The Press and the City

On a dark stormy Thursday night there is a strong temptation to stay at home and to bloat in front of the T.V. Those of us who resisted this temptation on the 23rd March were pleased to have done so.

Gary Phelps, the Editor of the Lichfield Mercury, modestly admitted to lacking experience in making public spoken presentations and sought our indulgence as he read what he had prepared to say. Where experience was lacking talent and personality came to the rescue and he was soon deserting the security of his prepared script to describe his vision of what the Mercury should be.

He has been at the Mercury since April 1998, becoming Editor last year. Previously he had been chief reporter at the Sutton Coldfield Observer and then news editor. In 1996 he won the Newspaper Society's national Best News Journalist award.

Since 1815 when the first Mercury was published the aim had been to present "a weekly slice of local life". Mr. Phelps described the relationship between the paper and the people as being symbiotic, each giving something to the other. He saw the Mercury presenting a "serious edge" of information, while also reflecting "the lighter side of life", representing the current interests of the people and providing a voice for their grievances. The paper being a platform for debate. He cited examples of subjects reflecting the citizens' interests - "speed bumps", the Arts Centre, the Festival, the Bower and the Victoria Hospital petition. On reflection one is tempted to ask "Was there ever a real threat?" - this might be worth some investigative journalism!

Special mention was made of the Mercury and children and it is the children who would greatly benefit, if the Editor's ambition to open the Mercury archives to the public is eventually fulfilled.

The audience's good nature was well demonstrated during a lively and good humoured Question Time; and one sensed some restraint in the criticisms when the declared 30% editorial space / 70% advertisements ratio no doubt inspired sympathy for an editor thus confined.

It was acknowledged that of late there had been welcome changes making the Mercury more readable and acceptable - a comment made in the context of the deterioration and lowering of standards since the advent of free distribution.

This slender slice of local life was inevitably going to be criticised. For misuse and omission of the apostrophe - a huge irritant from such a small mark, which many would happily see discarded. Its defenders rightly claim that when correctly used it is an aid to accuracy.

Accuracy! Hamlet referred to as the "Scottish Play" and Barbara repeatedly spelt Barbera were blatant examples of error which would have been avoided by careful proof-reading. The use of tired clichés often prevents accuracy of meaning from being conveyed. "Slam" is too frequently used to describe either minor or major criticism, mere disagreement, opposition, condemnation etc. All opposition is not fired by anger or implied violence. When did we last read of an award that was not described as "prestigious"? Deserved, recognised, valued, popular, distinguished or noted are less sensational but might be more accurate. Roget's Thesaurus so readily assists in finding apt and diffentiated meaning. "Watchdog" might be said to describe an aspect of the Civic Society's chosen function, but its loud barking aggression is a coarse summary of unsensational vigilance.

The letters page certainly provides a platform for debate but members wondered why some contributors fail to have their names associated with the opinions expressed.

The meagre 30% editorial ration inevitably means that items have to be carefully selected but the Townswomen's Guild was said to have very rare coverage of its activities. The Editor expressed the hope that a plan to devote a whole page to meetings and activities of local organisations would help to solve this problem.

At the end of the meeting there was a feeling that if Gary Phelps has his way we can look forward to less cause for similar criticism in the future.

Ivor Mitchell
March 2000