In which I fisk a whole news story

I wrote recently about the poor reporting of the Cogges Link Road inquiry. Now Oxfordshire County Council have begun work on the road without waiting for the outcome of the inquiry, and the Oxford Mail ran a story on it today after local anti-road campaigners Witney First protested on site yesterday. (As I explained in my previous post, I’m a Witney First supporter.)

I understand there will also be something in the Witney Gazette tomorrow. (Newsquest Oxfordshire owns both the Oxford Mail and the Witney Gazette, so the Oxford Mail’s Witney reporter, Tom Jennings, is also the only dedicated reporter for the Witney Gazette, and the two publications often share content.) I’ve decided to go through today's Oxford Mail piece and use it as a detailed example of what I think is wrong with a lot of local reporting. I don’t like the word “fisking” but that’s effectively what I intend to do.

A LANDOWNER fighting a £20.5m road in Witney last night threatened legal action to stop the scheme.

Last night? Really? This is Tuesday’s edition. When did it go to press?

Protesters yesterday blockaded the building site for the Cogges Link Road to try to stop work.

No, we didn’t. It was a peaceful protest, not a blockade, and when contractors arrived to begin work we made no attempt to stop them. We just explained that we believe the work they’re doing is illegal. Unlike the Oxford Mail reporter, I was actually there, so I’m confident on this point.

The photo accompanying this story actually has a workman getting on with things in the background while residents pose with banners in the foreground, further giving the lie to the idea that this was a “blockade”.

Diggers moved in on March 21, but James Mawle, who owns land needed for the road, claims work began unlawfully.

Why “claims”? “Claim”, when used as a verb in a news story, is like the French “pretender”. It has a strong whiff of disbelief about it. Why not “James Mawle, who owns land needed for the road, says that work began unlawfully”? Or “but work began unlawfully, according to local landowner James Mawle”?

Even better, why not actually try to find out whether work began unlawfully? Do the tedious job of reading through the relevant bits of planning law, or ask an expert, and then tell the reader whether James Mawle is probably wrong or probably right.

Oxfordshire County Council may now have to regain planning permission as the original permission, granted in 2009, ended on April 6.

This is true. I also happen to know that this was part of the information that Witney First found out and handed to the Witney Gazette. I’m not saying the reporter didn’t have to check this fact before using it; I’m just saying he didn’t do any of the original work of uncovering this fact.

Mr Mawle intends to delay the planning process until January 2, when the council would have to hand back about £11m developer cash and fund the scheme itself.

Fine. I haven’t spoken to Mr Mawle myself but I’m assuming that this is indeed his stated intention.

About 20 campaigners gathered outside the Farm Mill Lane construction site yesterday to protest against the work.

How does he know how many people were there? He wasn’t there himself. No reporters were there. The Oxford Mail did what it usually does and sent a photographer but not a reporter, because reporting can apparently be done from a distance but photography can’t (yet). I’m assuming the photographer counted us.

Mr Mawle said work had been “unlawful” because the council had not discharged conditions on the planning permission, which it is required to do 21 days before work commences.

Why is “unlawful” in inverted commas? To distance the reporting from Mr Mawle’s comments? “He said this, but we didn’t; we just said that he said it.” OK, so why? To avoid a libel suit from the county council? Libel law doesn’t work that way: if it’s libellous, you’re just as culpable for reporting that someone said it as you are for saying it yourself.

Or is it because the Gazette doesn’t think it’s true, and doesn’t want to be seen to be suggesting it’s true? Fine, but in that case you have to ask: is it true or not? Did the council discharge conditions on the planning permission or not? What does “discharging the conditions” even mean, and did it happen?

He also said the council had failed to advertise new environmental information, which came from a recent public inquiry, before work started.

Well, sort of. As I explain in a rather tedious post on the Sustainable Witney blog, the Environmental Impact Assessment regulations apply because a Side Roads Order and Compulsory Purchase Order was applied in 2002. But I’m genuinely not sure what “new environmental information” the reporter is talking about. If it really “came from” the public inquiry, it would be months old by now. But in any case, it couldn’t have “come from” the inquiry because that wasn’t the original source of any environmental information.

