Why Freedom of the City honour would never stop The Sentinel doing its job

The Sentinel's offices in Hanley.

The Sentinel’s offices in Hanley.

We like to think we’re reasonably well informed at The Sentinel but I have to say the announcement that the newspaper we work for is set to be honoured with the Freedom of the City came as something of a shock to our newsroom.

That doesn’t mean to say everyone who works here isn’t thrilled at the prospect, of course.

It’s simply a reflection of the fact that it wasn’t something any of us envisaged. Such honours, rare as they are, tend to be given to other organisations or notable individuals and we dutifully tell everyone about them and record the news for posterity.

It’s a rather exclusive club we may be joining if councillors approve the idea.

Members include Lucie Wedgwood, the North Staffordshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’s) – as was, Sir Stanley Matthews CBE, Stoke City FC and – very soon, hopefully – Robbie Williams esquire.

That the Freedom of Stoke-on-Trent is set to be conferred on The Sentinel as we mark our 160th year is a huge honour, a welcome boost to its employees, and a timely acknowledgment of the newspaper’s place in the city’s history.

Who knows what the aspirations of the founding fathers were when they launched The Staffordshire Sentinel and Commercial and General Advertiser on January 7, 1854?

However, I dare say that if you had told them the product of their invention would still be chronicling local life in 2014 they would have been pleased at the thought.

The format may have changed, it may have evolved into something markedly different to the original offering, it may have a website currently generating 50,000-plus visitors each day, but the basic function of this newspaper remains the same as it ever was. To inform, educate and entertain the people of North Staffordshire and South Cheshire.

Do we make mistakes? Sure we do. When you’re producing the equivalent of a small novel every day you’re bound to – no matter how many pairs of eyes you have scanning the pages and web uploads. But hopefully people can see we do far more good than harm and I like to think most Sentinel readers trust the paper, rely on its integrity, and understand that its journalists do things in all good faith for the right reasons.

Which brings me neatly on to what being given the Freedom of the City actually means for an organisation like the local newspaper.

Does it mean, as some mischievous commentators may claim, that we’re too close to the city council?

The suggestion is patently absurd given that The Sentinel is unquestionably the most passionate advocate of Potteries folk and the only organisation locally with the resources or the know-how to consistently hold decision-makers to account.

I don’t believe any self-respecting councillor would want The Sentinel to be anything other than a critical friend of the local authority and an organisation they, like anyone else, can turn to for help and support.

After all, if you remove us from the equation who else would attend all the meetings, quiz elected members, speak to residents’ associations or let people vent their spleen to tens of thousands of taxpayers six days a week through well-thumbed letters’ pages?

No, there’s absolutely no danger of this fantastic honour somehow equating to an unseemly, cosy relationship between The Sentinel and the city council – or anyone else for that matter.

The truth is, certainly during my time with this newspaper, the organisations have worked together on many intrinsically positive initiatives and yours truly has been involved with most of them.

Those that spring to mind include the Staffordshire Saxon project; the annual City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Awards (now in their 39th year); The Sentinel Business Awards (now in their 20th year); the recent Robbie Williams tourist trail, exhibition and charity fans’ festival and the bid for a HS2 hub station.

We work with our colleagues at the city council on these projects because they are hugely positive, they champion local people and they help our city aspire to better things.

Now add those projects to The Sentinel’s campaigns for a new North Staffs Hospital and for the cancer drug Herceptin to be made available to all women on the NHS or our fight to save Port Vale FC and the name of our county regiment.

Then there’s the Young Journalist Awards, the Stoke’s Top Talent variety competition and the Our Heroes community awards.

You start to build up a picture of how, over time, this newspaper is a genuine force for good and can hopefully understand why a local lad like me who used to deliver The Sentinel in Sneyd Green during the mid-1980s is enormously proud of working for it.

Of course, these are just some of the campaigns and projects which this newspaper has been involved with during my 15 years here.

Think of the good The Sentinel has done over 160 years, the help it has given, the information disseminated to generations of families through good times and bad, and the role the newspaper has played and continues to play in local democracy.

Ignore the trolls who will inevitably pour scorn on this column on our website. It’s easy to mock and disparage which is why the internet remains the virtual equivalent of the Wild West.

