Triumphs of the Fourth Estate

By Dave Woodhall.

The development of the internet has seen the term ‘citizen journalist’ come into common usage. Blogs and Twitter have enabled anyone with net access to write whatever they like, to a potential audience across the globe. There are some drawbacks to this – criticise them if you will, but as with all professions, journalists tend to be trained, skilled and their livelihoods depend on them getting it right.

When my gas boiler needed servicing yesterday I didn’t use a ‘citizen’ repairman and the filling I had this afternoon wasn’t put there by a ‘citizen’ dentist. Too many people think ten quid a month or a library card is all they need to become a cross between Woodward & Bernstein and Ernest Hemingway when in reality they’re clogging up cyberspace with badly-written, poorly-researched and often damaging opinions masquerading as news.

However, there are times when the role of the citizen journalist (or blogger, if you prefer) dovetails perfectly with that of the professional.

Take, for example, the story which broke on Wednesday about proposals to mine coal in Walsall.

Like much of Britain, there’s a lot of coal under the surface of the Black Country and with natural energy resources running out and stories about the Japanese nuclear plants currently scaring the world, it’s only natural that plans to access some of this forgotten wealth should be revived. The Mushroom  blog certainly thought so, writing in February about stories that the former IMI site adjacent to Junction 10 of the M6 was to be looked at as a potential site for a coal mine.

Several weeks later the council’s website talked about “an ambitious project” which could create 4,000 jobs on the site, without saying what this project would be – hardly surprising, as an open-cast mine would rank low on most peoples’ list of what they’d like done with the spare land near their home.

The Mushroom kept digging away and the council continually refused to explain the exact nature of the project. Until that is, they were asked by the Birmingham Post. And on 16th March came a further statement from the council in which they revealed that “the short term removal of coal….is being explored.” In other words, they are looking to how coal can be mined on the site. Given that this will be on heavily-polluted land (the site is an old iron works), close to a school and a housing estate, and also runs under the elevated section of the M6 that comprises the busiest section of motorway in Europe, it’s safe to assume that the planning applications for this development will take some time to be argued to their conclusion. That, though, is for another day.

Today is when we congratulate The Mushroom.

The blogger in question takes no credit for his/her victory, saying modestly on ReStirred that the council only came clean when pursued by the Post. Maybe, but the Post might not have got hold of the story had it not been for the excellent work done by The Mushroom. The writer may call it citizen journalism, but it was also investigative journalism of the highest order.