This is a guest post by Journalist Susie Boniface (pictured) aka @fleetstreetfox.
Whenever someone asks me what my best story is, I always say “how do you define best?” Because it could be the one that is best-read, least appreciated, or even the one you never published.
It could be a story like the one I wrote when training at the Tonbridge Courier, when an elderly lady came in to the office to say she’d fallen over a paving slab. After a call to the council, the slab was repaired that very day – and the story was never written. The chief reporter decided it would be just puff.
Or perhaps it could be reporting on a Golden Wedding, which always involved a wager in the office about how long it would take for the happy couple to say their long relationship was due to “give and take”. They seemed to be all the same to a teenaged trainee, but I knew those articles were the ones cut out and treasured for years.
Or maybe it would be my first investigation, when I discovered from council minutes there was an accounting discrepancy at the Paddock Wood leisure centre. Over a year, I reported on the manager’s disappearance, the size of the financial hole, a failed police investigation, and a National Audit Office report into failures by the council which ran the centre – and all without a single tip, leak, or hint. The council clammed up, saying it was sub judice, and had I listened to them the council taxpayers whose money was stolen would never know about it.
It taught me not only how to get your teeth into a story and never let go, but the value of local journalism. While many of us fret about Downing Street, the White House or the European Union, it’s local authorities which control our bin collections, our children’s education, how many fire engines we get and which neighbour is allowed to build an extension. These are the issues which affect all our lives in far more immediate detail than Johnson, Trump or Ursual von der Leyen’s, and they all get significantly less scrutiny.
In the two decades since I last worked in local newspapers, reporters have mostly stopped attending council meetings. Perhaps Zoom and coronavirus has reversed that, but they likewise don’t get to talk to the police desk sergeant any more, chat to the postmistress, or drive around their patch enough to see where the next story is sitting unnoticed.
And this matters. Last year, the Electoral Commission reported that 300 local authority seats were uncontested, meaning that one person or party was guaranteed election. It affects 850,000 voters, for whom those immediate, local decisions are taken by someone at no risk of getting kicked out, or even noticed.
Such a situation is ripe for corruption and exploitation, never mind likelier to lead to incompetence and negligence. It is local journalism, and local journalism alone, that can halt that democratic decline.
That’s why the likes of Shepway Vox is so important, along with all the other media outlets we have in the county filled with people who still want to hold power to account. They need your support to do it, and also your realisation that the work they do has more impact on your life than anything the Daily Mail might report.
It’s why I was delighted to be asked, a few years ago, to judge the Kent Press and Broadcast Awards. Not only does it showcase the best that we can do, it makes the do-badders quake in their boots, and gives those pesky journalists a well-deserved pat on the back, so they can go out and do it all again tomorrow.
And that’s why the best story is always the one you haven’t found out about yet.
The Shepway Vox Team
Being Voxatious is NOT a Crime