New Year’s Honours list makes me think of North Staffordshire’s unsung heroes

Stoke-on-Trent film-maker Chris Stone.

Stoke-on-Trent film-maker Chris Stone.

It’s always nice to read about ordinary local people among those recognised in the New Year’s Honours list alongside the requisite celebrities, sporting stars and captains of industry.

By ordinary I simply mean they don’t get paid a fortune, they’re not in the public eye and they don’t do what they do for power or glory.

This time I was delighted to see that one of The Sentinel’s Our Heroes Awards winners – Maureen Upton, of Meir Heath – earned an OBE for services to the voluntary sector after racking up more than 45 years working for the St John Ambulance.

I was also pleased to see Penkhull historian Richard Talbot had made the cut.

Richard’s MBE is a reward not only for the pivotal role he played in kick-starting Hanley’s Cultural Quarter but also an acknowledgement of his fund-raising for worthy local causes and his work in the community over many years.

The publication of the honours lists always makes me think of other worthy individuals who get precious little recognition.

That being the case, I humbly offer up the names of half a dozen locals who I believe help to enrich our communities and who will continue to do so throughout 2014.

First up I’d like to doff my cap to a couple of blokes who may never have met for all I know but who have a shared passion for film-making.

The first is the superbly-talented Chris Stone who, over the past few years, has produced some sparkling movies – the scenes for many of which were shot in his native North Staffordshire.

If you’ve never seen it, search out his vampire web series Blood And Bone China which has been viewed by more than 300,000 people online.

Or if you pop in to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery to view the new Staffordshire Hoard exhibition, he’s the man behind the epic movie The Last Dragonhunter which is playing in the background and includes eye-popping animation by another of my local heroes – artist Rob Pointon, of Burslem.

His kindred spirit is a film-maker who I think deserves huge recognition for his artistic endeavour.

John Williams, of Wolstanton, is currently putting the finishing touches to The Mothertown – a zombie apocalypse movie based in Burslem and involving literally hundreds of extras which is helping to raise funds for three-year-old leukaemia sufferer Frankie Allen.

Anyone who has seen John’s posts on social media and viewed his special effects handiwork can’t fail to be impressed.

But it’s his passion for the medium which inspires people and, like Chris, he’s a terrific, creative ambassador for the Potteries.

Speaking of which, I’d like to mention two other people who work tirelessly to promote their community and our city.

Alan and Cheryl Gerrard, of Fenton, were responsible for rekindling this area’s remarkable links with the Czech town of Lidice – destroyed by the Nazis during the Second World War and rebuilt with the help of the people of North Staffordshire.

I first met them a few years ago when they asked for The Sentinel’s help in planning a debate to mark the 25th anniversary of the Miners’ Strike. Alan and Cheryl are both passionate advocates for the people of the Potteries which often means they aren’t popular with the powers-that-be.

However, their honest and forthright approach to campaigns such as the battle to save Fenton Town Hall and its Great War memorial have won them far more friends than enemies and I count myself among the former.

Another friend of mine whose work enhances our reputation is local sculptor Andy Edwards whose work you can see on display at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.
Andy produced the nine foot statue of a Saxon warrior which takes pride of place in the foyer.

It was commissioned to celebrate the acquisition of the priceless Staffordshire Hoard and Andy is currently working on a 15 foot version, to be unveiled soon, which will stand guard outside the county council HQ in Stafford.

Andy’s other works have included statues which have been presented to Barack Obama, Muhammad Ali and Desmond Tutu.

However, a more proud and passionate Stokie you could not meet and we should be incredibly proud to call him one of our own.

Please indulge me as I mention two other people who actually work alongside me here at The Sentinel.

The first is our award-winning health reporter Dave Blackhurst who has been with this newspaper for 35 years and who is planning to retire in March.

He may not have been honoured by Her Majesty but Dave’s work has won the admiration of readers, colleagues and health professionals over three decades during which he has been an unflinching champion of his patch and its people.

Finally, a quick mention for the legend that is Dianne Gibbons – our court reporter who has been with The Sentinel for 51 years and who laid on a spread, as we call it in these parts, for her colleagues unlucky enough to be working on New Year’s Day.

If only we could bottle Dianne’s enthusiasm and pride in her job and this newspaper.

I consider it a privilege to work with both Dave and Dianne.

