Saturday 8 September 2012

Open letter to the Editor of the Carmarthen Journal

Below is an open letter to the Editor of the Carmarthen Journal from the bloggers of Carmarthenshire. As you will be aware from recent blogposts, we are becoming increasingly concerned about the editorial independence of the newspaper.

Dear Editor;

Or should that be 'County Hall'?

We are sure we are not the only regular readers who have noticed that several recent news stories concerning the council have failed to make the pages of the Carmarthen Journal.

To give just a few examples, the BBC, the Western Mail and even Private Eye have found the space to report on the treatment of Day Centre whistleblower, Delyth Jenkins; controversies surrounding the council funding of Towy Community Church's Excel bowling alley; the Chief Executive's failed attempt to censure a county councillor and, not least of all recent attempts by County Hall to influence the editorial policy of another local paper. You will notice that there is a common thread: all are critical of the County Council.

Late in 2009 there were reports that Northcliffe Media, who own the Journal, had advised their editors to steer clear from negative stories about the council as funding from council advertising was in peril after a complaint was made by the Chief Executive of the Council.

The previous editor of the Journal, Cathryn Ings, tried to brave the storm and said  "..if the Council is failing in some way, you will not read about it in the [council] newsletter. The Journal has a duty to give its readers a full and balanced picture and we will continue to do so"

Unfortunately, three years on there is little to inspire confidence in those words, or that the situation has improved. Even the letters page appears to be subject to very unusual constraints. Letters from readers which question controversial decisions by the council are cut short or do not appear at all. Letters, most recently by an ex-editor of the paper, are unnecessarily edited to such a degree that the message is lost.

Newspapers are, of course, bound by the laws of defamation, and a code to report in a balanced and fair way, but there should be no external interference nor interference from the local authority, or its senior officers, which impinge on its freedom to investigate and comment.

The Council, it goes without saying, should know better. The fact that it employs seven staff in its press office and just two in dealing with Freedom of Information requests says everything about its obsession with image.

To be balanced, we need both the negative and the positive. The newspaper should certainly play its part in advertising Carmarthenshire as a great place to visit and invest, but its main duty should be to report the news. It is a competitive world, and local papers are struggling to keep up. Sales are down and the Journal itself faced a 12% drop in sales figures in the six months up to June.

For a weekly newspaper to give the appearance that it is bowing to censorship from County Hall is to sign its own death warrant. The bread and butter of the local press is not quantity, online or otherwise, it's not the number of council press releases you can squeeze into one edition, it's the determination and freedom of its reporters to use their skills to bring us the truth, good or bad.

The Journal is rapidly becoming indistinguishable from the council's propaganda sheet and it's time for the balance to be restored.

Your sincerely

Jacqui Thompson and Y Cneifiwr

10th Sept; Y Cneifiwr has a follow-up post here; News Management


Anonymous said...

Eloquently put Jacqui! Perhaps readers of the Carmarthen Journal should do what I did and take their custom elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

A newspaper has no obligation to be impartial or balanced.

If you don't like it, don't buy it.

Paul Price said...

I disagree with both of the above comments. On a local level there's no other choice of weekly news. This is reason enough to expect a balanced and non partisan output of news. Granted bigger stories like that of the whistleblower will make it into wider sources but surely then its bizarre for it not to be covered by the local paper? If its big enough an issue for national press to cover the story, then why the hell is it being kept out of the Journal? This isn't like choosing between a certain red top or broadsheet. This is more an issue of local democracy being eroded and manipulated. Boycotting the paper on principal or merely choosing another news source isn't the answer. Granted spin happens in the news all the damn time. And one will find news reports on CH4 that don't see the light of day on the BBC and vice versa. However to only have one news source to choose from? Come on!

caebrwyn said...

@Anon 19.04
You misunderstand, I like the paper and have bought it for years, that's why I care. What concerns me is the failure to report major stories concerning the council, and the evidence is strong that this is due to disgraceful bullying tactics from our PR obsessed local authority.

caebrwyn said...

