Friday, 1 May 2015

The Fix Is In: Lancaster Guardian Backs Tories in General Election

(Updated 3/5/2015): The Lancaster Guardian's apparent backing for the Conservatives on their front page lead this week (which, we imagine, may be repeated in some form in the Visitor next week) might dismay other local political parties, but it should come as no surprise.

That its apparent support is, on closer inspection, an "advertorial" produced by the Conservatives, not the newspaper's staff, does not diminish the impact it will have - and call into question the paper's impartiality - or at least its judgement, given that other political parties suggesting a similar paid promotion for their agenda were turned away.

In a Facebook post, Labour's prospective parliamentary candidate Cat Smith revealed she had asked the Guardian about placing such an advertisement - which we understand cost the Tories £9000 - but was told it was the paper's policy not to allow political parties to buy it.

Owners Johnston Press - who have made savage cuts to editorial staffing levels across many of their newspapers in the face of declining sales, regularly reported by press sites such as HoldTheFrontPage - are a classic example of the kind of business the Tories are keen to support.

It should also come as no surprise to anyone to learn that Johnston Press PLC have previously been financial contributors to the Conservative Party, although bizarrely, in other parts of the country, Johnston Press editorial staff have tried to maintain their impartiality.

Johnston Press operates 13 paid-for daily newspapers across the UK, 195 paid-for weekly newspapers, 40 free titles, ten lifestyle magazines and 198 local news and e-commerce websites. It reported a pre-tax loss of £23.9m last year, but underlying profits rose from £54m to £55.5m.

In recent years the company has hyped stories of "economic recovery", but in its style of management only a tiny minority has received any benefits.

For the majority, staffing levels have been drastically cut in response to declining sales as tastes in news reading have changed in favour of the internet. From 2007 to 2012, Tribune notes that the company's annual reports reveal that the number of full-time journalists fell by 44 per cent from 2,774 to 1,558. And yet just this week, the national Guardian reported that last year’s remuneration for the Scotsman and Yorkshire Post publisher’s chief executive Ashley Highfield was more than three times that of the previous year - a £1.65 million pay package.

Such reports have provoked strong reaction from staff and the Press Gazette reports that fewer than half of Johnston Press’s employees (48.9 per cent) would recommend the company “as a good place to work”, according to an internal staff survey. (It's no wonder some sacked journalists in Scarborough have gone off to set up a rival paper in response to their treatment).

Locally over the past few years, the company has scaled back its news gathering operations, closing its offices in Lancaster and Morecambe and relocating to a non-descript building on the White Lund Industrial Estate

Despite the hard work of the staff remaining, whose dedication in the face of such shoddy treatment should be admired, the Lancaster Guardian's news coverage has, sadly, declined, reduced for many articles to re-writing press releases from public and private sources and replaced by "user generated content".

The number of pages featuring self-promoting articles by a wide variety of local people, from Tory MPs to local business people - has markedly increased.

And the cuts to its already-hampered news gathering continue. Last November, to illustrate just one cost-saving measure, Johnston Press announced a range of job cuts for photographers across its local sites, following similar moves to cut photographers in the South.

The National Union of Journalists reported that staff in the North West were told that the photographic department will be turning into a mostly freelance operation with only three photographers remaining across Wigan, Preston and Blackpool, affecting The Gazette in Blackpool, Preston’s Lancashire Evening Post and the Wigan Evening Post.

"Morale is at rock bottom in Johnston Press, yet further cuts have been announced," commented the NUJ's Johnston Press group chapel at the time. "Our members are shocked by further photographic redundancies, a move which is likely to hit the quality of newspapers and websites we produce, lead to further declining readership and harm the long-term prospects of the company."

He was also scathing about the company's drive to fill its newspaper's pages with "user generated content".

"Alarmingly, Johnston Press management believes that more 'user generated content' is the way forward. They ignore the fact that this requires more work from editorial teams in processing submitted material, which is often of a sub-standard quality and not suitable for publication."

Virtual-Lancaster is a community-based, volunteer run web site with none of the even now limited resources of Lancaster Guardian. Our readers kind donations of information, imagery and even the occasional PayPal donation are welcomed, but we are aware of our own news gathering imitations.

(Your contributions, subject to possible editing, are always welcomed).

We would not offer support to any party who, in terms of their proposals for surveillance, are a threat to journalistic freedom and, indeed, free speech – the Tories for example even making controversial demands on journalists wanting to cover their election campaign in 2015. 

Among others, the Milton Keynes Advertiser hit out what it has called a ‘Big Brother-style’ media accreditation policy that it reported was to be implemented by the Tories ahead of the forthcoming election campaign. The Tories demanded reporters' and photographers' personal details in advance, including their home addresses, and passport and driving licence numbers.

Update 3rd May 2015We've been told that editorial staff at various Johnston Press titles across the UK are considerably miffed by this wraparound, which has featured on many of their papers, but their objections were ignored. Judging from the larger pile of unsold Lancaster Guardians in local newsagents that we've seen, we think it's backfired here in terms of sales, and some commentators have even declared they are now boycotting the paper.

Web Links

Tribune: Hold the front page – democracy is under threat

Renewal: The New Politics of Media Ownership

National Union of Journalists: Johnston Press news items

Johnston Press: Official Web Site

Lancaster Guardian: Official Site


Anonymous said...

I wrote to the Lancaster Guardian about this - very bad judgement in terms of the district but they clearly care not a jot. Interesting though that Cat Smith had tried to do this herself so clearly not that much honour around. As both the Tories and Labour are spending hundreds of thousands on this constituency promoting themselves in any which way, including billboards stating things the opposite of Party policy it is hard to have much sympathy

Virtual Lancaster said...

We've been told that editorial staff at various Johnston Press titles across the UK are considerably miffed by this wraparound, which has featured on many of their papers, but objections were ignored. Judging from the larger pile of unsold Lancaster Guardians in local newsagents that we've seen, we think it's backfired here.