They may not have a gong (yet) but, like the others on my little list, they remain an inspiration to me and, I’m sure, many others.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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New building, new gaffer… but The Sentinel carries on

Former Sentinel Editor-in-Chief Mike Sassi.

Former Sentinel Editor-in-Chief Mike Sassi.

Last week was a momentous one for Sentinel staff with the announcement of the impending move to the city centre and the departure of our Editor-in-Chief.

We had known about both decisions for some time and, while they were tinged with sadness, they also mark the beginning of an exciting new chapter in the newspaper’s history.

They remind us that while buildings and people may change, the newspaper itself continues inexorably – constantly adapting and evolving to suit its readership and patch.

Relocating to Hanley, where The Sentinel has been based for most of its 159 years, represents a return to our spiritual home.

The move makes absolute sense as we no longer have a print works here at Etruria and, happily, it coincides with the multi-million regeneration of the city centre.

Our new home from the Autumn, the former Bethesda Sunday School, is steeped in history and we couldn’t have chosen a better base for a company which has been part of the fabric of life in this neck of the woods since 1854.

Handily located next to the Cultural Quarter and the proposed Central Business District, it means shoppers and anyone working in the area can nip in for a chat with a Sentinel reporter.

We’ll also only be a stone’s throw away from Hanley Police Station, Hanley Community Fire Station, the crown court and our contacts at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, The Regent Theatre and the Vicki Hall – among others.

That’s not to say that moving won’t be a wrench. The Sentinel has been at Festival Park since 1987 and many of us have fond memories of colleagues, past editions and countless hours spent here at this sprawling site next to the canal where the last remnants of Josiah Wedgwood’s original factory stand as a reminder of the city’s proud industrial heritage.

For exactly half the 15 years yours truly has been with my home-town newspaper, the man who has just vacated the big chair has been my ‘gaffer’.

I knew Mike Sassi before he arrived in North Staffordshire, having previously worked with him at the Derby Telegraph.

No two Editors are ever the same and, believe me, the appointment of the top man, or woman, is still a matter of great significance – and not just for the writers and photographers who report to them.

To my mind a newspaper, partisan or non-partisan, will always reflect the personality and passions of its Editor.

In that respect, I think we dropped lucky when Mike Sassi took over in December 2005 (I can say that without being accused of fishing for a pay rise because he’s gone).

I think it’s fair to say that he was at the helm during some of the most turbulent years that the newspaper industry has faced – given the economic situation and the way in which the internet has changed the game.

However, rather than retreating, Mike had us reaching out to our readership in new and innovative ways, staging major public events and forging partnerships with a variety of organisations.

The Our Heroes awards, the Class Act campaign which gave away tens of thousands of pounds to local schools, the Young Journalist Awards, and the hugely-popular Stoke’s Top Talent variety competition all happened on his watch.

These weren’t events intended to make us money or flog papers. Rather they were intended to cement The Sentinel at the heart of the communities it serves.

The campaigns we ran were the same: From Save Our Staffords which successfully fought to preserve the name of our local regiment with a 17,000-strong petition, through to the battle to bring the Staffordshire Hoard at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.

But perhaps what I will remember most about Mike’s tenure was a night in December 2011 when yours truly was up to his neck in the troubles engulfing Port Vale.

It was Mike’s brave decision to run with the stories exposing how supporters had been misled by the then board of directors which led to the resignation of the club’s chief executive and the subsequent sacking of its chairman.

Any journalist will tell you that having the support of your Editor when the big calls are made is absolutely priceless.

Mike Sassi worked extremely hard to try to learn what makes North Staffordshire and its people tick.

He was as excited as anyone with Stoke City’s appearance at Wembley and the club’s adventures in Europe; Chuffed to bits with Vale’s recent promotion and genuinely proud to see the Staffordshire Saxon statue unveiled at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.

I think our loss is genuinely the Nottingham Post’s gain but, as Mike will tell you himself, any Editor is simply the custodian – the caretaker, if you will – for the brand. He’ll hate this fuss but he’s earned it, in my opinion, and I’d like to wish Mike all the best in his new job.

Meanwhile, the original Neverending Story that is The Sentinel continues…

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

In all honesty, this press regulation bun-fight has nothing to do with regional newspapers

The Sun's excellent front page yesterday.

The Sun’s excellent front page yesterday.

In the wake of yesterday’s historic agreement on press regulation we now have the entirely predictable and unseemly spectacle of the main protagonists doing their very best to claim victory and rewrite history.

