One news event, two completely opposing views.
As I mentioned on Monday, I wrote a piece in the Leicester Mercury describing how the stormy Town Hall meeting about Riverside College was “brought to an abrupt halt”.
The leader of the city council, and chairman of the meeting, Ross Willmott has demanded a correction in the paper and says my portrayal of the events was “unacceptable”.
He emailed me: “I can only assume that you were not present at the meeting, as your claim that the cabinet meeting was brought to halt is entirely wrong.
“At no point was the meeting brought to a halt, until the business was finished, when I closed the meeting exactly as I always do.”
This came only a few hours after a message from Sue Newbold, the Unison representative at Riverside, and organiser of the campaign against the closure, to all 781 members of her Facebook group saying the “Mercury doesn’t want to know the true story”.
So I’ve managed to upset both sides.
I was at the meeting, of course, and from where I was sitting the ending of it by Ross looked pretty abrupt to me but it does show the perils of recording an event which has many different angles and a lot of people with strongly held views. The first sentence of the article in the newspaper tends to influence the headline written by the sub-editor and therefore the whole tone of the story.
Should I have angled the story around the claim that one councillor made about the possibility that the council just wants to sell off Riverside land for houses? That wouldn’t have been fair, I have no basis for this.
Should I have started with the frustration of the Riverside supporters that their views weren’t being heard? Possibly, but I’d reported this before and it wasn’t the main aspect of the meeting.
Should I have stuck to the formal statement from the cabinet’s education spokeswoman Vi Dempster about why the closure was necessary? No doubt the council would have prefered this, but this would have done a disservice to the hundreds of angry Riverside children, parents and staff who have heard the case for closure too many times.
So, and after a discussion with colleagues and my news editor, I decided the “abrupt halt amid heated interruptions” was the best way to sum up what, quite clearly, was an extraordinary day. There’s no right or wrong answer and on another day another journalist might have done it differently but these are the kind of discussions that go on in newsrooms up and down the country every day of the week, and probably have done for the past 100 years.
Somehow I had to get over the passion and anger in that room to the tens of thousands of people who are interested but didn’t attend.
So was the way Ross closed the meeting abrupt? He disagrees but I still think so. I’ve been to hundreds of council meetings as a journalist – from tiny parish councils in the Welsh Valleys to huge public meetings with hundreds in the audience – and I’ve never seen anything like it. As people in the public gallery became more restless and more vocal, Ross concluded the meeting when one of them made a point before being able to get a response and an opposition councillor had his hand up wanting to speak. The public weren’t really allowed to speak but councillors had been responding to their remarks throughout.
But the statement from the Riverside teacher was, if anything, more upsetting.
The newspaper does care about the school’s point of view, as shown by the next day’s lengthy report of the chairman of governors’ letter to the council and many previous reports on the thoughts of angry parents.
This doesn’t mean that I can ignore opposing statements made by councillors however as this is vital to a balanced report.
Neither does it mean I can rely on heresay. Rumours have been circulating for weeks that the council told prospective Riverside parents that the school was full up, thereby creating the low numbers starting in September. But despite my best efforts I’m yet to speak to anyone who was told this personally.
Journalism at its most basic is about attending an event and writing down what happened. Even given these broad parameters it’s amazing how differently everybody sees things.