Cashing in on culture

In about two weeks’ time, the Government will announce the winner of one of its latest beauty parades – the city which will be crowned European Capital of Culture for 2008.

Now, unless your city decided to throw its hat into the ring a couple of years ago, you may not know too much about this particular competition. However, if it did – and if it was one of the six cities finally shortlisted a few months ago – you should be well aware of it. For the Capital of Culture competition is big business for the respective papers in those areas.

It fits all the criteria for a regional newspaper campaign – a chance to get some good news into the paper, an opportunity to galvanise reader support behind singing the area’s praises, a genuine competition against rival papers and the opportunity to make some advertising revenue.

For the record, the six finalists are Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool, Newcastle/Gateshead and Oxford. All places with good, hard-hitting newspapers which would relish the chance of winning – and understandably hate the possibility of losing.

I was interested to know how they had tackled covering the bid, and what they thought their chances were.

But before I go any further, I should declare a couple of interests in case people think I am biased. I have spent quite a large chunk of my career in Newcastle; I love the city and it is where my youngest daughter was born. I now live on Merseyside, where my partner runs the largest cultural institution in the area and sits on the Liverpool bid committee.

Parking that to one side, though, it is obvious in talking to the editors of the respective papers that these two places reckon they’re in pole position.

Both Trinity Mirror companies in the North East and North West have unashamedly backed their city’s bids from day one.

And why not, you might ask. As Liverpool Echo editor Mark Dickinson remarks, it is a no-brainer. He can see big investment pouring into a city which may once have been one of the wealthiest in the Empire – but has also sunk to the lowest depths.

“I think we deserve to win because we have the most to gain from this,” he says.

He is not concerned that his main arts correspondent is on the bid committee, as he sees the newspaper as being in partnership with the organisers.

But would he run a knocking cultural story at the moment when the decision is so close? He admits he is walking a tightrope and that the Liverpool bid organisers would prefer a knocking story not to be used prominently – but says the Echo would have to judge the story on its merits.

Mike Lowe, editor of the Bristol Evening Post, laughs at the thought of outsiders trying to influence the paper. “We have a reputation for having conflict with the local council. They wouldn’t dream of asking,” he remarks, while still backing the bid 100 per cent and desperately wanting to win.

Newcastle/Gateshead has consistently topped the polls, and the Evening Chronicle has thrown its considerable weight behind the campaign. Editor Paul Robertson remarks that with so many new, exciting projects opening up in the area, it has not had to go searching for good, credible stories.

But he is rightly concerned whether the final decision really does rest solely with the judging panel, led by Sir Jeremy Isaacs. “It would be nice to think there would be no interference, but I take the cynical view that there will undoubtedly be some political manoeuvring. This may count against us, with the Prime Minister not feeling the accolade can go to his own area.”

Over at Trinity Mirror sister newspaper the South Wales Echo, editor Alastair Milburn echoes those thoughts. “No one believes it will be a straightforward process for a minute. The North East lost out to us with the Ryder Cup bid and that may well count against us.” Milburn is also heavily involved in Cardiff’s campaign – and is even on the bid committee himself. Can he stay impartial – or does he even want to?

“If we ran something very negative at a crucial time, it would not go down well with the board, and I expect I would be under pressure not to stick it on the front page,” he admits.

But what about pressure from within the newspapers’ own buildings? There is a huge amount of investment at stake for the eventual winner – and realistically that will manifest itself in lucrative advertising revenue.

Derek Holmes, editor of the Oxford Times, was the only one of the six to be totally upfront about this. Without prompting, he mentioned that it had already made a good profit from supplements in the run-up to the final decision – and was well aware it had a selfish interest in winning.

This is probably not a surprising view from the city which champions the commercial aspect of its culture -with the universities and scientific industries being very much involved in the bid.

With so many newspapers delicately entwined with the organising committees, it was interesting to hear from Birmingham – where the media feel they have been somewhat ignored.

“We have been more than happy to get behind it,” says Evening Mail editor Roger Borrell. “We have been given the impression, though, that the organisers feel they have such a cultural success story here that they don’t need the local television or print media – which seems an inconceivable view.”

Borrell was amused when the organisers managed to get in touch before the judging panel visited the city to request they only had upbeat bills outside newsagents – and nothing too depressing, or newsworthy, on the front page.

Whatever the final outcome, you can guarantee that there will be much understandable gloating from the winning newspaper and much even more understandable gnashing of teeth and discussion of conspiracy theories from the losers.

They can then each get back to the day job of running a critical eye over their city’s commitment to culture – and campaigning to improve it.

On a completely unrelated topic, I was fascinated to see the story about New York Times hack Jayson Blair, who has resigned after being exposed as a serial plagiarist and fraud.

In a four-page, 7,500 word exposé into one of its own, the newspaper detailed how he concocted scenes and fabricated comments.

In an age where reporters moan about being deskbound, he apparently filed big stories from 20 cities in the US – without leaving the Big Apple.

And during his lengthy coverage of the Washington sniper, he did not claim expenses for a single air ticket, hotel room or car rental. Blair may have brought his stuffy and distinguished newspaper into disrepute, but he sounds like a managing editor’s dream to me.

Alison Hastings is a media consultant and trainer and former editor of the Evening Chronicle, Newcastle. E-mail her at ajh@alisonhastings.demon.co.uk. She’ll be back in four weeks.

Next week: Chris Shaw

by Alison Hastings

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