Despite protestations to the contrary, it’s plain for all to see that, as per usual, leaders of all three political parties were more interested in point-scoring and saving face than genuinely achieving an accord which satisfied both the public clamour for change while safeguarding one of the pillars of our democracy.

Frankly, I’m very cynical about the Leveson Inquiry and rather despondent about the subsequent witch hunt.

This is not because I don’t think the inquiry was warranted. Neither am I cynical because I would try to defend any of the nefarious activities of certain journalists working for certain media organisations.

I’m cynical because I see how MPs, scarred and seething in the wake of the expenses scandal, were champing at the bit to bash Fleet Street.

I’m cynical because the rich and famous with axes to grind turned the inquiry into a cause célèbre and rather hijacked the very legitimate aims and concerns of the Hacked Off campaigners.

I’m cynical because, if anything, the real danger to people’s privacy and the enemy of good journalism – the internet and social media – was beyond Lord Justice Leveson’s remit, despite it becoming more relevant (and intrusive) by the day.

I’m cynical because many broadcast journalists who should know better are taking the moral high ground and reacting as though their counterparts in the print media have leprosy.

I’m cynical because the hacking of telephones by a minority of national newspaper journalists (exposed, of course, by other national newspaper journalists) has somehow been allowed to tar the entire industry with the same brush.

Lastly, I’m cynical because my colleagues and I in the regional press are wondering where Leveson and yesterday’s vote leaves us – the thousands of ordinary regional newspaper journalists who haven’t the faintest interest in hacking someone’s phone but may well pay a heavy price because some fools once did.

A few days ago the Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) Lord Hunt visited The Sentinel.

We gave him a whirlwind tour of Stoke-on-Trent and then he met staff on a paper that’s been chronicling the history of this part of the country for 159 years.

Lord Hunt gave us an insight into his meetings with senior politicians ahead of yesterday’s all-important vote and spoke of his hopes and fears.

We expressed our concerns that the regional press seemed to have been forgotten in the almighty post-Leveson scrap but could well pay the price of misdemeanours by staff on national newspapers.

He spent a couple of hours at Sentinel HQ and during that time we did our best to accentuate the differences between ourselves as A Friend Of The Family and the red tops and broadsheets who caused this mess.

We explained that we are the only media organisation with the resources and the inclination to cover both magistrates and crown courts in North Staffordshire on a daily basis – thus playing our role in the administration of justice locally.

To that end we extolled the virtues of my colleague Dianne Gibbons, who greets me in the office each day at 7.30am with a smile before heading off to court.

Dianne has been with The Sentinel for more than 50 years.

Like her colleague Dave Blackhurst, our health reporter for more than 30 years, Dianne’s knowledge and professionalism is unparalleled and the service they both provide to our readers is vital.

We informed the Chairman of the PCC that we are the only media organisation which provides in-depth coverage of local government – attending every city council meeting and outlining in full the ramifications of things like local authority cutbacks.

We told him of our investigative work which has exposed everything from the goings-on at Port Vale under the previous board of directors to various council gaffes and concerns over the capability of doctors at our local hospital.

We showed Lord Hunt our successful campaign to save the name of the Staffordshire Regiment which attracted 17,000 signatures on a petition which was taken by veterans to 10 Downing Street.

We told him about our public events – from the ever-popular Our Heroes Community Awards and the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Awards (now in its 38th year) to our Class Act campaign for schools, our Young Journalist Awards scheme run in conjunction with Staffordshire University, The Sentinel Business Awards and Stoke’s Top Talent which we organise in partnership with The Regent Theatre.

We pointed out that we mark all the important occasions in our neck of the woods with souvenir supplements – from the Olympic Torch coming to our city to Stoke City’s 150th anniversary or 40 years of the Dougie Mac.

Hopefully Lord Hunt went away knowing that we echo the view of Lord Leveson himself who said: “It is clear to me that local, high-quality and trusted newspapers are good for our communities, our identity and our democracy and play an important social role.”

This is what we strive to do at The Sentinel every day – irrespective of what Hugh Grant thinks.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

Don’t write local newspapers like The Sentinel off just yet

There is a book in the mini library in my office. It is blue with gold lettering and is entitled: ‘Rendezvous With The Past: Sentinel Centenary’.

It celebrates the first 100 years of the newspaper I work for and, unbelievably, was published back in 1954 – almost 20 years before I was born.

