Here is the full chapter I wrote for the What Do We Mean By Local book which Roy Greenslade is currently serialising in the Guardian. I wrote this in December 2011.
Mike Rawlins isn’t a journalist, but he wanted to know more about politics so decided to do something about it. The experiment in political engagement took him further than he could have imagined.
Local can be many things to different people. It can be a few houses on a road, a street, a village, a town or city. All geographically local, of course. Then there is your local hospital, chip shop, library, school or children’s centre, which are local, defined by use or need. Local government is by its very nature local and can be split down from the largest city councils in the UK to parish and town councils and then even smaller sections of localness – the ward.
But what of other things that are “local”, interests, campaigns and issues for instance?
Interests can be local or indeed can spread much further afield. Taking photography as an example, there are many thousands of local groups on Flickr. People who are possibly connected in real life locally, but more often than not just sharing a space, passing by in close proximity from time to time and never knowing, populate these local groups on-line with their photographs, often many of them being pictures of the same things.
With groups such as the ones on Flickr, people from the wider global community can become part of the local group by just visiting the locality, taking a picture and posting it on to the local group.
Campaigns and issues again are broadly based around geographically local – the campaign to save your local hospital, chip shop, library, school or children’s centre.
A dislike of the extreme
Much of my work in my day job is helping people understand how to use the many different freely available and free-to-use tools on the Internet, to help them to amplify their voices to help them to run their campaigns. Although their drive may well be local, campaigners still often need to harness the global power of the Internet to ensure that they are connecting with as many people as they can locally.
For me local is politics. I’m not a big political animal, I don’t make my political leanings public and how I vote is between the ballot box and me. I do, however, make no secret of my dislike of extreme politics, both far right and far left. You could argue that a whole city, even a medium sized one like Stoke-on- Trent, isn’t really local in the purest form. But if that is the seat of power in the local area, although it may be stretching the definition, it is local.
I am not a member of any political party but I like to know about what is going on politically both locally and nationally. I have to confess that I have even become slightly addicted to watching Prime Ministers’ Questions every Wednesday, observing the political posturing, barracking and braying from all sides of the House while parties and individuals are trying to score points. No matter what, it is always the fault of the other person or party.
In late 2008 I became involved in a very new political website called Pits n Pots that had been set up in Stoke-on-Trent by Tony Walley. He told me it was called Pits n Pots because it was a swipe at his old careers teacher, who was infamous for saying “you’re only good for t’ pits or t’ pots” – meaning you were either going to the coal mines, the pits, or the potteries, the pots.
Pits n Pots was set up to fill a gap in the market in Stoke-on-Trent where political commentary and discussion was concerned, the more main stream media were not fulfilling their duties of holding power to account as well as they might. The coverage was quite scant in many cases and the chances of having a discussion about anything political on the mainstream media websites were quite slim.
An attempt at being different
The BBC generally doesn’t promote commenting on news on its website and The Sentinel, the local paper in Stoke-on-Trent had, for very good legal reasons, a policy of censorship over moderation for comments on their website. If you left a comment on The Sentinel website that was deemed to be even slightly near the knuckle, it was removed. This policy made debate to be impossible in some cases.
Because of this gap in the market for debating political news and ultimately getting people more engaged in local politics, we decided to try to do things differently on Pits n Pots and actively encourage debates on local political issues. Trying to keep conversations and discussions lively while treading the right side of the libel line when dealing with any politics is no mean feat. Add in the fact that the BNP had nine councillors in the city and it certainly made for some interesting times moderating comments. Not only were we dealing with the BNP councillors and their supporters from the city, but also the anti fascist movement too from further afield, which was watching what was going on in the city from afar.
In the early days we were taking stories from the local paper, republishing them with attribution and links, allowing people to debate them. We became almost like a third party commenting system for the paper. Understandably it wasn’t too happy about this at the time, but thankfully, other than a few snide comments left by reporters every now and then, it didn’t make too much noise about it. We were totally open and honest about where the content was coming from and always linked back to it.