The Freedom of the City is an honour that would be gratefully and graciously received by The Sentinel’s current generation of journalists on behalf of everyone who went before and everyone who comes after.

Here’s to keeping people informed for the next 160 years… whether that be through film, the internet, via phones and tablets, or by you getting good, old-fashioned print on your hands.

We’ll still be The Sentinel: Local and proud.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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Civic honours for Robbie Williams something we can all agree on

Robbie Williams on stage in Leeds.

Robbie Williams on stage in Leeds.

Today The Sentinel celebrates the achievements of a local lad done good.

It’s a story that will please many but doubtless cause a vocal minority to reach for their keyboards or pens to condemn the council, The Sentinel and probably the bloke in question too.

It was as recently as November 15 that I suggested through this column that our city should do something to honour Robbie Williams’s achievements – both in terms of his career in music and his charity work.

This was on the back of plans for RWFanFest – a celebration led by fans being planned here in Stoke-on-Trent to mark Rob’s 40th birthday and to raise much-needed funds for the Donna Louise Children’s Hospice (DLCH).

My contention was that it was about time the city did something to acknowledge one of its most famous sons – i.e. Robert Peter Williams, formerly of Take That, who has for some time been the UK’s most popular solo music artist.

This is because, until now, there has been nothing here in the Potteries to say that a bloke who has sold more than 70 million records and won more BRIT Awards than any other artist comes from our neck of the woods.

The statistics of his career to date are impressive enough in terms of concert tickets and albums sold, but when you add to that his charity endeavours then surely no-one would dispute that his home city can rightly be proud of the man known to millions as Robbie.

With his mate Jonny Wilkes he created the bi-annual Soccer Aid football match which has so far raised more than £11 million for children’s charity UNICEF.

Perhaps more pertinently Robbie has given away £5 million of his own money through his Give It Sum charity to worthy causes here in North Staffordshire and, let’s not forget, bought £250,000 worth of shares in his beloved Port Vale which, at the time, saved the club from going bust.

He has a Staffordshire knot tattoo on the back of his hand and constantly references both his birthplace and his football club through his music lyrics and when on stage in front of millions.

Robbie may not live in the ST postcode area anymore but no-one could accuse him of forgetting his roots – unlike many celebrities drawn to the bright lights of London or Los Angeles.

Today we announce that the city council has decided to create various legacy projects which not only honour Robbie for his achievements to date but also tap into the potential of brand RW for the benefit of the city in terms of raising its profile and helping to bring in tourists and visitors.

This is something which, I believe, Robbie himself would approve of and I’m sure he’s as chuffed as his mum and dad are that very soon there will be a tourist trail, streets named in honour of his music, a ‘Robbie Day’ in schools and a photographic and memorabilia exhibition at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery (PMAG).

Hopefully, one day soon, (and inevitably incognito) he will arrive in Stoke-on-Trent to have a look for himself at the legacy work being done in his name.

When initiatives like this are undertaken critics often argue that the recipient of the honour isn’t worthy or cannot be compared to other famous names who have been paid similar tributes.

In the case of Stoke-on-Trent we are talking about the likes of Spitfire designer Reginald Mitchell CBE and Sir Stanley Matthews CBE who have statues here in the Potteries and who have been honoured with street names and exhibitions.

Of course, to compare them with each other would be like comparing apples and pears. Both were sublime in their respective fields and I suspect both would be gracious enough to acknowledge a recording artist with the stature of Robbie Williams as someone worthy of recognition by his home city.

Another thing critics of initiatives such as those announced today often pick up on is the cost to council taxpayers so let’s nail that one now.

The cost for all the projects unveiled today is minuscule – primarily because they represent a partnership between the local authority, this newspaper, the DLCH, private firms, members of the community and individuals like Robbie’s mum and dad.

In my opinion spending a few thousand pounds on an exhibition at PMAG and creating a tourist trail (the other projects are cost neutral) is well worth the initial modest outlay when you think about the potential benefits.

