New feature on gleaning out now

dya814My feature on the old agricultural practice of gleaning has been published in the latest edition of Discover Your Ancestors.

The lead piece for the August issue, it looks at how poverty-stricken families in rural England supplemented their income in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, even after a landmark legal case found that they had no right to glean from farmers’ fields.


Snapshots Of A Life Unknown

IMG_7343One of the personality traits you need for both journalism and the study of history is nosiness – a curiosity and interest in other people and their lives. The only difference is that with history, the people are usually dead – and sometimes, you don’t even know who the people are.

At the weekend, I was sorting through my mother-in-law’s garage, and came across a photo album full of photos lovingly glued in, with borders and inscriptions added. They were full of people: on ships, on land, undertaking tasks. But there were no proper names; only a nickname added to the bottom of a couple photos, and “me!” on another gave any clue as to who the people were.

It turned out that this album did not belong to any blood relative of my husband’s. It was the property of his grandmother’s second or third husband, who was, I think, in the merchant navy. But we know little about him, and never met him.

But these photos were still a fascinating insight into someone’s life – a proud record of one man’s travels to the Far East, including Hong Kong, where the photos below were taken. The merchant navy offered this man, from a working-class midlands background, the opportunity to see the world – a world away from his roots.

So here are a couple of the photos, which offer a glimpse into Hong Kong life in 1928, and serve as a memory of a life otherwise long gone and forgotten.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“Don’t talk to the press!”

his girl fridaySo parish councillors have been given guidance from the National Association of Local Councils that advises them not to talk to the press without the written consent of their whole authority.

All contact must be made through the council clerk, and the whole council’s written consent would be required before a councillor could contact a journalist. Councillors would also not be able to provide written or verbal statements to the press without the “written consent of the council”.

I can see both sides of this argument, as someone who trained as a newspaper reporter before becoming a press officer for local and central government.

Whilst working in Manchester, I used to get quite frustrated with local councillors who would go and natter to a journalist about something, occasionally saying something they really shouldn’t have said (such as giving away details of something that hadn’t been finalised, or promising something that we knew couldn’t be achieved due to budget constraints or other reasons).

The problem was that after talking to the councillor, the press would then call the press office to query all the councillor’s statements, and it looked rather amateur to be saying, “No, that’s not right” or “That’s the first I’ve heard of it” in response.

But conversely, now, I take it for granted that if I have a query at town council level, I can simply go up to the relevant councillor and ask them about it.

There are only usually two journalists at the town council meetings I attend – reporting for different publications. The councillors know who we are and who we write for, and they know that we always write fair, factual, reports. They’re generally happy to talk to us, and it’s all quite informal.

That’s not to say that I would blindly report what they state without checking anything, or querying it. There has been one notable occasion when the council tried to stop the community paper I write for covering something that they knew would be controversial with local people. We told them very politely that we would not be doing our job if we did not report it.

But what will happen in the future, if this guidance is followed? The council employs no press officer; will it have to do so, or will the town clerk be expected to act as a de facto press officer, with no experience or training in such things?

Will she have the time to deal with requests from councillors, liaising with all the other councillors to gain and collate their approval of conversations with the press, or to approve potential press statements?

Or will this role go to the district council’s press officer, who already has a healthy workload? This would also mean a more formal arrangement; the district council is based some 12 miles away, so there will be no catching the councillors outside the supermarket for a quick quote.

My town council, and the even smaller parish councils in the surrounding villages, have minimal staffing. The clerk for each is usually part-time, and may undertake other work outside his or her clerking activities.

One parish council clerk I know was already overworked, yet having to do two other jobs to make it financially viable. Yet now such clerks are being touted as the administrators of media/council contact in addition to their other tasks. Do parish council resources really need to be used for this kind of bureaucratic nightmare?

I can understand the desire to ensure that the press are given accurate information. But it would be a great shame if that meant anodyne comments that nobody is interested in reading.

The joy of getting a ‘local’ comment is that these come directly from those involved in local matters, from a variety of personalities, each of whom has their own view. They can be unguarded, but they prompt a greater response from readers.

As a press officer, I had to draft comments that then had to be approved by a long list of officials. I remember having to attach a form to the front of each statement that each official had to sign to show they had seen it.

It was time-consuming, frustrating, and it often ended either with the journalist getting thoroughly fed up as their deadline approached with no quote forthcoming, or with virtually identical statements being produced regardless of the issue (“There mustn’t be anything controversial in this!” was a frequent refrain).

I’d hate to see that across the board, with all councillors taking eons to tell you something so boring that you end up not bothering to use it at all. Let councillors tell the press what they really think, off the cuff, without having to jump through hoops first.