After a while we noticed that we were regularly getting more comments on our copies of the articles than The Sentinel was on the originals. From the feedback we were getting this was because we were allowing the debates to flow as much as we possibly could by not removing comments because they had a mild swear word in them or called a councillor useless.
We spent a lot of time ensuring that the site was set up to loosely enough to allow people to voice their opinions freely but tight enough that gratuitous swearing and profanity wasn’t prevalent. Because we were working in a very small, almost niche market, and on a subject that both Tony and I enjoyed and found interesting, we were able to spend time replying to comments, something that rarely happens on mainstream news website. We could also explain to some of the posters why we were not going to publish their comments, but if they wanted to rewrite them we would happily publish them. Building that relationship with the readers and contributors helped the site to grow.
Writing our own content
The site was growing and becoming more popular so we had to keep feeding it. Therefore we slowly started to write our own content – initially not very much, perhaps one or two pieces each week, when the opportunity arose, and when we got the lead on a story about the council or a councillor. Tony would write a regular opinion piece about what was going on in the city and we were quite surprised when we saw these got as much traffic and as many comments as the articles we were “borrowing” from The Sentinel. At that point we began to realise that so we really were on to something, not only writing to feed our own egos but also providing a service by becoming an alternative political news and commentary site for Stoke-on-Trent.
It didn’t take very many months until we had stopped borrowing content from The Sentinel and we had become pretty much self-sufficient when it came to content. In this respect we were helped greatly by the political make up of the council. There was no overall control in the chamber, although Labour were the biggest party with around twenty six to thirty councillors present at meetings. There were also, in order of size:
This mix used to change almost on a weekly basis, with councillors crossing the floor to join a different party or leaving a party and becoming non aligned. This intermingling of parties in the chamber made for interesting, if somewhat long, full council meetings where bargaining and deal making was rife just to get the most simple of items passed. Every meeting different groupings were joining together to get a majority on a certain item; following this, the next item there would witness a different set of allegiances made. Because of this we were able to get two, three, four or even five different sides to stories to put on the site. Sadly this is no longer the case now that there is an overall Labour majority.
We did notice that with the mainstream media outlets locally there was very little coverage of the British National Party. There would be nothing reported other than the odd campaign that would be fronted by one of their councillors. Tony and I therefore decided that we would talk to all the political parties that held a seat in the chamber, if they would talk to us, and we would report on them openly, honestly and equally with any of the other parties.
We have often been asked why did we give some much column space to the BNP and the answer was simple – they were elected representatives of people in the city and therefore they had the right to have their say. I often pointed out to people that we reported on Labour or Conservatives but that doesn’t make us supporters so why should reporting on the BNP be any different?
Many people have tried to tell us that we were wrong for taking this standpoint and that we should have actively ignored them. But by doing that we would surely be no different than the mainstream media which we felt were letting people down. We possibly spent more time with members of the BNP from the local councillors and activists right up to their party leader and MEP Nick Griffin. This was on our part a calculated risk; we wanted to report on them, (Nick Griffin had said that Stoke-on-Trent was the jewel in the BNP’s crown and claimed the city would return the party’s first BNP MP when he launched its 2010 General Election manifesto) because the only way people can understand the policies, beliefs and workings of any party so they can make an informed decision on who to vote for is by getting close to them and reporting on them.
By giving the BNP this platform, we also gave the public that same platform to question them and their policies, something that no other website has done, as far as we aware. There are plenty of sites that support the BNP and probably five times as many anti fascist sites, but none of them actively encouraged the debate.
Allowing a better informed decision
The people of Stoke-on-Trent never did return the first BNP MP in the 2010 General Election and in the 2011 local elections they didn’t return a single BNP councillor. We can’t say this is solely down to what Pits n Pots did, but I’m sure that by allowing the debate we allowed people to make a better informed decision on where to put their cross.
