As the leader of a large local authority like Blackpool you become very used to the non-stop juggernaut that is the press.
In this 24/7 news media environment the internet age has created, news is incessant and unending.
The Gazette, Radio Wave and BBC Radio Lancashire are in daily contact with the Council and don’t miss an opportunity to report even the smallest contentious issue.
To give them their due, they are also very accommodating when the council has something to say.
Reporters from the regional and national media turn up for the big stuff, film shots of the Tower and the beach (often making snide remarks in the process) and we never see them again.
It’s the way it works and, generally, I welcome the media’s work; it’s healthy for democracy and criticism is par for the course.
I understand too that newspapers will often, rather than report from a neutral standpoint, flag wave for a particular policy or position they support. They are all perfectly entitled to do so.
That comes with great social responsibility though and, at times, a line can be crossed.
In my view that happened in Thursday night’s Gazette.
“STOP THIS NOW – BEFORE YOU DAMAGE BLACKPOOL FOREVER,” one of their inside pages ordered the council.
What were they talking about?
Were councilors planning to pull the Tower down?
Were they looking to build houses on StanleyPark?
Actually we had enraged them by having the temerity to ask the public their opinions on whether or not it might be sensible for people to knock the booze on the head by 3am.
This is probably a good point at which to introduce a bit of context.
This week Blackpool was revealed to have the lowest male life expectancy in the country with drink being one of the biggest contributing factors.
A report by the Guardian this week described the town as having “catastrophic” levels of liver cirrhosis. (here)
There are hundreds of other health indicators I could list to contextualise that particular problem but, as The Gazette so vociferously pointed out at the time, a television show did that more effectively than I ever could.
Step forward “999…What’s Your Emergency?”
The Channel 4 show, much to our chagrin, painted a bleak picture of Blackpool and, particularly, town centre nightlife.
“CAMERAS SHOW THE TRUE COST OF DRINK,” The Gazette blared.
Now, just like the BBC can make the most ordinary day of football look like a thrilling goal-fest by boiling it all down into an hour’s worth of Match of the Day, the show painted an impactful and perhaps somewhat misleading picture.
But the evidence is there for all to see regardless of editing and town centre trouble is a problem whatever statistics you want to go by.
I acknowledged as much at the time, spoke frankly and promised action, being commended for doing so in The Gazette’s editorial, I seem to recall.
Yet now, when the Council has the audacity to consult on a measure that might contribute to toning down that type of behavior, we are pilloried.
Don’t cry for me Blackpool; I can take it on the chin. I’m merely pointing out the irony.
As part of their coverage on Thursday, the council was asked whether consulting on the EMRO was “a knee-jerk reaction” to the show.
The spokesman who answered the questions replied: “No.”
It’s an extremely insulting question, symptomatic of the confrontational way in which this story was approached, and I’m not sure what type of answer they were expecting.
“Yes, we came up with it and wrote it on the back of a fag packet after a few cans,” perhaps?
I won’t analyse every aspect of the coverage and I’m not looking to campaign for or against an EMRO.
It’s for the Licensing Committee to make a recommendation under a free vote based on the evidence brought forward.
But I felt the stance taken was disproportionate, inconsistent and, above all, socially irresponsible.
Championing Blackpool businesses is something The Gazette has done very effectively and I admire their efforts in doing so.
They’re working with the council on an apprenticeship scheme right now.
But let’s be very clear – and this is where I feel their coverage was disproportionate – at present introducing an EMRO would lead to two nightclubs closing a couple of hours earlier.
To present this as though this would drop a nuclear bomb on Blackpool’s economy is quite frankly ludicrous.
Despite their very ardent position and strong belief that the EMRO may damage the town, outlined in the Editor’s blog, The Gazette themselves have not submitted a consultation response.
That leads me to ask are they really supporting the businesses of the town or just trying to sell papers?
What truly astonished me, however, was the backslapping that came the following day.
A self-congratulatory article blustered that The Gazette had done “a vital job raising issues.”
In an article containing five quotes, three of those quotes came from people from an umbrella of companies who would be directly affected if the EMRO is introduced.
What’s more, if the paper had really wanted to share the issues with the people of Blackpool they would have started their drum beating a little earlier than a few hours before the consultation closed.
The most irksome aspect and the part that really saddens me, however, is the lack of social responsibility.
At no stage in the four page “special report” did The Gazette acknowledge the number of lives that are ruined through alcohol-related violence.
From rapes and sexual assaults, domestic violence and even murder to your straightforward pub fight, the cost to families is enormous.
In the Editor’s column, Jon Rhodes, admits that there are violent scenes but questioned “are we really so much worse than anywhere else?”
As Council Leader I’m not willing to accept “oh well, it happens everywhere,” and carry on as if there’s no issue.
I’ve been forthright in my praise of our local newspaper previously and was quoted in their 150th issue praising their role in society in Blackpool and I know these are difficult times for newspapers with staffing levels not what they once were.
But this time I think they’ve got it badly wrong and I would urge them to look again at their position.
I thank each and every person that has responded to the EMRO consultation.
You have gone about expressing your views in the right way.
While, as I’ve said, this is a decision which is out of my hands and the recommendation will be made by the Licensing Committee, I know that every comment will be taken into account.
The EMRO decision is not a done deal; far from it.
Until all the views have been heard and all the facts have been discussed no decision will be made.
But before The Gazette claims to speak on behalf of the town again I suggest they cast their net wider, think a little harder and try to look at things in their social context, as the Council must do, rather than as one, isolated headline-grabbing story.