Covering a new lockdown as a Local Democracy Reporter

Posted on: August 24, 2020 by Ian Murray

Oldham has rarely been out of the headlines in recent weeks as the council and health bodies have battled to bring Coronavirus infection rates under control. Local Democracy Reporter Charlotte Green (pictured) told Behind Local News what she’s learnt over the last month…

When Boris Johnson announced that we could finally go to the pub again on July 4, I did not expect that just six weeks later I would be covering a borough battling to keep them open.

In the middle of last month the council leader was bullish after a teacher’s union boss suggested in a local news article that the borough could become ‘another Leicester’.

“Well anywhere could become ‘another Leicester’ if the situation is not managed properly, but fortunately in Oldham, we are doing,” Councillor Sean Fielding hit back on Twitter.

But a fortnight later an alarming rise in cases — more than five times the previous week — saw a screeching u-turn, both in tone and policy.

During the height of the pandemic Oldham council had regularly held press conferences with council leaders and health officials, but as the situation seemed to calm down they became more infrequent, before finally dropping off.

Weekly case numbers had stabilised and plateaued in the high twenties, and hospital admissions and deaths had become few and far between.

So when I picked up a phone call from a press officer I was more than a little surprised to be told that the town hall was preparing to announce the return of social restrictions to combat rising infections.

Suddenly all eyes turned to Oldham.

The subsequent story on the Manchester Evening News announcing the unwanted comeback of tougher measures attracted huge interest, with more than 10,000 people reading it at one point.

Having covered Oldham council as a Local Democracy Reporter for two and a half years, I had to use all my knowledge of the borough to try and get to the crux of why cases were spiking again.

A combination of speaking to contacts and having frank on the record conversations proved to be key in explaining what was going on.

I managed to put reader’s questions to the director of public health in a live Facebook Q&A which was very successful in addressing some of the burning issues.

A major challenge in responsibly reporting the ongoing situation also centred around a longstanding issue of race relations in Oldham.

The majority of new cases were being found in two town centre areas with higher numbers of Asian residents, and the social restrictions dropped just days before Eid.

And many people in the comments sections felt this was all the explanation they needed.

While not wanting to hand fuel to Oldham’s contingent of local Tommy Robinsons, I also could not shy away from the issue in my reporting.

What followed was a long feature looking in depth at why these areas were such outliers.

Through sources I was able to confirm new information — that around 30 cases had stemmed from just one large family in the area, and there had been a Covid-19 outbreak at a firm that was a large local employer.

Those were both incidents we had not been aware of previously and were vital for public interest to report.

But context was equally important.

I used research from the last two years of stories about the town to build up a picture of the kind of deprivation that was also rife in these two areas, of poverty amid damp and dark terraced housing.

Such long standing health inequalities cannot be dismissed, even when the temptation is to push your scoop as the cut and dried explanation; finally revealed.

Reporting Oldham’s descent back to the edge of lockdown has been a combination of breaking news, married with considered reporting and data crunching.

It’s been as exhausting as it has been absorbing. But I like to think it also demonstrates the value of local reporting, and really knowing your patch.