One of the other big selling points we used when trying to get audio and video interviews with people was that we would never edit the interviews. They would be published from start to finish as recorded. How many times have you watched a television news report and the interviewee fades out to a background shot or they slip slightly to the left or right? This is where the interview has been edited; more often than not this is just down to the time constraints of the news bulletin, but there have been times when people have said that the section of their interview that was broadcast was taken out of context.
We made it quite clear to everyone we interviewed that what they said would be published unedited, putting the ball firmly in their court. We wouldn’t try to spin anything by taking sound bites but they had to be careful because if they let something slip it was going to be published. This was probably one of the best decisions we made, gaining us huge amounts of credibility with the councillors, because they knew that what they said would be published and they could capitalise on that.
To this day I can honestly say that every audio or video interview we have done with anyone from any political party has been published as is. If there was ever anything libellous in an interview, and we picked up on it while we were recording, we would delete the whole thing and start again.
After the 2011 local election, politics became very boring; there were boundary changes which meant we went from sixty councillors in twenty three- member wards to a strange mix of forty four councillors in thirty one single member wards, five two-member wards and one three-member ward.
A changed chamber
At the time of writing in March 2012 Labour has a majority of thirty four so there is very little in the way of decent debate and bargaining in the council chamber; it is simply a case of Labour getting what Labour wants.
Long gone are the days when Pits n Pots was breaking the latest news from the council, not because we have taken our eye off the ball but simply because there is no breaking news. A former council officer said to me recently: “It is easier to get information out of the Kremlin than it is to get it out of the Civic these days.” He is very right but that in itself is a challenge and hopefully a challenge that Pits n Pots is up to taking on with the support of the Journalism Foundation.
In November 2011 this newly formed foundation, fronted by Simon Kelner, the former editor of The Independent, contacted me at Pits n Pots to ask me to go to talk with them about ways in which we could work together to promote Pits n Pots, and to give it a kick start in what is now quite a dull political landscape.
This is a potted history of Pits n Pots, some self promotion thinly disguised as a book chapter. In some ways it is, but there is a bigger point that needs to be made.
Tony and I did this because we believed in local democracy and getting people to engage with it. More importantly, neither Tony nor I are trained journalists or have any desire to be. Tony is the managing director of a company in Stoke-on-Trent, and I am a social media trainer. So the question is, if we can do it why can’t others?
I’m not suggesting people try to create a new version of Pits n Pots, although imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery, but if people feel that they are not being well served by their local newspaper, whether that be politically or more generally then why don’t they have a go at using the free tools and start publishing something themselves? They don’t need to be massively technically skilled. If they can send emails and shop online, they have the technical skills. All they need to add to this is a grasp of the English language and the desire to do something good in their local area for the benefit of everyone. They should think of it as an old-style parish magazine, but one going online to give it greater reach.
There are of course some aspects people should be aware of when it comes to publishing. Commonsense usually prevails and a local news site is unlikely to get in to too much trouble, unless it goes looking for it. There are many resources available online to help a local website become established – and then once that has happened there are more on hand about legal dos and don’ts.
Here are some websites that might inspire readers to look at what local means to them:
Note on the author
Mike Rawlins moved from Manchester to Stoke-on-Trent thirteen years ago and now splits his time between Stoke-on-Trent and North East Scotland, where he is hoping to self build to enable him to relocate permanently, with Borris, his Jack Russell, and his wife. He has been using the Internet since 1995 and works with people in disadvantaged areas across the UK helping them to get online and use the many free social media tools that allow them to amplify their voices to try to improve their positions.
Mike often speaks at conferences on subjects such as the benefits of social media, DIY democracy and citizen journalism. Away from the computer Mike is a keen semi professional photographer and part time radio presenter. He is also an enthusiastic Manchester City fan.
For more information see his occasionally updated website – http://michaelrawlins.co.uk or follow him on Twitter @Mike_Rawlins
His long suffering wife has pointed out that he should say how much he enjoys spending time with her as well.