Sister has little mercy

I know most journalists can’t remember what they wrote or read yesterday, let alone four weeks ago, but some may recall I focused on the Capital of Culture competition in my last column. Since then my latest adopted city has won the accolade – and boy were they happy, partly I think because they had started to believe the hype that Newcastle/ Gateshead would walk it.

I did mention that when the result was announced there would be much gnashing of teeth from the five losing cities – and so it came to pass, to a degree.

The triumphant Liverpool Echo took a look at how the other papers had reported their significant victory.

“There were those who congratulated us on a job well done,” it wrote. “And there were those who couldn’t resist sticking the knife in. Like Newcastle.”

The Oxford Mail had praised Liverpool and even offered readers a comparison of the two bids headlined “Why the Scousers beat Oxford to it”.

The South Wales Echo broke the news to readers with a huge front-page headline “She Loves You”, highlighting Tessa Jowell’s announcement earlier that morning.

Even the Birmingham Evening Mail, another of the favourites, may have blamed a political stitch-up but steered clear of attacking the winning city. So what happened in Newcastle that led the Echo to write: “By yesterday the knives were out and the paper [Evening Chronicle] had resorted to gutter tactics to tarnish the glow of our newly crowned city.”

It probably didn’t help relations between the sister titles that the Chronicle dispatched two reporters to the North West on the day the announcement was made.

They headed straight for the Post and Echo building in Liverpool, where it emerged they were not there to deliver goodwill wishes and booze, but to do a piece focusing on the grotty parts of town.

Once this was discovered the Echo told them in no uncertain terms that they could not have any use of their facilities – pictures/wiring etc – and the duo headed off to do their tour.

The double-page spread which appeared in the Chronicle featured pictures of boarded-up buildings and burnt-out cars – an image those on the Echo say could be found in any city in the country.

Newcastle’s morning paper, The Journal, previously edited by Echo boss Mark Dickinson, also carried a double-page spread. Its report said: “Walk around areas like Toxteth, where streets are marked with homes boarded up, and you feel a million miles away from a Cultural Capital.”

Those who feared that consolidation of the regional press would lead to anodyne newspapers around the country supporting each other by sticking to the head office line will be reassured by Trinity Mirror’s sister papers in the two cities that this is plainly not the case.

Echo deputy editor Jon Brown says: “We had already decided that if we lost we would not do an easy hatchet job on the victor. Partly because you could find cracks in any of the cities, but also because we did not want to look like whingeing Scousers.”

Relations between the two newspaper centres thawed, however, when the Newcastle papers refused to run a full-page ad from local radio station Metro FM saying: “We’re not the first to be robbed by Scousers and we won’t be the last.”

The newspapers said the advertisement stereotyped people from the city of Liverpool as being inherently dishonest. Metro FM then ran the ad on its website, describing the press as “too chicken shit” to print it.

Chronicle editor Paul Robertson, who used to be Dickinson’s deputy on The Journal, said: “Some of our own coverage has been criticised as sour grapes but the fact is that since last week’s announcement I have appeared in print, on national radio and local TV congratulating Liverpool and extolling its virtues, as well as talking up our own area.”

Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell always knew she would be hugely popular in the winning city – but could become a target for hefty displeasure in the five losing ones.

She had already had her fingers burnt in Newcastle earlier this year by comparing the cultural transformation of Tyneside to the well-documented success of the northern Spanish city of Bilbao.

Nothing wrong with that, you might say. Politicians know that they will get column inches in regional newspapers if they are flattering about their area – and papers like big-hitters patting the city on the back. It’s win-win.

Unfortunately her flattery for Tyneside was less than exclusive. In a slightly altered press release she also described Birmingham as a new Bilbao.

It then emerged that press releases also appeared on newspaper desks in Cornwall and Manchester, describing their areas in a similar vein. All of this was jumped on by opposition MEPs who accused her of hypocrisy and spin and demanded she apologise.

In her defence, her department said she had made a speech about urban regeneration singling out all of the above areas for praise and likening them to the Bilbao effect.

The mistake the press officers made was only mentioning one specific area in each release – thereby giving the impression that they were unique in being praised in this way.

It just goes to show that there may be more than meets the eye with even the most straightforward-looking press release/report.

Another woman in a job that could get her into hot water with the industry was Press Gazette’s own Jean Morgan, who retired this month after 19 years on the magazine.

As an editor, a message from your PA that Jean had rung led to a couple of initial thoughts before picking up the phone: what does she know about me, and is it good or bad news? If she’s looking for info, how much can I give her?

The one thing you never worried about with Jean was that she would drop you in it. If you said it was off the record it always stayed that way. But if she was interviewing you for a piece, she managed to lull you into saying things you would rather have stayed in your head.

Her style of saying “yessss” in that girlish, breathy Welsh lilt at the end of your every sentence seemed to encourage you to be more verbose. While speaking to her about why I was giving up the editorship of the Evening Chronicle I actually heard myself utter the ridiculous line: “I’m not a natural housewife but I want to spend more time with my family.”

As soon as I said it I wondered where the hell it had come from, and knew for certain that it would be the headline, and would then be picked up and used by any other publication which chose to follow the story up. Unfortunately, I was right on both counts and it now follows me around like the embarrassingly pathetic little adage that it is.

But the fact that so many people turned up for her leaving do – people who we all know can dish out criticism like there is no tomorrow but find it very difficult to find themselves being written about – is a testament to her skills, style and personality. She will be very much missed.

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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