Digital news as popular as newspapers

New Ofcom research shows that reading news via the internet and mobile apps is now as popular as reading a newspaper. Some 32% of people accessed news on websites and apps in 2013; now that figure is up to 41%.

That is only 1% more than the people who say they read newspapers to follow the news – but this figure, of 40%, has not changed year on year, whereas the numbers reading via the web are increasing.

However, television remains the most popular way to access news – although the percentage doing so has also fallen in the last year.

Not letting geography or the facts get in the way of a good story


Chipping Norton's town hall. Not in Wantage.

Chipping Norton’s town hall. Not near Wantage.

Another day, another piece in The Guardian that highlights the need for national journalists to be aware of the importance of geography, in order to show that they are in tune with the communities that read their publications.

On Saturday, Harriet Sherwood – bizarrely, as she is The Guardian‘s Jerusalem correspondent – wrote a piece about the “notoriety” of Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire.

The piece followed numerous others that have been written about this Cotswold market town over the past couple of years, due to the creation of “The Chipping Norton Set” by the national media.

What is this set? Well, it’s a handy name for the many media types who have homes in the area surrounding Chipping Norton.

You note that I say “surrounding”; the only person named as part of the Chipping Norton Set who actually lives in the town is Jeremy Clarkson, who has a house on the edge of town – but it is actually his wife who now seems to live there, with Jezza usually based in London.

But of the others deemed to live in Chipping Norton, Rebekah Wade and her husband Charlie Brooks live in Sarsden; David Cameron in Dean. Neither of these are part of Chipping Norton; they do not come under the remit of the town council, although they are all part of the district of West Oxfordshire.

But then, Harriet Sherwood states that Elisabeth and Matthew Freud live in Burford “a few miles away” but, to her, still part of Chipping Norton. Burford is some ten miles away from Chipping Norton, and the two towns have completely different identities. Unless you’re writing for a London-obsessed national, that is.

Chipping Norton's almshouses. Not home to Rebekah Wade.

Chipping Norton’s almshouses. Not home to Rebekah Wade.

She then suggests that Annabel Astor, Samantha Cameron’s mother, is also part of the Chipping Norton Set, living near Wantage. That’s in south Oxfordshire, over 30 miles away.

Does any of this matter? I would argue it does. To lump people from all over a particular county into one handy term, suggesting that they all live in one town, shows a lack of interest in the geography of non-metropolitan England. It reinforces the idea that if something isn’t happening in London, it doesn’t really matter – and nor do the views of those living outside of the capital.

It also reinforces false ideas about an area. The Guardian got grief from commenters recently for its bleak portrayal of the north-east of England, comparing it to Detroit, when many readers failed to recognise this picture of their region. The piece was a great read – so perhaps the paper felt it didn’t matter if it offended those who lived in the areas it described.

This article reinforces the idea of Chipping Norton, as Peter Oborne described it, “an incestuous collection of louche, affluent, power-hungry and amoral Londoners”. Despite The Guardian‘s quoting of local residents, stressing that “Chippy” is a “working town” with its fair share of poverty, the overall impression remains of a wealthy area full of media types, all having lunch at one of the many local gastropubs. This impression is helped by the handy lumping of half of Oxfordshire into the “Chipping Norton Set”.

Previous Guardian articles have written of Chipping Norton as “this well-off corner of leafy rural England” and “the heart of a well-heeled and well-connected set”.

Yet this is despite one local telling the reporter that, “the Chipping Norton set is a figment of people’s imagination”. The irony is that it is the national media who have created this fictional concept.

It takes more than a flying visit from the nationals – where they always visit the same pubs to talk to the same people, or hang around outside Sainsbury’s in the hope of getting a quote from someone who hasn’t talked to the Prime Minister – to get to know a town. And if reporters set out with a particular view that they are determined to represent, they are less likely to give a full picture.

This is despite valiant attempts by townspeople to try and tell the national press that they have their facts wrong.

Keith, one of my colleagues on the Chipping Norton News (a community newspaper that DOES know where people is, and what the town is actually like) recently had a letter published in The Guardian pointing out that “the Camerons, the Brooks [sic] and the Freuds don’t live in our parish – they are in big houses out in the sticks”, but the paper continues to ignore the geographic facts in favour of the handy phrase.

But fundamentally, if newspapers want to show that they represent the whole country and not just some metropolitan elite, they could at least get their geography right – and avoid sweeping generalisations about whole towns and counties. In continuing to do so, they do not make those in the communities they write about feel that they are representing them terribly well.