Why we all suffer when newspapers go bad

Life is full of recurring mysteries, moments when the everyday world seems to go on hold and, for a few brief seconds, we think we just might get an insight into some fundamental truth about the meaning of existence. It happens to me every week when the Kentish Express lands on the table and I ask myself, ‘Why, oh why, do I keep buying this crap?’

A hole in the road... trees died for this

The Kentish Express version of a scoop (sorry). Trees died for this…

As always with these small epiphanies, the answer remains elusive. Though most of my journalistic career was spent in the national press, the first job I ever had was as a trainee reporter on a small town newspaper at the age of seventeen. I do, therefore, feel qualified when I say that the KE is the worst provincial paper I have ever had the misfortune to read. Week after week it produces a tawdry and predictable array of the same local rag clichés: photos of people pointing at things or holding their noses, stories about holes in the road (with pictures, for pity’s sake) and endless photos of babies and schoolkids, as if the rest of us really care what other people’s offspring look like. It’s impossible, even, to call it ‘dumbed-down’, because that presupposes that at some stage it was ‘up’, and that I seriously doubt.

Is this because there’s no real news going on? Well, no. Ashford ought to be a hotbed of stories. It’s one of the fastest growing towns in the country, wrought by intense and continuing pressures on the environment, the infrastructure and its poor long-suffering population. But the KE — like so many other newspapers in the Kent Messenger (KM) group — likes to keep these in check. This week’s edition leads with a story about the problems of NHS dental provision in Ashford, a reasonable topic but one the paper, in its desperation to find anything to fill its pages, stretches beyond belief. So we get a front page ‘lead’ consisting of fewer than a hundred words cross referencing a story inside, plus a photo of someone with their mouth wide open, for those of us who don’t know what a dentist does.

A lead for page seven

The kind of story that justifies the lead on page seven

And inside? Another photo of an open mouth — clearly we live in a dentally challenged society — and the story itself. The continuing Concordat controversy gets just a short mention, on page fourteen, where the paper’s own Wye correspondent is quoted blethering on about asking for documents under the Freedom of Information Act, and pointedly refuses to reveal that you can find them already, here. Oh, the same correspondent runs the wye.org website, which also deletes every message posted there that mentions save-wye too (a practice known as censorship, and one you will never ever see carried out by us, whatever your opinion). You can see why the KE gave her the job.

Why is the KM group so bad at journalism? The conspiracy theorists will, doubtless, point to its ownership. The company is, we are always told in that starry-eyed way people say these things, a ‘family business’. So was the Catholic Church for a while when the Borgias ran it. The KM is not just owned but also run in a hands-on way by members of the Boorman clan (must be nice to have all that newspaper blood in your veins when it comes to handing out the jobs, ahem). It is no great secret that the Boormans are part of the hunting, land-owning and county-ruling set who tend to make the big decisions in this beautiful though, on occasion, decidedly feudal part of the country.

Edwin Boorman, the family and company great poobah, was for a while High Sheriff of Kent, one of those jobs I know nothing about except that it will never fall to a bus driver from Kennington. Does he mingle with county council types? Of course, dears. That’s how it works. Take a look at what he and Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, then county council leader, were doing last May 26, which you will find in fine and entertaining detail here. Gay Paris – Can Can dancing extravaganza? I tell you, it’s tough at the top.

A week before this cross-channel freebie Sir Richard Sykes had finally put his name to the initial secret Wye Concordat, though Sir Sandy and Ashford’s Paul Clokie had scribbled their signatures on the document at the end of April (and no, we still don’t know the reason for the gap). Once the coffee and the can-can dancers were out of the way did Sir Sandy turn to the boss man from the Kent Messenger and whisper, ‘I say, Eddy. We’re planning to concrete over big bits of Wye. Don’t give us a hard time, will you? It’s not as if any of it’s good hunting.’

No, of course not. Pay attention, people. He didn’t say it for one good reason. He didn’t have to. The KM group doesn’t do that kind of thing. It’s there to tell us to be happy with our lot, to know our place in the world, and be thoroughly grateful that our betters make the big decisions in our lives, because, being our superiors, they know best.

What Wye merits...

What Wye merits… a highly misleading story on page 14,
next to something about dyslexia. Does irony live in the KE?

And that is the greatest shame of all. I worked for the Murdoch empire off and on for twenty years. Others may have had a different experience, but I can put my hand on my heart and say that in all that time no-one ever told me to write something because it would please the boss. Cabinet ministers, trade unionists and at least one Director-General of the BBC tried to get me the sack. One High Street name, the Dixons Group, threatened to cancel its entire advertising campaign with News International because of something I wrote. On every occasion, my editors told these people where to stick it. Why? Ultimately, because Rupert Murdoch is a journalist at heart. He liked his newspapers to cause controversy. He understood this was an essential part of their job, and encouraged it, even, in my experience, when he felt the position we were taking was wrong.

Local newspapers are just as much a vital part of the democratic process as national titles and on subjects such as this they are more important, not less. They’re there to ask the awkward questions, not the easy ones and it should be a source of eternal shame that the KM group resolutely refuses to undertake that role for no other reason but cowardice and laziness. Have they, I wondered, made a single request of KCC since the Freedom of Information Act came into force? If so, I’ve missed the resulting stories. The grim, ugly truth is that, were it not for the independent Kent on Sunday, the Wye controversy — a story, lest we forget, about huge potential development in an area of outstanding natural beauty — would have had no proper, professional journalistic coverage in a single local newspaper.

I feel sorry for those poor wage slaves who must labour under the miserable KM regime. They surely didn’t come into this job to write about holes in the roads or try to find new ways to picture someone at the dentists. Nor is it easy to escape a culture of relentless mediocrity.

But they could always go and work elsewhere. The people I truly feel sorry for are the desperately ill-informed public, kept in the dark about matters that will shape their lives, and those of their children, forever. When newspapers go bad democracy suffers. Politicians lose the checks and balances that good journalism provides. What we get is a kind of dictatorship that hopes to justify itself on the grounds that it’s benevolent.

What we get, in the end, is the Wye Concordat.

PS. I waive all copyright and fees on this article with the following conditions. It may be reproduced anywhere and in any form, so long as it’s unchanged and the authorship acknowledged. This applies to all the titles in the KM group too.

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About David Hewson

Professional novelist, published in more than 20 languages. Creator of the Nic Costa series set in modern Rome. Most recent book the novel of the Danish TV series, The Killing.
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