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How the farm was saved (and why everybody needs a good local paper)

Print may be in decline but the Camden New Journal is still kicking!

11 July, 2019 — By Tom Foot

The campaigning journalist Tom Foot writes about how media attention led to an extraordinary chain of events

THE first call I got about Kentish Town City Farm was back on a dreary and drizzly evening last November. Nightwatchman Terry Child had been served with an eviction notice from a house on the farm’s land where he has lived for 18 years.

At the farm’s annual general meeting there were furious speeches from farm workers – mainly women – and young people. The integrity of those speeches jarred with the tone of statements coming from the board of trustees. It quickly became clear that Terry was not the only one in trouble and over the next few weeks the farm’s board warned of a financial crisis and fears that future council funding could dry up.

All the staff were put “at risk” of redundancy. Popular animals were to be moved away.  Horse riding for disabled children stopped. Staff didn’t just scream and shout; they drew up a detailed alternative financial plan that would have kept the farm functioning and stopped the job cuts.

But an us-v-them mentality had taken root, and the board was refusing to budge.

Camden Council, it could be argued, was sitting on the fence.

A campaign in the New Journal seemed the only way out.

Over just three months, we ran consecutive stories scrutinising the board’s plan, its motives and dubious decisions – all made behind closed doors. Three times, it was our front page.

It’s hard, nonetheless, to get unelected officials, cocooned from public opinion, to change their minds. I worried, wrongly as it turned out, that the paper, despite its unique relationship with its readers, might have lost its famous punch.

But then came a chain of events which illustrates the importance of a working local newspaper, answering only to its readers, rather than well-paid company executives and shareholders still seeking to make profit from a faraway desk. A businessman picked up a copy of the New Journal, phoned the farm and made an offer of a £100,000 donation.

The offer came on the condition the board and interim director resigned and the staff’s alternative package was accepted.

And last Thursday, that’s exactly what they did. A victory.

Terry’s eviction has been called off, all the jobs have been saved and the farm has a new lease of life – with the £100,000 donation wiping the slate clean. This was all down to the relentless energy and ideas of a committed group of staff, who refused to give up despite so many setbacks.

It is also true that, without the Camden New Journal keeping the pressure up, perhaps none of this would have happened.

Rachel Schwartz, the farm’s former director who has taken up the reins once again, said: “The campaign to protect jobs and services at Kentish Town City Farm could not have succeeded without ongoing coverage by the Camden New Journal over the past three months. The CNJ worked to a high standard of professional journalism bringing scrutiny to questionable actions, and ensuring that all points of view were shared. It was singularly responsible for connecting the farm to a local benefactor who has made a £100,000 donation to help secure the farm’s financial sustainability.”

She added: The CNJ fosters fact-based dialogue about local issues that helps knit together our community and makes Camden a great place to live and work.”

Many local papers are in terminal decline. Hundreds have been shut down or merged together, and the ones that haven’t are often staffed by reporters who do not have the time to follow up on stories, let alone campaign. The internet has created a soulless vacuum of news and a black hole for advertising print revenue.

But an independent newspaper, properly looked after, as this one is, can still have an important role to play.

Now, if any of you have £100k to help, send us a tenner!

Tom Foot is Assistant Editor of the Camden New Journal

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