Friday 29 May 2009

MP couldn't see wood for the trees

It can hard for Westminster villagers to admit that political pressure is local as well as national and global. But MPs who fail to acknowledge the role of their local paper in tuning into neighbourhood affairs can find they have less chance of making friends and influencing people.
In these days of a 24-hour news drip via Sky, the internet and digital signals that allow you to tune into Australian outback radio (should you so desire), the generally held view is the local newspapers are doomed, doomed, Mr Mainwaring.
Sales have been falling for years, and this year, under the guise of responding to the recession, local newspaper bosses have decided to make public those swingeing cuts they were planning away - but scything through the ranks of reporting staff; leaving those left with the less than edifying role of never getting out of the office, sitting around rewriting PA copy, and turning around a press release.
But the MPs expenses news riot has shown just how influential local newspapers can be in tapping into local concerns, matching them with an expenses story and then exerting pressure.
For some months the Eastern Daily Press has been following the constituency work of South Norfolk MP Christopher Fraser and his willingness to talk to the local media and appear at constituency events with a rather critical eye.
The former MP for Mid Dorset and North Poole -- with a family farm in Dorset - was picked as Tory candidate for the Norfolk seat over many local opponents, but the paper has felt his commitment to the constituency has been less than obvious, and has taken to publishing statements about his unavailablity to comment with increasing fury.
Not as mundane as you might imagine. Yesterday's "not available to comment" was found rather bizarrely in bold in a picture caption under a large photo of said MP.
Hours later the MP - who had claimed on expenses for cherry trees to be planted around his Norfolk home to add  a somewhat unusual security cordon - had decided to stand down. 
Were the two matters related? The support of his local paper might have made a huge difference in whether Fraser continued to battle on. 
In the same issue of the EDP, Norwich MP Ian Gibson, who has strong local credentials and a reputation for working hard in the constituency, was being defended by North Norfolk LibDem Norman Lamb. While not condoning Gibson's decision to sell his London flat, formerly claimed for on his second home allowance, to his daughter at less than the market rate, Lamb felt Gibson was being dealt with too harshly by the Labour star chamber.
Lamb's comments were given a good show, next to the story of Fraser, the cherry trees and the no comment.
Is there an argument here that local papers who know the ins and outs of the lives and work of their local MPs have chosen this moment to out some of the long-running issues and complaints and add fuel to the fire? Perhaps.
Whether this will in any sense save local newspapers reporting staff from the impending axe is less clear.

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