This money wouldn’t have saved jobs or prevented a council-run facility from closing but it will definitely help brighten up our city and increase our ‘offer’, as they say in tourist-speak, to visitors to Stoke-on-Trent. Having a Robbie Day in schools sounds brilliant in terms of engaging children through music and art. Why not?

Naming streets with a nod to the bloke’s tunes costs nowt. It’s just a nice gesture so I don’t see why anyone would have a problem with that – unless they want to pick fault with the names, that is. I guess someone’s bound to.

I’d like to think that down the line our temporary Robbie exhibition leads to a permanent one somewhere here in the Potteries – hopefully including items donated by the man himself.

The council and this newspaper are constantly criticised for being too negative about the city. Hopefully today will be one of those rare occasions where everyone can agree that the announcements represent a win/win for all concerned – especially, of course, a charity close to Robbie’s heart.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

There’s nowt wrong with having no women in the Sports Personality of the Year list

I don’t think bras were actually burned but straps were certainly loosened as the politically-correct brigade went into overdrive this week.
Their target: The life-or-death matter that is the BBC Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) Awards.
Forget the global economic crisis, the conflict in Afghanistan and the public sector strikes.
The thing that was exercising high-profile critics (most of them women) was the absence of any women on the SPOTY shortlist.
Four-time Ironman world champion Chrissie Wellington branded it “disgraceful”.
Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Rebecca Adlington OBE was equally dismayed, adding that she hoped that next year the shortlist would be all women.
I just can’t see it myself, Rebecca. To be honest, I think I’ve got more chance of making the cut than there is of 10 women being shortlisted in 2012.
Actually, I get rather annoyed when confronted with these ridiculous debates which infer sexism where there is none.
Let’s look at the evidence, shall we?
The SPOTY shortlist is drawn up by a panel of 27 sports editors from national and regional newspapers and magazines.
This immediately exonerates the Beeb of any blame in terms of who is selected and is, I believe, a genuine attempt to pick the brains of people who ought to know their stuff.
‘Ah, but they’re all men,’ I hear the bra-looseners cry.
So what? This system hasn’t prevented previous winners being women or at least two women being shortlisted every year since 2006. (Four in 2008).
I wonder if it has it occurred to the critics that maybe, just maybe, the 10 blokes on the shortlist deserved the recognition this year – ahead of other male and female contenders?
Because Mark Cavendish (cycling), Darren Clark (golf), Alistair Cook (cricket), Luke Donald (golf), Mo Farah (athletics), Dai Greene (athletics), Amir Khan (boxing), Rory McIlroy (golf), Andy Murray (tennis) and Andrew Strauss (cricket) have all certainly had a damn good year.
So the question I would pose to the nay-sayers is: Which of these blokes would you boot out to accommodate a woman?
Isn’t the truth here that it’s all subjective?
The sports editors have come up with a list of people whom they believe have had a better 2011 than their sporting peers. End of story.
By all means moan about the lack of coverage of women’s sport (and the lack of spectators), but there is no conspiracy here. It’s certainly not a disgrace or a scandal.
Frankly, to suggest that women must be included in any such top 10 is tokenism of the worst kind, in my book.
We had a similar ‘debate’ when yours truly was a judge for Stoke-on-Trent’s Citizen of the Century Awards last year.
When tasked with finding the 10 most worthy individuals from Stoke-on-Trent in the last 100 years, my fellow judges and I immediately named ceramic industry genius and celebrity Clarice Cliff as one.
However, we genuinely struggled to find another woman whom it was felt deserved to make the shortlist alongside the likes of Spitfire designer Reginald Mitchell CBE, influential Potteries author Arnold Bennett and global football icon Sir Stanley Matthews CBE.
This was simply because – and this is an indisputable fact – for much of the century we were reviewing women simply didn’t have the life opportunities or high-profile roles that men did.
Thus, logically, the shortlist of 10 was always going to be dominated by men.
In the end, however, political correctness triumphed – despite what yours truly thought – and Millicent Duchess of Sutherland was included.
Who, you might ask? Well, she was an activist for social reform who was born in Fife in 1867 and founded the North Staffordshire Cripples Aid Society.
Now, I wouldn’t for one minute seek to diminish her endeavours but the truth is ‘our’ Millie was included specifically to pacify those who felt the list wasn’t fair on women and not representative enough of modern Stoke-on-Trent.
It’s nonsense but you’d be amazed how many people think like this and believe that it’s OK to rewrite history in order to appear inclusive and tick the right boxes.

