Ian Anstice of Public Libraries News attended a lunch with Private Eye and has provided the following update:

Ian Anstice of Public Libraries News

A Private Eye invitation to lunch is something which I had heard of before. They’re semi-legendary for inviting a ton of interesting people, some of which are national newspaper reporters attending secretly for fear of offending their employers, and of course for the celebrity presence of editor Ian Hislop. It was therefore something of a surprise to be invited to one and I am indebted to The Library Campaign for paying my expenses to it, being I live nowhere near the capital and the dinner was in a private member’s club (very respectable and charitable) on the edges of Soho.

The invite was doubtless because of the importance accorded to public libraries by the Eye rather than any hope I had something juicy to impart. Jane Mackenzie – who writes the “serious stuff” including the Library News – was behind it and has invited others involved in covering public libraries in the past. She’s a passionate supporter of public libraries and fought for a section, however small, to cover the juicier, more obviously dubious, local council decisions. Just that week, an article appeared under the title “Lie-brary News” about the rather startling claims by Ed Vaizey that everything was fine and rosy.

Jane notes quite rightly that literature and the book trade gets a whole page while libraries, where a large part of the public get their books, got nothing. This is not just something that the Eye was guilty of, of course. Before the crisis in public libraries, the sector got very, very little mention in any national media at all. It has been noted to me by longer term campaigners that a mention in the BookSeller was something to be proud of in times past. Now the Guardian and some others cover public libraries frequently. Sadly, very little of the news is good and articles tend to concentrate on cuts and closures but this is probably not surprising. It’s a sad thing to note, though, that libraries got almost no mention during the recent General Election campaign.

The Private Eye is highly unusual, possibly unique, amongst nationals for having very little online presence. I know from experience that one cannot simply link to a story from it but rather someone, normally the wonderful Shirley Burnham, has to transcribe it first. I managed to ask Mr Hislop – who worked the table well and made sure he was in the conversation of everyone at least at some stage of the three hour lunch – why this was and he explained that this is a very deliberate strategy and plays a fair part in its success, with circulation and funding rising at a time when other papers are suffering loss of revenue and readership.

Another factor for the success is that the title actually publishes stuff that other papers don’t. A typical issue will lay into politicians and businessman, national and local, with a passion that is simply not present in other titles. When one reads it, one loses a lot of faith (if one had any left) in those in power. I also personally wonder how they get by without being sued out of existence. The answer is of course that litigation does happen but they make sure of their stories and have both a considerable fighting fund and a formidable reputation. If you want your misdemeanours to get really infamous then there is little better way than suing the Eye. This is something that is rare. On my blog, I have to be very careful what is said, not just because of course I cannot in any way be seen as criticising my public library employers but also because a lawsuit would finish me. One has to tread a fine line with this, with self-censorship being something which one cannot be proud of and that has to be minimised.

It seems to me that a lot of this bears a passing resemblance to public libraries. Branches are still, or should be, guardians of print and provide a sanctuary for those uncomfortable with the online world. We also, or should be, a place where people should be able to find out the truth, or at least all sides, of what is going on. The Eye attacks mercilessly those that peddle the news but take money from advertisers to influence how that news is presented. Recently, it has been quite aggressive about the dubious coverage in the Telegraph and the recent decision of the Independent to come out in favour of another Tory/Lib Dem coalition was a topic of conversation, with the suspicion that its Russian emigre owner was worried about his non-dom status if Labour got into power.

I’m not going to report here on who was at the lunch, other than Eye employees, because of aforementioned fears over confidentiality, but libraries got a good hearing.

A BBC presenter learned for the first time that the news she got from Google is biased due to being filtered to reflect her Google Plus contacts. The importance of the sector as providing a welcoming neutral place for those of all backgrounds, as an equalising force that allows access to information, a chair, study space and computers regardless of ability to pay was raised and not just by me. Jane MacKenzie and Ian Hislop were equally aghast at the idea that librarian professionals could be simply replaced by volunteers. There were real friends to public libraries around that table of influence.

And this is heartening because libraries have just been through their toughest five years ever and are now, due to the result of the election that took place the day after the lunch, almost certainly going to face another five years of the same or worse. The Private Eye, has become something of a national institution in shedding light on the darker side of what is going on. Public libraries have been providing information without fear or favour for far longer and, hopefully, with the help of such people as were at the dinner, be able to do so for some time to come.

“The Private Eye, has become something of a national institution in shedding light on the darker side of what is going on. Public libraries have been providing information without fear or favour for far longer and, hopefully, with the help of such people as were at the dinner, be able to do so for some time to come.”

Library march 20
Save Barnet Libraries – All ages on the march – May 2015 – Photo by Mike Coles The Library Campaign fears this is just the start of more campaigning to come, in order to defend and protect library services in the UK for now and for future generations.
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