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Letter: Our Local Political Leaders Should Be Accountable and We Should All Keep Up with Local News

Published on: 28 Mar, 2023
Updated on: 28 Mar, 2023

Robin Horsley’s “Battle for Guildford” campaign video

From: Robin Horsley

Local campaigner on town centre developments

Should our Local Political Leaders Be Accountable and Be Prepared to Give Media Interviews?

That might seem like a question with an obvious answer, and particularly with local elections on May 4 this year it is particularly important that local residents have an opportunity to hear from those asking for their votes and are therefore able to make informed voting decisions.

But it is a question which The Guildford Dragon explored a couple of weeks ago in an interview between its editor Martin Giles and reporter Hugh Coakley –  an effort to explain how their political interviews are conducted and allay fears that some may have about the prospect.

It can be a daunting prospect to give interviews – you know that your words and the way in which you express yourself are not just a conversation between two people but may be conveyed to hundreds of people and therefore have substantially more impact than a one-to-one conversation.

But if people are to have the opportunity to make informed choices from watching and listening to those asking for their votes, being prepared to be interviewed by local media is essential.

Party politicians can sometimes be wary of media bias and I don’t blame them. Many media outlets do exhibit consistent bias and make no secret of it – which is why plurality of media is essential in a democracy. In other words, if there is bias in the media, we need to have media outlets with different perspectives in order that we, the consumers of news, can hear the different arguments.

But in Guildford, the independently operated Guildford Dragon is the dominant media platform doing serious reporting on local news and it is therefore ethically incumbent upon them to take a balanced approach to reporting.

But it’s also in the Dragon’s own interest because if an outlet is considered biased it will largely only attract those who share its point of view. That’s a zero-sum game.

I have been interviewed twice by Martin Giles the Dragon’s editor. On each occasion, Martin offered to run through his list of planned questions just before the interview started.

On the first occasion I refused the offer, partly because of time concerns but also because I wanted to just convey myself authentically and was concerned if I had too much time to think about it, my responses might come across as stilted. I am not generally a fan of set-piece political interviews.

The second time, I accepted the offer of the quick list of questions because I had realised from the first experience that at least having a basic framework, being able to understand the scope of the interview would help it be more fluid and I would avoid spending too much time on an answer on one subject, as I had in the first interview, not knowing how many subsequent questions Martin wanted to cover.

I will reserve judgement on what was the best approach until I have seen the second interview! But I can say now, that it seems a fair approach on the Dragon’s part. And I haven’t detected a particular bias in the Dragon’s approach, certainly over the last few months – just a journalistic desire to get to the nub of the point.

The whole question of the future of Guildford is at stake at this very important local election.

I am very critical of R4GV’s approach over the scheme for 13 tower blocks in the town centre, as my film ‘The Battle for Guildford’ makes clear. I believe a borough-wide, full public consultation from the council (not the developer as previously) is the appropriate approach for any proposed development that would so fundamentally change the town centre and its appeal for residents of the town, borough and visitors from further afield and therefore the commercial viability of the town.

The site represents a great opportunity to renew and enhance Guildford and I agree with the conclusion of the planning committee when they rejected the scheme on January 11, documenting eight major, solid reasons for refusal, and the final decision of the chairman of the planning committee when she said simply it needs to be “the right development”.

And whilst I point out that every indication suggests that if R4GV gain control of the council at the local elections, it seems inevitable they will push the proposed scheme through with only a very minor change required for a re-submission, I cannot criticise R4GV for being unprepared to undertake interviews with The Guildford Dragon. They are regularly interviewed.

Probably relatively few people across the borough read The Dragon every day as I now do, perhaps more should. I believe it is important to support what Martin and his team are doing. And I suspect, that as people gradually ‘re-localise’ their habits now that people are typically working from home for two days or more a week, it will become a more important component in our lives.

Quite simply, local democracy cannot really work unless all those seeking election engage and subject themselves to public scrutiny – be they incumbents or challengers.

So I would urge all those seeking election to make themselves available for interview if they really do wish to invite voters to support them.

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