Local newspapers: unwitting victims of Leveson inquiry

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IT is a scene played out every so often on television soaps.

If a Coronation Street or EastEnders character does something newsworthy within their own imaginary worlds then the Weatherfield Gazette or Walford Gazette will coming calling.

Chances are their “journalists” will appear snide and devious and only too willing to start picking up personal belongings – even pocketing them – while their prey disappears into the kitchen to make the obligatory cuppa.

The truth, however, is very different and far more positive.

Local newspapers are seen as the unwitting victims of calls for greater curbs on press freedom following the Leveson inquiry into media standards.

An inquiry prompted by underhand tactics such as phone-hacking by a minority of journalists and investigators working for national titles.

With this week marking Local Newspaper Week, the regional press is reminding readers of the overwhelming good carried out by its papers while campaigning for continued freedom from statutory legislation.

The fear is that a proposed Royal Charter drafted by politicians in the aftermath of the report may curb what papers such as the Hartlepool Mail may write and lead only to further restrictions later.

The industry’s four newspaper and magazine trade associations have drafted their own charter, which has earned the support of a new public opinion poll, and wants both to be debated fully before any final decisions are reached.

In the meantime it is worth reminding readers of the type of story which might not appear again in the future were press freedoms eroded.

One of the most hotly debated issues in recent years in Hartlepool concerned the £10,000 backdated pay rise awarded to Hartlepool Borough Council chief executive Paul Walker at a time when the authority was forced to slash its budget by nearly a fifth with 86 jobs axed.

With everyone in town affected by proposed changes in services as a result of ongoing financial pressures, our exclusive story in February 2011 carried great public interest and soon made national headlines.

Yet details of the rise were initially discussed behind closed doors on council “pink papers” more than a year earlier and only released to the Mail by a source on the strict understanding that their identity remained anonymous.

New press restrictions could prevent papers from printing such information and deter our contacts from releasing it in the first place.

Not that we are here just to catch organisations such as council, emergency services or health authorites out.

Hold them to account, yes, particularly in these difficult economic times, but we also try to work with them on a regular basis for the mutual benefit of our area.

Take the future of hospital services in Hartlepool and east Durham.

A £300m new hospital on the outskirts of town is proposed to replace both the University Hospital of Hartlepool and Stockton’s University of North Tees.

Doubts have been expressed about whether the hospital will ever be built and a stream of complaints have been provided to us by our readers about the service they have received at new facilities such as the One Life Hartlepool health centre.

These stories – which are always checked out with relevant bodies before publication in both the Mail and on our www.hartlepoolmail.co.uk website – may not reflect well on current health provision locally.

But they should not detract locally from the daily heroics of staff working tirelessly within our health service.

That is why we are only too pleased to work with our health authorities to promote individual and group feats through our glittering Best of Health awards.

This year’s event at Hardwick Hall, in Sedgefield, is only weeks away and has certainly struck a chord with you, the public, after attracting a record number of entries.

Best of Health also follows just weeks after our Pride of Hartlepool awards in which businesses and organisations across both Hartlepool and the North-East join together with the Mail to celebrate the selfless acts and courage shown by a wealth of people.

Yet more reasons to be proud of Hartlepool and your Mail.

If your story is positive then we are only too willing to share your achievements with a story in our paper and a video on our website.

If it is negative then we will investigate your concerns and highlight them where possible.

Either way, we are here for you.