‘It’s a veritable goldmine’ – my experiences covering Portsmouth City Council

The Local Democracy Reporter scheme has marked its first anniversary. The BBC-funded project aims to hold local councils to account and at The News the role is carried out by Fiona Callingham, who here describes her experiences covering Portsmouth City Council

Thursday, 24th January 2019, 1:58 pm
Updated Thursday, 7th February 2019, 6:53 pm
Fiona Callingham, local democracy reporter for The News, Portsmouth. Picture: Sarah Standing (240119-6910)

'How on Earth is there going to be enough to write about?'

That was the first response I got from someone when I told them about the local democracy reporter role that I had just agreed to take on at The News in Portsmouth.

And I'll admit I didn't instantly leap to the job's defence. At this time it was still a relatively new position, having only been filled by its first reporter two months previously. So I knew little about what I would be taking on.

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From my limited experience reporting on councils at the hyperlocal newspaper I first worked for, all I knew was attending the occasional district or county council meeting whenever something juicy was coming up. And that wasn't very often because in all honesty my team (myself and one other reporter) didn't have the time to pore over every report and agenda.

So if I could go back almost a year ago and answer that question I'd have so much to hit back with. The question now is: 'How on Earth is there enough time?'

From dramatic eight-hour full council meetings to eight-minute decision meetings I, like the other 120 plus LDRs across England, Wales and Scotland, have become a constant observer of local democracy in action.

At first many Portsmouth City Council officers and councillors were surprised to see me appearing at every scheduled public meeting on the calendar - a document that pretty much dictates my life. And I know that many other LDRs had similar experiences. Local newsrooms have been continually squeezed in recent years so the sight of a journalist at council meetings became, understandably, a rare one.

Which is a real shame because local authorities and their inner workings are a veritable goldmine of news.

I have yet to find myself short of stories, even during the dreaded purdah before elections or the August break, because even if there aren't agendas to sift through or committees to attend, there are still FOIs to fire off, vox-pops to do, planning applications being submitted, longer features to get your teeth into and the occasional friendly councillor who's happy to give you a tip-off.

It was a surprise to realise how busy I would be.

But just how much I'd have to learn along the way was another surprise. I had never been anything closely resembling an expert in politics, local or otherwise, so suddenly taking on such a specialised role was a bit of a wake-up call.

With support from The News team, the other LDRs scattered around the place and certain patient officers and councillors I'd like to think I have as good a grasp on local politics as I could in the time. And it's definitely a case of the more you know, the more you want to learn about it.

Also the more you learn, the more you want to keep the public informed about everything that's going on.

In short, my life revolves around local democracy. And I'm completely fine with that.