Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Why Portsmouth libraries are amazing and why Portsmouth News should leave them alone

Today's Portsmouth News chooses as its front page story to report the horror of thousands of missing library books, valued at £231,000 and £40,000 in outstanding fines.

I cannot believe the News headlined with this story AND ran an Editor's Leader on it.

I have many reasons for this, some of them political, some of them personal - the latter mostly due to the passionate belief I have that all journalists should share a common and individual sense of responsibility for their writing.

Or, to put it more simply, I disagree with this story for two main reasons - one, it's wrong, factually; and two, it's bad journalism.

Let me explain.

If you live in Portsmouth, I'm really interested to know if this is the main issue for you today, and whether, in the current climate of international civil unrest, political division nationally and a public sector under threat, you think this represents you, as a reader and citizen.

I’m more interested in the closure of Sure Start centres that had over 100 mums and their children protesting over the water from us in Gosport today, but you have to wade through another 3 pages to get to that.

Or perhaps something on International Women’s Day? It’s the 100th anniversary - that doesn’t get a mention at all.

Even if you accept that this subject warrants this level of importance - which I don't - the sloppy reporting alone makes me ashamed to call myself a journalist.

Here’s why.

In his editorial for the day, the editor refers to making children pay their library fines - though they're not liable for any fines on books.

How do I know?

I’m glad you asked. Well, as a journalist, it’s my job to find stuff out. In this case it was quite easy as Portsmouth Library Service publishes their fines and overdue items policy online.

The News also didn't seem so worried about fines when they published an upbeat report about abolishing them in 2009.

Interesting that they're so passionate about it now.

But the real Journalism 101 Rookie Error of All Time in this story is something that is actually missing from it. One key piece of information that has a profound impact on what these figures actually mean.

Namely, what period of time does this piece refer to? Are these the overdue books and fines from the past year? The past five years? Since the library service began?

That's quite important, and I wonder why it wasn't included.

Maybe because this isn’t reporting as I understand and adore it, but cheap sensationalism, designed to cause a stir.

And maybe if you’re all hot and bothered about this story, you won’t stop to wonder why The News doesn’t devote the same attention and page space to real issues. Why it doesn't give the same level of coverage to the potential impact the recent budget cuts will have on your life, or the growing number of people prepared to resist them.

Maybe you'll feel so angry at the library service you won't object when more library staff lose their jobs and the service you get from your library starts to suffer. Maybe you'll be so angry you'll blame the libraries themselves for that, instead of the budget cuts.

You know what I would have done with that same information on missing library stock?

I’d have written a discussion piece about why people don’t return their library books.

I’d have written about how George Washington – yes, the first US president – forgot to return a library book and his overdue fees came to over $300,000 until a replacement copy was bought, over two hundred years after his death.

I’d have pointed out that if it happens to the President, surely it could happen to anyone.

I’d highlight that exactly the same problem is faced by library services up and down the country, which also report thousands of books missing from their collections, and thousands due in overdue fines.

I’d have encouraged readers to think about it for themselves.

Maybe I'd have closed with a light-hearted piece that encouraged people to return their books as a matter of civic duty, even if they sneak them in under the cover of darkness like ninjas. I’d have mentioned all the ways libraries try to get people to do exactly that (return their books, I mean, not the ninja thing), from amnesties on fines, to having fines reduced if you can give the most interesting reason for not returning your book.

Instead the News throws the book at our library service.

They report the story as though our libraries are doing something wrong. The Tory Cllr, Alastair Thompson, goes so far as to say that the missing books prove that “the council is not running the library service well.”

Well then, neither is the British Library. They can’t find 9,000 of their books at all.

But, to be honest, it doesn’t matter what you think about people who don’t return their library books, what the library should do with those people. It doesn’t even matter whether or how much you think bad borrowers should pay for their sins.

What really matters is that for thousands of people in this city, the News is regarded as a source of, well, news. The information printed there is seen as objective and impartial, the basis on which people will form opinions about local services.

When a newspaper does that job badly – and the News have, I believe, in this case, barely done what I understand to be their job at all – they fail in their responsibility to their readers.

And as a journalist, as a citizen, and as a lifelong library user – and yes, a late returner and payer of many fines - that’s something I take very seriously indeed.