There’s an ongoing lingual gentrification battle in Stoke-on-Trent - it revolves around how certain words are pronounced, such as book, look and scone. As any good Stokie knows, it’s definitely not ‘buck’, ‘luck’ or ‘scon’. But of course as you leave the city heading towards Stafford, you start to come across a more Birmingham twang, and heading in the other direction by a similar distance it all becomes a lot more northern and Mancunian.
For me, this is what makes Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire so regionally interesting. Obviously I am hugely biased as someone with long and strong family connections in the area and now serving as leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council. Promoting everything that’s great about my small but mighty city is crucial to what I do every day. Similarly ensuring that I use all means available to communicate to residents about important issues has never been more significant.
As an organisation, we made a positive decision at the start of the coronavirus pandemic to ensure we kept up a strong media presence, using all and any channels we could to communicate to residents. For the first three months, this involved daily local media calls for me, as well as a variety of national and regional TV interviews. We also started to do our own weekly FacebookLive, in addition to an already fulsome social media presence.
Quite unusually for a city of this size in these times, Stoke-on-Trent continues to have a significant media sector - one daily newspaper, a BBC radio station plus several commercial stations, all based locally. We’ve worked closely with the Sentinel newspaper for many years on a number of events including annual awards for business, sports and the community respectively, and they have been key supporters of many nationally significant campaigns such as our shortlisted bid to be UK City of Culture in 2021, with their then editor part of our bidding pitch team. Both BBC Radio Stoke and Signal One carry strong segments on local news, and with huge listenerships between them, reach a significant proportion of our local communities. Regional TV coverage from the West Midlands is important, but our communities in some cases struggle to tune in, due to our proximity to the North West region, and we are of course battling with the much bigger Birmingham and Black Country conurbation. However, we have a small number of really experienced regional journalists who know the key issues and pursue the big stories. Undoubtedly, good local journalists grounded in Stoke-on-Trent make a huge difference to getting stories out to communities, raising important issues, and holding politicians like myself to account.
Sadly though all this is due to change imminently - our local newspaper the Sentinel is owned by Reach Plc, who were experiencing well documented financial difficulties well before the coronavirus hit, and the local staff and office are currently under consultation. Our biggest commercial radio station, Signal One, was bought by Bauer Media last year, who have just finished a consultation on the future form of programming. The three local news journalists – with over 40 years’ experience reporting on our city between them – have all been made redundant, to be replaced by a single post, with local news bulletins to be read from Manchester. Meanwhile, while BBC Radio Stoke remains a news stalwart for many across the city, the incoming changes from the recent BBC review means there will be a reduction in staff which could affect presenters and reporters, with ‘a simplified radio schedule’ that in effect means much more ‘entertainment-focused’ shows with just one of the three prime daytime slots encompassing wider exploration of local news stories.
The regional picture is slightly better, in that BBC England boss Helen Thomas recently announced that the regional Sunday politics shows would be brought back after a rather dubious disappearance during coronavirus. Allegedly, this was due to the challenges of filming under restrictions, though of course it didn’t appear to stop every other broadcaster, including other arms of the BBC, from working differently. I was not the only local politician to call this out, and certainly welcome this revisiting of priorities, though of course if it is at the expense of other local BBC coverage, it will be a rather hollow victory.
The last six months have underlined the importance of local journalism to local communities - not just outlets rooted in the community, but the expertise and collective knowledge of those who work for them. Some of the toughest questions I’ve faced in recent months have come from the heavily-popular music focused Signal own news journalists, while the local knowledge and interest of Radio Stoke hosts such as Stuart George have given a platform to the challenging but incredibly important issue of children’s social care that has rightly been a focus in Stoke-on-Trent for the last few years. The recent resignation of the Sentinel’s editor-in-chief, Martin Tideswell is a hammer blow. Renowned for his #localandproud hashtag, much of the positive coverage of our city was spearheaded by Martin and while I am rooting for the remaining excellent (and in many cases award-winning) Sentinel journalists left, the loss of their team captain deals a significant blow to what has been one of the most successful local papers in the Reach stable.
So where now for local coverage of local news? As a city we are stronger through the challenge and investigation of a healthy local media. Clearly these changes will greatly reduce the capacity of our media to cover local stories and more importantly challenge on those big city-wide issues. As a council, we will continue to promote Stoke-on-Trent, and as every good local council leader should, we will strive to put openness and transparency front and centre in all that we do.
We know that the coronavirus has impacted on businesses in lots of ways, and clearly the media is no different in this. If we are to continue to recover from the impact of this horrid virus we need a media that is representative of local people, that provides timely, accurate and responsible information to residents. My concern is the impact these changes will have on local newsdesks and on the hard working and dedicated journalists who report on our city. My challenge to media owners and station directors is to prove my concerns wrong and show me and residents your continued commitment to reporting on our city.