, and the local police would have denied any such activity.
So one day, several weeks into the relaunch, I snapped. It was a Monday, 7.30am, and there was snow on the ground when I phoned Coleford police station to find out what had happened overnight. "Nothing" came the reply. And at 11.30am the Forest edition started landing at newsagents with a nib in the p6 Briefs column that read: "Not crimes have been committed in the Forest of Dean overnight". Same story in the Incident Book at Cinderford's small police office - the Forest was at peace, and had been for several days, if that was to be believed.
Tuesday came, and I spoke to the desk sergeant at Coleford again. "Nothing". "No crimes have been committed in the Forest of Dean since Saturday" ran the p6 nib. People were starting to ring say this was inaccurate because they were the victims of crimes; we explained the situation, and asked them to contact Coleford Police, also suggesting that perhaps they wouldn't mind telling their friends of this conversation?
Wednesday and Thursday came and went, and so did the p6 nibs. And on Friday I was summoned to see the superintendent at Coleford Police Station for an exchange of views that led with me climbing off my high horser, and them agreeing a series of protocols for working with the press, and asking me to go on their next drugs raid.

I can't say we became the best of friends but the 'there is no news' did at least kickstart the conversation and lead to some much-needed venting. I think both sides were arrogant and held each other in low estime, and with hindsight I feel a little ashamed that I used the Citizen's readers as a stick to beat the police with; it wasn't fair on those victims of crime, but... it did make a difference to how we were able to report crime, and -maybe? - how the police viewed those taxpayers.
So, I can't look at the Jackson Sun's little nib without wondering if there is some gameplay going on. I sort of hope there is.
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