We must be more proud of our stunningly-rich heritage

Until this week I thought I was reasonably well versed in the history of the Potteries.

Then I met the Reverend Robert Mountford, founder of City Vision Ministries in Burslem and a passionate local historian.

He’s a bit like TV favourite Simon Schama… having taken the drug ‘speed’.

In 25 minutes Robert raced through his presentation on the history of what we now call ‘the Potteries’ from the time of the Celts to 2009.

The truth is, he could have talked for hours. And hours. Such is the fascinating story of how North Staffordshire became the unique, diverse and ultimately flawed conurbation it is today.

Simple things stood out for me. For example – do you know where the name Stoke-on-Trent originates and what it means?

I have to confess, I didn’t.

Well, the first centre of Christian preaching and worship in the area (as early as the 7th Century AD) was situated in the valley at the place where the infant River Trent met the even smaller Fowlea Brook.

Stoke Minster now stands on this site. The name given to this ancient place of meeting and worship was ‘Stoke-upon-Trent’.

The name ‘Trent’ was originally Celtic and meant ‘the trespasser’ or ‘the flooding river’. ‘Stoke’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘stoc’, which meant in the first instance ‘a place’, but carried the usual, secondary meanings of ‘a religious place, a holy place, a church’, and ‘a dependent settlement’.

Thus the name Stoke-on-Trent could actually be translated as ‘the holy place upon the flooding river’.

I don’t know about you, but I quite like the sound of that. And the fact that the city’s roots can be traced back more than 1,400 years.

Of course, North Staffordshire’s history goes back much further than that.

Chesterton was a Roman fortress which archaeologists estimate was probably occupied from the late 1st to early 2nd Century AD.

Which means we have almost 2,000 years of history to talk about.

So why don’t we? Why are we so poor at trumpeting our rich past?

Is it because we are so often told that we shouldn’t keep harping on about the past?

Is it because critics blame our current social and economic difficulties on our inability to embrace change?

‘Why call yourselves the Potteries’, they say, ‘when there is so little of that industry left to be proud of’?

We may be resistant to change, but – conversely – there is certainly also something in the DNA of the average potter which makes him or her reluctant to crow about the area’s history and achievements.

Why? We should be shouting it from the rooftops.

Why isn’t every local school teaching Roman history through the eyes of the legionnaries based at Chesterton during the Flavian period?

Why aren’t all our children taught about the monks of Hulton Abbey?

Why isn’t the most important period in North Staffordshire’s history a bigger part of the curriculum in local schools? Aren’t Josiah Wedgwood, his mate James Brindley and the roots of the Methodist Church (which have direct links to trade unionism in this country) worth talking up?

What about the stories of the tens of thousands of local people who lived and died around the pits and pots on which the city built its worldwide reputation?

What about Burslem’s Second World War Victoria Cross winner Lance-Sergeant Jack Baskeyfield, and Butt Lane’s Reginald Mitchell whose Spitfire turned the tide of the Battle of Britain?

Shouldn’t they be lauded in our classrooms? I think so.

I had a truly brilliant history teacher at Holden Lane High, to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude. (That’s you, Geoff Ball).

Thus, this isn’t a criticism of the teaching profession. It’s more a plea for us, as a city, to strike the right balance between history and progress.

I suspect more tourists would visit us if we simply made more of our heritage.

“Come to see our factory shops”, we should say. “But don’t miss out on our interactive history trail.

“Learn about the Celts and Romans who lived here, sample the ruins of our Cistercian monastery, walk in the footsteps of the great pioneers of the Industrial Revolution, visit the birthplaces of the captain of the Titanic, an Arnhem hero, and the man whose aircraft defied the Luftwaffe.

“Oh, and don’t forget to pop in for a drink at Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor’s pub, drive past Robbie Williams’s old house and have your picture taken alongside Sir Stan’s statue. Have a nice trip!”

Welcome to North Staffordshire. (Not just that place on the way to Alton Towers).

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday