A rarely-remarked fact is that females occupy three of the most influential opinion-forming positions in this county: the editors of the Hereford Journal, Hereford Times and Ross Gazette weeklies are all women.
Mary Queally’s Hereford Journal is unlikely to set the city on fire with its diet of recycled charity press releases and photo-ops. What does Ms Queally find to do all week?
The redoubtable Fiona Phillips’ Hereford Times is an altogether bulkier paper, frequently producing 160-page editions (earlier this month it published 48 consecutive pages of property adverts), which must be financial music to its owners, Newsquest, part of the US-based Gannett Inc corporation, which owns 85 American dailies and 900 weeklies. Fragrant Fiona’s other ‘nice little earner’ is the recycling of messages posted on the HT website’s comments page. As if to kick these bloggers in the teeth, the editor once referred to her unpaid contributors as “mendacious oddities”.
The Ross Gazette’s long-serving Jo Scrivin makes up this formidable Herefordshire coven. Her paper’s masthead modestly proclaims itself ‘an independent family-owned newspaper’, omitting the fact that ‘family owner’ Sir Roy Tindle’s personal fortune of £125m recently ranked him 16th on the Sunday Times’ ‘Rich List’ of newspaper proprietors.
Cynics might say that the stock-in-trade of these three weeklies is farmers’ auction prices, bonnie baby photo comps and obituaries. But they can also play a powerful role in local politics. Both Bill Wiggin and Jesse Norman are experts at pulling these editor’s strings when it suits them, though a succession of Herefordshire Council leaders have failed to work the same magic as the two Etonian schmoozers. Ex-Lib Dem leader Terry James was probably the last of the seasoned off-the-record briefers.
Back in May 2011, voters in the county’s northernmost Mortimer ward were surprised to be confronted with a huge roadside hoarding on the day after the local elections, following Tory Olwyn Barnett’s defeat of It’s Our County upstart David Thame. The poster read “Well done Olwyn. No change. It’s your County!” As if by magic, local Tories used an almost identical pre-election slogan (in the Admag) before last week’s Tupsley by-election: “It’s not their county … it’s yours.” But It’s Our County chairman Cllr Mark Hubbard had already pulled off a neat counter-coup on polling day, with a half-page letter in the Hereford Times, ostensibly about a two-month-old planning decision. It turned out to be a useful flag-waver for winning IOC candidate Cath North.
By a happy coincidence, on the day the Tupsley result was announced, the Ross Gazette launched an online readers’ poll, with a voting box prominently displayed on its homepage. Nothing wrong with that you may say. Here’s the wording of the question: “Do you agree with MP Jesse Norman that rural areas, with an elderly population, should get increased government funding?” A ‘when did you stop beating your wife?’ question if ever there was one.
Seventy-two hours after it was launched, the Ross paper’s poll was registering a 75% ‘yes’ vote. Pontrilas ward (which goes to the polls on 21st November, though postal ballots have already been sent out) is a predominantly rural area with a high number of elderly residents. And with 700+ households dispersed over an area of more than 30 square miles, an online ballot organised by the ward’s best-selling weekly certainly takes the drudgery out of doorstep canvassing. IOC’s Jon Norris (aka Wizard Wonky) is going need all his magic powers to secure a victory over the dark arts of Conservative Party central office.