@Paul Price
Exactly, if you discount the handful of blogs, the main source of news is the local paper. There is no other. If the single source is dominated by a local authority determined, it would seem, to wield editorial control then this goes to the very heart of local democracy.

Paul Price said...

Yes and I should add for those without local knowledge. When ones sees news reports say in the Swansea based Evening Post or South Wales Online 99 times out of a hundred any local stories - that is Ammanford in the east to Whitland in the west to Llandysul in the north - are sourced from the Journal. And dare I whisper the word "corruption" here with regards to the ongoing non existent yet fully funded bowling alley fiasco? I will leave that hang with rhetoric.

Anonymous said...

Anon 18:55 to Paul Price - Fair comment and I agree with your views but I think it is the Carmarthen Journal that needs convincing.

caebrwyn said...

@Anon 22.00
That maybe so but the local authority needs to be brought to account when it oversteps the mark. I believe the Minister for Local Government, Carl Sargeant is the man for that. We're waiting Mr Sargeant....and waiting...

Anonymous said...

Excellent letter. Well done

Robert Lloyd said...

Jacqui - think you may want to give the new man at the helm of the Journal a little time first. He's only been in the job a few weeks. Give him time to get his feet under the table . . . just a thought.

Cneifiwr said...

Robert Lloyd makes a fair point, but if the pressure is coming from a combination of the newspaper's owners and the council, as seems to be the case, he faces a very lonely struggle.

If the new editor wants to change things, this attempt to force the matter out into the open might actually help him.

Anonymous said...

Just how serious do things have to become before Carl Sargeant grows some. The buck stops with him when there are such serious concerns in Carmarthenshire.

caebrwyn said...

@Robert Lloyd. Thanks for your comment. Yes I am aware that there is a new editor at the Journal and he has my very best wishes. As Cneifiwr says, maybe then this is an opportune moment to air our concerns.
The problem, ultimately, as I see it lies not with the paper or its proprietors, it lies with the Council and, whether this is a situation peculiar to Carmarthenshire or not, I don't believe it is the elected politicians either. They do though have a collective responsibility to challenge the actions of their employees, however high the rank. This never seems to happen.

Unknown said...

Inclined to agree with Robert Lloyd. He has to get to grips with things. The paper is sustained through advertising so advertisers will not tolerate bad press. If Carmarthenshire County Council have threatened to withdraw a substantial amount of advertising revenue then that is an ethical decision to be made by the board at Northcliffe media. As members of the public we may be being kept in the dark by the people we elect. It is up to each and every one of us to make an informed decision at the polling booths on who we elect. We have the law, for example the freedom of information act. We must continue to monitor all aspects of local government and publish that information with all the tools available to us today. We cannot assume that the public do not know what is going on if it is being reported in other papers and magazine, websites and blogs. We must give people credit for seeking the truth and avoid getting into a blame culture, whether that is with CCC or the Journal. All that serves is to isolate ourselves even more. Better the devil you know eh?

Tessa said...

Good letter. I've just cancelled my sub to the boring old rag after regular weekly purchases for the last 15 or so years. I note previous editor Robert Lloyd's comments, though - and if it appears (from following this and Y Cneifiwr's blogs) there is improvement I may resume my subscription.

caebrwyn said...

Thanks Tessa.

Perhaps, for other readers, I had better make clear that I am not in any way suggesting anyone either boycotts nor stops buying the Journal, far from it.

Anonymous said...

Jacqui, please be assured that you have neither expressed nor implied that your readers should boycott or stop purchasing the Carmarthenshire Journal. I chose, as is my prerogative, to take my custom elsewhere when the Journal bowed to CCC's threat.

I agree with StClears Times statement, "We must give people credit for seeking the truth ........." In the words of Walter Lippmann “There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and to shame the devil." Hopefully the new Editor will take note of comments made and restore peoples faith.