A Time-Honoured Tactic In These Changing Times (2 August 1974)
While I cannot agree with my old and much-respected friend, Cllr. Bill Caldwell that today the Gazette “does not publish one iota” of the business of the new Milton Keynes Borough Council I have a certain amount of sympathy for him, if not for his remark. I believe he was following the tine-honoured tactic of exaggerating in order to make a point.
As a reporter who covered practically every monthly and special meeting of the late Bletchley Urban Council for a period of 20 years I think I may, perhaps, be able to shed a little light on the subject for the benefit of Cllr. Caldwell and the public alike.
First of all, I should say that when I arrived in Bletchley in 1946 as the representative of the now-defunct North Bucks Times, I marvelled at the number of small weekly newspapers there were in North Bucks for the size of the area’s population. Indeed, this applied to the county as a whole.
When we all turned up at county council meetings, we were jammed like sardines in the Press “gallery.” Even so, there was an overflow onto extra chairs or onto the steps leading down to the chamber. I did not see how all the newspapers could be viable – for viability was and is and ever will be the heart of this matter.
I was particularly struck by the situation in Bletchley, where a mere nine to ten thousand people, who could barely warrant one newspaper of their own, had both the Times and the Gazette. I wondered whether local people realised how lucky – or perhaps some might say how doubly unfortunate – they were. The set-up had a piquancy which appealed to me strongly. It promised lots of “fun and games.”
How had it come about? Mainly through the belief held in 1933 by Mr. Harold Price and Mr. Ron Staniford that the town deserved a better coverage than they considered was being given at that time. In that year they had the temerity to found the Gazette in opposition to the old-established North Bucks Times. And one of their resolves was to give fuller coverage to council meetings.
Only a few years later, Mr. Carl Moser arrived on the scene as the new representative of the Times and began to redress the balance. The war intervened, however, and at its conclusion Mr. Moser returned and accepted an offer to take over the editorial direction of the Gazette – and went on to pursue its foundation policies.
This was where I came in. After about three years I, too, switched to the Gazette. About two years later the Gazette came under the same ownership as the Times. At first the two staffs were separate, but very shortly afterwards viability reared its head, the staffs became one and for years afterwards its very few members, who increased in number and experience only very gradually, brought out both the Times and the Gazette.
While this was going on internally, the amount of council business was increasing enormously. My first two or three council meetings lasted only half-an-hour or so, but those halcyon times were soon over.
In only a few years the meetings edged closer and closer to midnight before they ended. Big questions followed big questions. On some of them it seemed that every member was intent on having his say. Sometimes they were even encouraged to do so, so that there should be no doubt about where each one “stood.”
Those monthly occasions became almost an impossible drag. The NBT went to press before the following mid-day. Often, its lead story just had to be the main item from the previous night’s meeting. So after having done a full day’s work, we attended the council marathon to “midnight” (and) went back to the office for an hour or more on the NBT. All the next day – and occasionally longer – was then spent on thrashing out the meeting for the Gazette.
Many of the resultant reports could not be contained in one week’s issue without excluding other, more essential news. Those reports did not see daylight until the following week’s issue, if ever.
The first breath of relief came in comparatively recent years when the council adopted the “managerial” system, held full meetings every six weeks instead of every month, and tided over the intervals with press conferences on committee reports.
I saw both Cllr. Caldwell and Cllr. Ernie Fryer first take their seats on the council. They date back almost, but not quite, to the days of half-hour meetings. For some time afterwards, the meetings were still short enough to have a two-way benefit.
The councillors could be sure of fairly full reports, and we could be sure of a fair dollop of reasonable copy without going far to get it. Over that short period and to that extent, but only to that extent, we were almost a “Hansard.”
Indeed, it was rumoured though probably facetiously – in those days that the council’s officers did not write up their minutes or whatever until they had seen the Gazette.
But, as I have said, the honeymoon did not last. The expansion of the council’s business precluded it, though we did our best. Councillors seemed to forget we were there for the main news and not as a “Hansard.”
I AM NOT saying you were one of those members, Bill. You have too much savvy for that. What I am suggesting is that you may still be having the “honeymoon” years in mind.
Those days, alas, are long gone. There are now about 40,000 people living in Bletchley alone, to say nothing of thousands of others in the circulation area of Bletchley edition. And three quarters of them would be bored stiff by the scores of small council items which used to be read so avidly by many of the older-established population. But only by many, not by any means all.
Times “have vastly changed”. They are still changing and the Gazette must change with them.