Time to stand up and make a difference to our society

When Prime Minister David Cameron began talking up his vision of a Big Society, no-one really knew what he meant.
Six months later, and even after his keynote speech at the Tory conference, there were still many people who were left scratching their heads as to what the PM was actually going on about.
If you believe the sceptics, the Big Society is little more than a smokescreen for the massive cutbacks which are looming.
They will tell you it is the coalition government’s attempt to get volunteers and labour on the cheap for all manner of things usually delivered by professionals within the public sector.
However I, for one, am prepared to give the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt on this occasion.
This is because, whether or not “just call me Dave” truly believes in citizen power and the taking of individual responsibility, the idea of a Big Society seems to me to be very laudable in this day and age.
Irrespective of whether or not we agree with the Government’s approach to tackling the national debt, the PM’s mantra – which, in fairness, he was chanting long before the election – is a good one.
It’s good in the same way that, even if you don’t believe in God and don’t go to communal worship every week, you can still appreciate that the church does a great job in our communities.
One reason that I like the idea of a Big Society and think that perhaps it isn’t all just posturing and platitudes, is that even members of Mr Cameron’s own party are sceptical about it.
This is because they know it is a vague, nebulous concept to sell to the electorate
There are certainly no quick political wins with this soundbite.
So what is the Big Society?
In his speech to conference, the PM told us: “Your country needs you.”
He’s not wrong – on so many levels.
We’re up the creek without a paddle and we can quibble about whose fault it is all we want and crucify as many bankers as we like.
However, ultimately, we are all going to have to play a part in sorting out the current financial mess.
One thing is certain, it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.
That means everything from our councils to schools and local charities – all aspects of our communities – are going to suffer.
What better time then to nurture a sense of individual responsibility and to get people off their backsides and doing their bit for their neighbourhoods?
Every week in The Sentinel, I read of people bleating about their lot.
Usually, this involves criticism of public services such as councils, the health service or the police.
In their eyes, it is always someone else’s fault and someone else’s responsibility to sort out whatever the latest problem is.
This is because the Nanny State has created a class of people who expect to be waited on hand and foot and think public services are there to tend to their every whim.
Many are not prepared to lift a finger to actually help themselves – or anyone else, for that matter.
I single such people out because this attitude is symptomatic of selfish Britain 2010.
You see, you don’t have to believe in David Cameron’s Big Society vision to actually embrace the concept.
There are school governing bodies, parent teacher associations, residents’ groups, youth organisations and local charities, to name but a few, crying out for volunteers during the toughest of economic circumstances because so many people can’t be bothered to help.
Anyone who needs inspiration to get involved just has to think about the winners of this year’s Sentinel and Britannia’s Our Heroes community awards.
They include 72-year-old Barry Bailey, from Shelton, who has raised a quarter of a million pounds for the Douglas Macmillan Hospice.
Then there is 13-year-old Toby Tomlins, from Norton, who – without a word of complaint – cares for his terminally-ill older brother Barny.
What about the inspirational committee of Chell Heath Residents’ Association who scooped our award for community group of the year by transforming the lives of families in their neck of the woods?
If the PM had been present at the awards he would have seen that plenty of people in the Potteries are already practising what he is preaching.
People like my old school friend Julie Hancock, who recently took it upon herself to organise a naked calendar shoot involving women from North Staffordshire to raise thousands of pounds for the Help The Heroes Charity.
At its heart, the Big Society is whatever you want it to be.
We can all sit around and moan.
The question is, what are you going to do to help your community through these tough times and make our society a better place in which to live?
*Martin organised a sponsored, all-night ghost-hunt at The Leopard pub, Burslem, in aid of Cheethams children’s ward at the University Hospital of North Staffordshire.

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Our Heroes’ stories give us a true sense of perspective

Journalists are, by their very nature, cynics. It should be a prerequisite of the job.

As it is, most of us enter newsrooms as reasonably well-adjusted individuals then, over time, we transform into something akin to Victor Meldrew.

It happens for two reasons. Firstly, we learn through bitter experience not to take anything at face value, because accuracy is king and you’re only as good as your last story.

Secondly, we become cynics due to simple over-exposure to real life.

On an average day a local newspaper journalist deals with deaths, road accidents, fires, crime, job losses, complaints and public sector ineptitude – along with all the associated moaning and misery.

Over time you become inured to it all. Very little surprises you and even less inspires you.

It’s sad, but true.

Then once in a while something comes along which lifts you out of the monotony and reminds you why you do what you do.

This may smack of navel-gazing but I believe the newspaper I work for has always been very good at leaping to the defence of local people and aiding worthy causes.

Whether it be our Proud of the Potteries campaign to answer the spurious claim that our city was the worst place to live in England, helping to launch a local children’s hospice or raising a 19,000-strong petition calling for a new hospital for North Staffordshire, The Sentinel has certainly done its bit.

For years our slogan was ‘A Friend Of The Family’ then at some point, almost by stealth, it changed to become Local and Proud.

I like to think we are still both.

This emphasis on community has, in recent years, led to a heavy commitment to events such as the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality of the Year Awards and Stoke’s Top Talent, and the forging of new relationships with the city council and The Regent theatre.

They’re big, positive, annual events which help to show off all that is good about our circulation area.

The bean counters – who consider us journalists to be overheads – might argue that such events don’t sell us many newspapers.

My rejoinder would be that they touch the lives of thousands of people, generate enormous goodwill and a sense of pride in our region.

Tonight is the climax of one such campaign and yours truly is lucky enough to be going along.

In early 2006 my gaffer outlined his vision for an annual ‘Oscars-style’ community awards night. You know – staging, music, videos, red carpet, the works.

Later that year Our Heroes was born and the first awards ceremony took place in September.

Four years later and The Sentinel has published more than 400 stories of human endeavour, skill, bravery and selflessness.

During the same time, our campaign sponsor – Britannia – has given away around £40,000 in prize money to individuals and groups.

Tonight Children of Courage, Adult Carers and Charity Champions will rub shoulders with celebrities, sporting greats and civic dignitaries who are giving up their time free of charge to honour ordinary people who lead extraordinary lives.

The great and the good will all be there – the Lord Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent, the Bishop of Lichfield and the Chief Constable of Staffordshire, along with the likes of Gordon Banks OBE, Anthea Turner, Nick Hancock and Jonny Wilkes.

But it’s not their night…

The real stars will shuffle in from the car park nervously adjusting hired dickie-bows, or smoothing out their new frocks and feeling rather embarrassed by all the attention.

Because the truth is Our Heroes are all self-effacing, humble people who have to be dragged (sometimes literally) into the limelight and told just how wonderful they really are.

It’s my job to organise the event, write the script and compere the show, and it is a privilege.

There is something genuinely life-affirming about being involved in an event like the Our Heroes awards night and gaining a brief glimpse into the lives of some truly remarkable people.

No matter what is going on in your own life, you can’t help but be touched and inspired by stories of the award nominees.

They give you a sense of perspective that can all too easily be lost in the chaos of your everyday existence, and they remind you of what’s really important.

OK, such events may not sell us many more papers.

However, this ageing hack is very glad that his newspaper still understands the value of championing the people it serves.

Perhaps we’re not all cynics, after all.