That’s right, The Sentinel is 158 years old. Its first issue emerged on January 7, 1854, and it was sold for threepence.

Since then, through two World Wars, various economic crises, under several monarchs, and despite numerous technological advances, this newspaper has been part and parcel of life in North Staffordshire and South Cheshire.

Last week, however, some of our colleagues in the broadcast media were voicing The Sentinel’s obituary.

Blurring the stories of the takeover our parent company with a separate decision to close the Daily Mail’s printing press in Stoke-on-Trent, they were helpfully reading us the last rites.

The first many of us knew of the rumours of our demise were from the messages of condolence which appeared on social media on Thursday morning.

‘Sad to hear about The Sentinel closing’ Tweeted one concerned city councillor.

Then readers began ringing in and advertisers started querying their accounts.

Suffice to say The Editor-in-Chief wasn’t best pleased and the thin partition wall separating our rooms did little to muffle his annoyance.

To be fair, many ‘experts’ – usually former journalists or academics – have been predicting The Sentinel’s imminent closure for several years now.

Indeed, if I had a fiver for every time someone had claimed the end is nigh for us old-fashioned print hacks here at Etruria I’d have enough money to, well… buy an annual subscription for The Sentinel.

The doom-mongers’ logic is simple: The circulation figures of every newspaper in the country – both national and local – have fallen over the last 20 years, thanks in large part to the advent of the internet and digital media.

They argue that people can now access information on their telephones and other hand-held devices or computers at home and in the workplace and many enjoy the immediacy of broadcast media.

It is also absolutely correct to say the economic downturn has hit advertising revenues hard and my industry has suffered more than its fair share of redundancies since 2008.

On the face of it, the prognosis seems gloomy and it is, of course, in the interests of our colleagues in radio and television to talk up our decline.

Their pessimism is shared by many former newspaper journalists turned public relations professionals/retired persons espousing the view that standards have fallen and things are ‘not how they were in their day’.

At the same time we have seen the rise of so-called ‘citizen journalism’.

It seems anyone can be a journalist these days. You don’t need any training, you don’t need any knowledge of the law and you don’t need to be able to assimilate information or even string a sentence together.

Just get yourself access to the internet, a funky pseudonym and an attitude and, hey presto, you’re Clark Kent. Or not.

You see, it’s one thing to write some unsubstantiated nonsense on a website read by three men and a dog and another thing entirely to have you work printed in a format which is properly scrutinised daily by hundreds of thousands of people.

Very few people record radio station news bulletins or can be bothered to listen again or watch TV news programmes on the internet.

However, there are plenty who will march into The Sentinel’s reception waving a copy of yesterday’s paper and crying foul if we make a mistake.

Working for a newspaper is harder than working as a broadcast journalist and please don’t let anyone ever tell you different.

As one of the few people left at The Sentinel who has ever had the dubious privilege of making a phone call and saying the immortal words: ‘Stop the press’, I’d just like to say: Don’t write us off just yet.

The Sentinel still sells almost 50,000 copies every day – making it the sixth biggest-selling regional newspaper in the country.

In addition, our website is visited by more than 400,000 unique users each month. See, we can do new-fangled too.

Here at Etruria we employ nearly 50 full-time journalists and still see it as vital to cover council meetings and court hearings and inquests every day – something no other media organisation locally has the staff to do on anything other than an occasional basis.

How many times does a regional television camera crew visit the ST postcode area each month? How often do you hear local radio stations following our lead on stories?

What’s more, The Sentinel still understands the importance of championing the communities it serves – as do its journalists, many of whom are local to the area.

Think about the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality of the Year Awards; The Sentinel’s Business Awards; the Class Act campaign for local schools; the Young Journalist Awards and Stoke’s Top Talent variety competition.

Whether it’s through the Our Heroes community awards, the Save Our Staffords campaign or by breaking the stories such as the ones which led to the removal of the discredited board of directors at Port Vale – this newspaper provides what I honestly believe is an invaluable service.

The Sentinel had been doing its job for 118 years when yours truly was born and I’m confident it will still be delivering journalism to local people long after I’ve gone.

We walk with the ghosts of colleagues long since passed here at The Sentinel and let me tell you we carry the burden of the weight of history proudly.

So the next time someone tells you the local rag is finished, just give a wry smile and tell them you’ll only believe it when you read it in The Sentinel.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

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.

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.