We’re Watching You

The Local Democracy Reporting Service – a pioneering scheme between the regional press and the BBC – has just marked its first anniversary by celebrating the 50,000th story to have been filed. Here, Reach Plc reporter Gurdip Thandi (pictured) makes it known that he will be scrutinising every council decision on his patch. 

"Thank you for coming along. We hardly see any reporters at our meetings anymore and we feel a bit neglected."

It was this comment from perhaps the unlikely source of a Walsall councillor that highlighted to me not only the importance of the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS), but also the struggles faced by regional journalism.

I was expecting some suspicion and apprehension as I made it known I was there to scrutinise their every decision. Instead, I was welcomed with open arms from councillors who understand they are "fair game" for stories - positive and negative.

Covering council meetings used to be bread and butter for me when I started out on the old Walsall Observer newspaper in 1999, providing easy but important copy about serious issues that affected our readers' lives.

But in the past 15 years or so, the rise of the digital age has hit print journalism hard with papers going to the wall and the number of reporters reducing dramatically as companies look to balance the books to stay afloat.

With increasingly stretched newsrooms, some things have to give. And one of those things was the ability to cover every cough and spit from council chambers and committee rooms. Which is where the BBC's Local News Partnerships and, in particular, LDRS came in.

Recognising there was a void that needed plugging, LDRS started in January 2018 and now boasts an army of almost 130 reporters covering local authorities up and down the country.

All things considered, journalists on the local newspapers have been doing a sterling job of covering the big council issues. They are under immense pressure in intensely busy patches and it is easy to accuse them of ignoring stories and not holding those in power to account.

But the fact is there is a void. And in Walsall's case, I hope I am filling that.

I started on November 12 and am still relatively new to the scheme. The biggest hurdle so far was explaining what the role actually is!

"I'm a Local Democracy Reporter. It's a BBC initiative and they pay my wages but I'm employed by Reach PLC and based at the Birmingham Mail. Other media outlets such as the Express and Star also use my work."

It doesn't roll off the tongue as easily as "I'm a reporter for (XXXX) newspaper" for the public and councillors!

I am getting there though and people are learning more and more about the principle of the LDRS as the days go by. The fact that 50,000 stories have been filed in England, Scotland and Wales in 12 months certainly helps to raise the profile overall. As does seeing copy online or in print of the established papers.

So long as the stories I have written have a platform, I don't think the public will care what my job title is.

I covered Walsall for almost 10 years, mostly for the Birmingham Mail, until 2008. I am also a Walsall boy born and bred and I care about what is happening in my town. It's not essential for the role but no-one can ever accuse me of not understanding the people or what's going on in the borough.

So I was delighted to land the role - especially as I thought the LDRs for the area had all been filled.

I got stuck in straight away, re-introducing myself to members who were there during my first stint and meeting those who I didn't know. E-mail introductions are good but it is being able to attend almost all the meetings that have taken place in the last two months that has helped build up relationships.

My days and evenings consist of scouring Walsall Council's diary and then going through the agendas before attending the meetings themselves.

Obviously, the likes of full council, cabinet, planning and licensing are rarely lacking in meaty stories to get my teeth into. But it is the 'smaller' committees where I believe I have been able to add significant value.

It was at a social care and health overview and scrutiny committee meeting that I met the carer who gave an emotional presentation into how the loss of the community alarm service would adversely impact her family.

It was at an education overview and scrutiny committee meeting where parents of severely disabled teenagers urged councillors not to scrap a school transport scheme that enabled their children to get an education.

These issues were listed amongst the budget cuts proposed by Walsall Council in the face of reduced funding. But without me being there at committees where the press table was just gathering dust, those real stories behind the figures might not have been heard.

There has been scope for 'off-diary' work too. I accompanied Walsall Trading Standards on a raid of a local market a couple of weeks before Christmas. As well as seizing thousands of counterfeit goods, a stash of cannabis was also discovered.

And of course, having my work picked up and used is essential. If my stories are not printed then it doesn't matter how many I file. I want to provide value for money - it is license fee payers' cash that keeps a roof over my head, after all.

I'm delighted to say plenty of my stories have been used!

I'm convinced the LDRS scheme is here to say - even more so following news that the number of reporters is to be increased to 200.

We haven't been universally welcomed. I gather press offices across the country have gripes about the sharp increase in their workloads. I sympathise - but holding the decision makers to account through quality, balanced articles in the free press is an essential part of any democracy. And there cannot be too many complaints about us doing that.