Environmental information was very much covered in evidence to the inquiry, yes, but the county council would have had access to its own environmental research long before the inquiry started. I also know that in many cases, the various specialists employed by both sides at the inquiry got together beforehand and established what their common ground was, to avoid wasting inquiry time with duplication. So in fact, the county council probably had at least limited access to the other side’s environmental information too. And none of it is really new any more.

Although the council said it believed it had complied with the rules, it said “for the avoidance of doubt” it had submitted a request to extend the original planning permission on April 5.

So had the council complied with the rules or not? It’s good to report that it claims to think it has, but has it really? (I accept that finding this out is really difficult, and the best you can probably do is a statement to the effect that you tried to find out but couldn't.)

It refused to say whether or not it had discharged the conditions and advertised the environmental changes ahead of work starting.

The council was supposed to make a public application to discharge the conditions of the planning permission. “Public” means advertised on the site of the works or in the local paper. So to find out if the application was made publicly, you’d probably need to visit the site as well as checking through back issues of the local paper. A tedious job, but if you actually work for Newsquest Oxfordshire (owners of the Oxford Mail and the Witney Gazette), you’re in a better position than most to get hold of those back issues, or just ask the advertising department what they’ve had from the county council lately.

I can see why the reporter didn’t do this. I wouldn’t bother myself: too much hard work when your instinct is telling you that the county council almost certainly didn’t take out such a notice – surely if they had, they would be waving it about triumphantly.

Protester Alex Kinchesh, of Cogges, in Witney, said the protest was to raise awareness. She said: “We deem it unlawful work because there is no current planning permission.”

Mr Mawle added: “We are in the process of asking for an injunction from the High Court if the council does not stop work.”

His solicitors have sent a pre-action protocol letter to the council calling for work to stop.

Fine. Nice to-the-point quotes.

Regaining planning permission could take the council months, Mr Mawle said.

Fine. If you’re printing speculation on something possibly happening in the future, it seems to me quite sensible to print the speculation of someone who is involved and has been taking professional advice.

He is also seeking to restart the public inquiry into the compulsory purchase of land needed for the scheme, including his own.

Is he? Isn’t this a story in itself? We haven’t even had the result from the most recent inquiry – why does he want another one? Does he know something we don’t?

The inquiry took place late last year and a decision is expected from the Secretary of State for Transport in May.

Fine. I strongly suspect the decision has already been made, but there are political reasons for avoiding making it public until after the district council elections on 3rd May. But that’s just my own guess. I can’t back it up with evidence. If I was the reporter, I might ask "Is there a political reason for delaying the decision until after the local elections?" but I know I would almost certainly get the answer "No, of course not" and I wouldn't then take it any further.

Council spokesman Owen Morton said the letter from Mr Mawle’s solicitors meant the council was unable to discuss the matter further.

Really? As I understand it, the point of a pre-action protocol letter is to set out the issue clearly to the other party and if possible use this line of communication to avoid going to court. I didn’t think there was anything about a pre-action protocol letter which made proceedings subject to any kind of restriction on public comment.

The Cogges Link Road will run from Oxford Hill to Station Lane with the aim of cutting congestion and pollution in Witney town centre.

Will run? Not if it doesn’t get built. And again, I accept that the article is long enough already, but “with the aim of”? It would be lovely to know if this aim is actually likely to be achieved by building the road.

Opponents say building a four-way junction on the A40 at Shores Green will have the same effect as the link road but at a fraction of the cost.

Some opponents say that. Some opponents don’t want Shores Green either. I’m an opponent of the Cogges Link Road and I think neither of them will work to reduce congestion if they don’t happen in a context of empowering people to make more sustainable travel choices.

But just look at this paragraph and the preceding one. We have what the county wants and what opponents want. What the county thinks is framed as reality and action: “will run... with the aim of”. What opponents want is framed as a claim: we “say” it and we are “opponents”, not “residents” or “concerned local people”, just as earlier in the piece we were “campaigners”.

I’m sure I could have done a similar job with any other Oxford Mail article. This one just annoyed me because I happen to know that Witney First had been trying for weeks, without success, to interest the Witney Gazette/Oxford Mail in the council’s decision to start digging on the site, and in the legal problems involved. But not a single bite, until the early-morning protest yesterday somehow turned it into news.