Want to see a short video of Cllr Gerri Bird getting soaked? Of course you do! But what is the role of a community reporter that the likes of Shape Your Place are encouraging? And how do you manage the risks?
Here’s Cllr Gerri Bird, the Mayor of Cambridge getting a drenching from one of the new water features recently installed at Coleridge Rec.
(Note the schoolboy error of forgetting to turn the phone horizontally!)
I picked up a reminder on my phone that this was happening while I was having a coffee around the corner at Balzano’s. (No, I don’t get a free coffee for that link). Hence wandering up to see what was going on. Despite the clouds and then the rain, there were dozens of people there. I also recorded this short interview with The Mayor in the pouring rain.
Jeremy Paxman I am not
Should I be? What is the role of a community reporter? Should I be asking the difficult searching questions that you’d expect from a local government reporter such as Chris Havergal of the Cambridge News? What should the relationship be between local bloggers/tweeters that follow local democracy in a small geographical area and elected politicians – or even public officials such as council officers?
As you can hear from the interview, I’m not asking difficult questions. For me, context matters. If it is a community event, then councillors are at the event to meet people in the community they otherwise seldom meet. As I turn up to council meetings fairly regularly, I don’t think it’s right for me to monopolise their time on council business. Rather, I think it’s better for councillors and the community to run short interviews that get councillors to explain what brings them to a given event and to comment on what they observe. And that’s it.
“Why is that it?”
Because the moment someone with a reputation (good or bad) starts asking about contentious issues at a community event, the instinct for councillors is to get all defensive. That doesn’t help anyone. If there is something that needs raising – and a couple of families spoke to me about commuter parking by the park (Cambridge railway station is in walking distance) then I tip off councillors that I’ll be raising it at a future area committee meeting.
“That’s making it easy for them, isn’t it?”
Yes and no. Yes because it means they have time to prepare a full answer, no because they can’t get away with a ‘holding reply’ if the issue is otherwise in the ‘too difficult to deal with’ pile. Having put awkward questions to councillors without notice at area committee meetings in the past, I’ve found you don’t get substantive responses. They’ve had no notice to do any research. The more notice you give them, the more substantive the response tends to be.
At the same time, councils & councillors know that if I want to ‘get on my high horse’, I’m more than capable of doing that. (Though to what impact is debatable!) In one sense, standing for election involves standing up on and for something – not that I want to stand for election again in the near future. The general feeling not just in myself but with others is that I made lots of good points well – so let’s start working on them. Hence preparations for Be the change – Cambridge – of which we’ll have some exciting news formally announced early next week (including tickets).
Safeguards – especially at events with young children attending
Today was a textbook case – the opening of a mini waterpark in a residential park in Cambridge. As a child we’d sometimes go paddling in what was effectively a paddling pool with a few boulders thrown in. Although the pool is now half the size, the other half has a host of water features and fountains making it much easier for the little ones to cool off in the hot sun.
Although there was an official photographer there taking photos of everyone (see the Council’s official photo on Facebook here) I was more than a little uncomfortable taking photographs in that environment. Hence I restricted my photos and videoclips to that of The Mayor getting soaked and the official ribbon-cutting.
Ask nicely first – the responsibility I have
In the case of young musical performers – such as Grace Sarah and the young musicians here, or with buskers such as Tom Korni at the end of this blogpost, the responsibility is on me as the person filming to ask for consent to film rather than assume consent has been given unless someone comes up to me telling me otherwise. Even with adults it’s at least polite to ask first, & not go off in a huff if consent is not given.
It’s also made me think about having some copies of consent forms with me at all times just in case. Over-cautious? What are your views? The difference between me as a sort of ‘digital community reporter’ versus a national news journalist is that I live in the neighbourhoods that I’m reporting on. Hence it makes sense for me to proceed with caution. I don’t want to get the wrong side of everyone in my childhood neighbourhood. On the other side, I don’t have to be responsible for a national news brand.
‘I’m not a natural for journalism, so why do this?’
For those of you that like the term ‘comfort zone’, I’m way outside of mine doing all of this. The problem for Shape Your Place in Cambridge is that so few people are doing this sort of digital journalism. Despite backing from local councils, the SYP team simply do not have the funding to run the sorts of training courses that could get people going. I’ve taken the ‘Be the change you want to see’ viewpoint and started doing this sort of filming and reporting to show to other local people what can be done with technology more than a few of them already have.
The past few years have taught me that calling on other people to do things you are not already doing yourself can only go so far. It seems to count for a lot more when you go out and do the thing yourself, then return having the experience (and footage) from which to speak from. It reminds me of the second half of this blogpost – posted the night before polling day 2014 with Puffles on the ballot paper. The now deputy leader of Cambridge City Council, Cllr Carina O’Reilly challenged me to do some street canvassing. In the week before the election, me and Ceri Jones did exactly this. Hence the above-linked blogpost talking about the learning from that. Afterwards I felt I could look the other councillors in the eye. I also noticed that current and past councillors commented positively on standing and campaigning publicly vis-a-vis those with strong opinions but who don’t stand themselves.
Separating the role of community activist and community reporting
Publicly in my view it’s essential to separate the two. About 15 years ago, The Independent Newspaper when it was a broadsheet tried to do this. It had one section for news and a separate section for comment and analysis. Today its detractors will argue it is anything but. That said, with newspapers generally what they do not cover is just as important as what they do cover (and in what tone).
With the out-and-about reporting, my aim is to report rather than ‘preach.’ Listening to one of the residents talking to me about problems of commuter parking and the risks to children, there was a little bit of me that wanted to explain some of the constitutional niceties of two-tier councils and its relation with national government. But I held back because at the end of the day people just want the problem solved, rather than be given a complex explanation as to why their problem hasn’t been solved.
“How does community reporting help?”
Familiarity with ‘local civic people’ for want of another term. Digital audio means people can hear the voices of people being interviewed, and digital video means you get to see and hear them. With cuts to mainstream journalism and news reporting over the years, there are fewer opportunities for people to get themselves into mainstream local news. At the same time, with more people using social and digital media more regularly, it’s easier to share digital content that you might otherwise miss if you didn’t buy the paper that day or came home late from work and missed the local news show. In that sense, it generates a level of familiarity.
By showing what can be done, I’m hoping that others will be thinking: “Well…we can do that too!” (And better!) At the same time, and in particular at community events I hope it will also show a more ‘human’ side of councillors. Because with news you generally tend to see councillors in a party-political or campaigning context. You don’t get to see some of the complex casework they have to deal with, or the input they have in helping organise community events. If through community reporting more local residents feel they can have a reasonable conversation with their councillors, hopefully more will get in touch – not just to have problems solved but also to see what they can do to improve their local area.