Today’s KE rolls into one splash the cut in Eurostar services at Ashford (bad news), the council u-turn on Wye Park (good news), and more delays on the Stour Centre opening (no news at all). Can you see the connection?
What is it with the Kentish Express? Week in, week out it resolutely ignores the biggest scandal in the Ashford borough for years despite save-wye’s publication of plans, minutes, emails and other documents showing the scale of the deceit that lay behind the concordats signed by our glorious leaders last year. Even when the KM Group’s only serious opposition — Kent on Sunday — published a copy of Imperial’s masterplan after it received its first public airing here, the Ashford paper resolutely refused to cover this story. When challenged by readers, its editor, Leo Whitlock, protested that if it hadn’t been for his paper, the signing of the concordat would never have received the publicity that it did on December 8.
Then, when Ashford Borough Council drops Wye Park from the local development framework and its leader distances himself from the project, up pops the Kentish Express’s veteran chief reporter, Mike Bennett, with a whole page on how the project might be in doubt. I don’t go a bomb on secret plots and grassy knolls because I have a thing called a life, but I’m beginning to wonder.
Why has the KE been so resolutely piss poor on this? Why has it not printed a copy of Imperial’s 4,000 house masterplan even when offered it on a plate and even when Mr Bennett is forced to quote Cllr Clokie referring to it? Why has it failed to ask a single meaningful question or conduct a single line of investigative inquiry since this charade was set running by Imperial nine months ago? Why have some of its senior staff dismissed the concerns of its readers about Imperial’s real intentions — now proven — as ‘wild conspiracy theories’?
I’m beginning to think there are two conspiracies here: the conspiracy of crap journalism and a conspiracy involving a shadowy group (yes, you read that right) of unelected people who seem to have undue influence in the decision-making processes in our county. A group called the Kent Ambassadors.
I’ll come to the latter another time, but allow me to sound off on something I know a little about — garbage journalism and the decline of the press. For the first time in British newspaper history, last month’s audited figures showed the circulation of every paid-for regional paper falling; not some, or most, but all of them. That figure includes the Kent Messenger Group’s once mighty flagship, the KM itself, and its ugly little sister, the Kentish Express.
The Audit Bureau of Circulation figure for January to July this year shows the KE sold, on average, 24,029 copies a week – a decline of 3.7 per cent on the same period last year. Nothing too desperate there you might say when you consider that the paper I work for, The Sunday Telegraph, has been registering falls of 6 per cent for a number of years. But the KE’s gentle decline has been going on for a number of years, too. Since 2003, the KE’s circulation has declined by 7 per cent — a drop which stands in stark relief to the success that the paper enjoyed in the mid to late 90s when it was the UK’s fastest growing publication five years running, regularly posting circulation gains of 20 per cent.
The graph they don’t want advertisers to see: The rise and fall of the KE
What has changed since then? Yes, news is more widely available on the internet — though wading through the KM’s equally poor website you’d be hard-pressed to find any — and we are bombarded with inane local radio stations — many of them owned by, you’ve guessed it, the KM Group. And, we are told, people have less time and want their news on the go. But unlike most local papers, the KE is sitting on top of a growing gold mine which it is inexplicably failing to exploit: Ashford is currently Britain’s fastest growing town, building more than 2,000 houses a year. That’s potentially 2,000 new readers — roughly 10 per cent of its total sale — wanting to buy a lively, informative, campaigning, well-written local paper. Instead, they are offered the Kentish Express. Little wonder that, on ABC’s figures, not one new reader has picked up the KE for over three years.
The rot in the local press has been going on for years and the reasons for this are many. But the main one is lack of staff — both in quality and quantity. When I started as a trainee reporter on the Kent and Sussex Courier in Tunbridge Wells in the mid 1980s, leathery old hacks with nicotine virtually oozing from ever pore bemoaned the passing of some golden age when reporters bounced around the countryside in Mini vans with contacts books filled with the unlisted phone numbers of policemen, clerks, solicitors, landowners, businessmen, housewives, parish council chairmen. They only returned to the office with a notebook full of stories. But to my eyes, the newsroom of the Kent and Sussex Courier in 1985 was still a magical place. There were 20 reporters in it — all clattering away on typewriters in a haze of cigarette smoke. Today, the same newsroom has two reporters sitting at their computer terminals. In Ashford, the lack of staff is also apparent. The few reporters available are under constant pressure to ‘fill pages’ and so cannot afford to develop contacts or spend time out of the office. The result is the travesty we are presented with this week: a series of follow-ups of stories that have appeared elsewhere, the obligatory pictures of other peoples’ children and a series of low rent crime stories dished out by Ashford police station’s ‘publicity officer’.
While the KE can’t find room to print the leaked map showing the horrors of Imperial’s development plans it can still find space for, er, exclusives like this…
Back in 1985, I was paid £2,500 a year. Today, the starting salary of a trainee reporter in Kent is somewhere in the region of £11,000 a year. In those 20 years, the average salary in Britain has risen from £7,000 to more than £23,000. There used to be a nationally-recognised apprenticeship for reporters run by the National Council for the Training of Journalists. But companies like the KM put paid to that. It was too expensive, the results did not appear on the bottom line, reporters spent too long training and not long enough ‘filling the paper’. The result has been long in development but it is called the Kentish Express — a crap paper filled with crap stories about crap things you’ve either seen or heard elsewhere or pictures of children with chickens on their heads. There is no investigation, no intelligent comment, no serious questioning of those paid to represent us. Lines are swallowed until ‘the council’ tells Mike Bennett otherwise.
And they are still at it. Today’s offering continues to parrot Imperial’s fantasy of a £1billion project when we’ve proved beyond doubt that it would only ever have cost a quarter of that. Cllr Clokie has implicitly accepted the veracity of the ‘map’ showing Imperial’s true ambitions so, in the interests of democracy, we offered it to the KE. Our offer was declined. Apparently, ‘lack of space’ prevented it.
My friend, David Hewson, wrote on save-wye several months ago that when local papers go bad, democracy quickly follows. Is it any coincidence that Ashford, that most rotten of rotten boroughs, is served by such a rotten local paper?