What’s East German propaganda got to do with the cult of Gary Verity and the future of the Yorkshire Post? You might have to bear with me a while to find out...
In 1984 I was living and working as a translator in Magdeburg in East Germany. I talk about that time a lot because it had such a profound impact on how I think. A newspaper was posted through my letter box every day - Neues Deutschland. I never ordered it, never paid for it and couldn't find out how to stop it arriving. I listlessly flicked through it, unimpressed with the endless graphs of incredibly successful grain harvests which contrasted with the reality of the local bakery that never seemed to have enough bread. Reading it was an interesting lesson in German socialist propaganda but little else.
When I arrived at the translating and interpreting agency where I worked, there was another literary treat in store for me each day - the only English paper that East German government allowed into free circulation: the left-wing Morning Star. It was the time of the Miners' Strikes so the front pages were always full of the bravery of the strikers, stubborn Thatcher and police brutality. I'd never seen the paper in England, and the style of 'reporting' quickly led me to assume the Morning Star was as full of lies as Neues Deutschland.
I remember asking an East German 'friend' (later found out she was a member of the Stasi secret police asked to watch over me) why she believed the East German newspapers told the truth. She answered with a question: "why do you think your newspapers (presumably not the Morning Star) tell the truth?". That point stayed with me. How do we ever know the truth unless we keep asking questions, and comparing the answers?
A while later I went off to live in France and study Nazi propaganda and the underground press of the French resistance. It was fascinating to see the same stories portrayed in two very different ways. I met many former French resistance fighters, people who'd endured terrible torture and labour camps. They all told me that their motivation was always freedom and truth: the two things they'd fought for and which they still prized above all possessions. They said that they knew the moment the French stopped asking questions and accepted the German occupation, life as they'd known it would be over. Another powerful experience. You can perhaps understand my obsession with asking questions and wanting the 'truth' to be out in the open.
Fast forward several decades to Yorkshire and the cult of Gary Verity. This is going to sound overly dramatic and extreme: on more than one occasion I compared the way no-one asked questions and everyone seemed to believe everything he said to the East German propaganda machine. Remember the grain harvests and the empty bakeries? Compare them to (inflated) spectator numbers for the Tour de France and the tourism businesses who daren't admit their business hadn't benefitted. I did ask a lot of questions, but it felt like I was in the minority. However, those questions led to a certain amount of knowledge.
When I started to ask a member of the Welcome to Yorkshire board how they were going to deal with the "Gary situation", I was nervous. I didn't know the outcome. Ultimately, what was it to do with me? Apart from fairness, truth and taxpayers' money. When I spoke to David Collins at the Sunday Times and he asked for a quote, I was even more nervous. What would happen to me if I spoke out publicly? It was a very small thing compared to those I'd interviewed in France. How could I refuse when I believed so passionately in the need to ask questions of public figures and demand accountability? The extent of the staff bullying and expenses 'inaccuracies' would not have come to light without questions being asked.
Since Gary resigned, I've spoken to a lot of journalists and I've kept asking a lot of questions. I've recognised the power of social media and a blog. In today's world we are very fortunate to be able to control our own channels of communication. That's incredibly powerful and yet very few people use that opportunity. The Chair of the Welcome to Yorkshire board has resigned, and two in-depth investigations are now underway. Several local authorities have suspended their payments. I don't think that would have all happened had it not been for journalists, myself and others asking questions and prompting.
Have we learnt anything from this experience? I'm not sure yet, but I do hope more people will ask more questions. In a free country, what's the worst that can happen if we do so?
I've been fascinated by the different approaches of the many journalists I've spoken to.
Some journalists asked questions, genuinely listened to the answers, fact-checked, and then came back to ask more questions. Some were meticulous in checking quotes and trying to see the bigger picture even if their own article could only cover one small area of the story. Some were not so pro-active. At least one missed out on a story by not reacting when they had the chance. I may not be a fan of Murdoch's might but I don't think many other newspapers would have had the resources or been able to give their journalists the time they gave to David Collins to research and then break the initial Gary Verity story. He spent an age researching and then writing the story.
Other journalists picked up the story and gradually found their niches and their own angles. It was interesting to speak to them all, and see which bits of the story they were ready to run with. Helen Pidd focused on the angle of the £14.9 of public funds paid to Welcome to Yorkshire. The Yorkshire Post really got into their groove and covered the story from several angles, coming back to it again and again as different layers were uncovered. I had long conversations with several of their journalists, who really sought to understand the broader context. I have confidence they'll continue to ask important questions.
When reading any story, it's worth trying to understand the motivations of different journalists. Some are genuinely interested in a given story, some are just going through the motions. Many do seem to be really driven by an opportunity to dig down and uncover the 'truth'. It's been really uplifting to speak to some journalists who have managed to cling to their initial motivation for becoming journalists, to get to the nub of the matter. I think some are genuinely still driven by the benefits of the freedom of speech. I hope so.
This morning I was intrigued when James Mitchinson asked a simple question on twitter "I am always looking to improve as an editor and so The Yorkshire Post. Good editors put the views of their readers first, so: Q: What would you like The Yorkshire Post to be - online - such that you’d be prepared to back our journalism with your own hard-earned money?"
I couldn't help joining in with my views but I was most interested by other people's responses. Not just the contents that they suggested but also their response to the fact that a newspaper editor had asked such questions. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, a media/new/researcher and Director of Reuters Institute who encouraged his many followers to take note of the comments. Others have commented on the novelty of this approach: a newspaper asking readers what they'd like. Is it really so rare? At a time when newspapers really have to fight for their future?
Again, I'm fascinated. Asking questions is the most fundamental way we can know more about our market, whoever we are. I've already gone on about the need for more market research within Yorkshire tourism. Asking questions is fundamental for all of us who seek to serve any market. If we don't ask, how will we know? And if we don't keep asking questions, and comparing answers, how will we be able to piece together the truth.
I feel increasingly passionate about the need for freedom of speech and freedom of the press. As history has shown, it's easy to take things for granted, for things to change, little by little and for freedom to be taken away from us.
But sometimes freedom isn't taken from us - we give it away, by not asking questions.
We need the media to keep asking questions, to survive and we need to keep asking questions of the media and prompting them to dig deeper. We mustn't take the freedom of our press for granted. A recent German survey of all the world's media found the UK ranks at just no 33rd in the world. Room for improvement still...
I've worked in tourism marketing for over 30 years, developing strategies & practical solutions for accommodation, attractions, activity providers, food & drink businesses. These are some of the tourism industry issues I'm concerned about. I'm writing here about Yorkshire but most of the issues are relevant elsewhere.