Taking the mic

We should clear one thing up right away. We didn’t prearrange the protest.

For those of you who didn’t make it to our cities issue launch event, held at Science Central in Newcastle on Friday, public relations expert Stephen Waddington was in the middle of an eloquent explanation as to why he thought Newcastle was sexy… when protesters opposed to Sure Start cuts gatecrashed our event.

They were there to target Nick Forbes, who had just spoken passionately about his hopes for the city in a time of austerity and pragmatism. It wasn’t the first time the leader of Newcastle City Council has been harangued publicly. He spoke about it in detail in a story for The Guardian last month.

The protesters unfurled banners, shouted down our panellists (who were aided by a speaker system – an impressive feat) and wouldn’t leave. Half-joking, people asked us at the end of the event whether we knew about it. (We didn’t.)

Photograph by Nelly Stavropoulou

Photograph by Nelly Stavropoulou

As event organisers, our first instinct was to get them out. They’re disrupting the flow of a private event, they’re getting for free what 70 people paid £10 to watch, and they’re damaging the reputation of Northern Correspondent.

But as journalists, another instinct kicks in. Give them the microphone.

We called our event Northern Conversation for a reason. It’s our firm belief that if we engage our readers and subscribers – those of you reading this now – into a dialogue, if we get enough of you into a room together, something special will happen. Architects meeting politicians; comedians meeting charities. And on Friday it did. Talking, exchanging ideas, benefits our region. It encourages people to see different viewpoints; to consider the heretofore unconsidered.

Our editor, Ian Wylie, didn’t resist that journalistic instinct. He handed them the microphone.

At first they shouted, and then shouted down any reasoned response – largely because they didn’t expect to be invited into the conversation. But gradually, I think they got it. I think they began to understand why we’d set up Northern Correspondent: to start a dialogue; to find common ground; to argue passionately – but fairly – about divisions; and to think up solutions.

Nick Forbes responded to them professionally and courteously, encapsulating the spirit in which we held our event. And then they left, chanting the way they came in.

I hope those who attended will remember some of the thorny issues we discussed, dissected, and offered solutions to outside of those ten boisterous minutes. I hope they’ll recall Nick Forbes’ plea for “more flexibility and freedom” from central government; Julia Heslop’s call for community organisations to be better connected to the political decisions that affect them; Rachel Armstrong’s advice to think big and think bold; Peter Buchan’s warning that we mustn’t allow our cities to become London’s counterweight.

You can read the highlights below, as tweeted out on the #northconvo hashtag.

During their protest, we invited the protestors to leave their contact details, so we could continue the conversation; talk some more. I wish they’d done that, so we could find out more about them. And I wish they’d bothered to pick up the latest issue of our magazine to see what we’re about too.

The more we understand about each other, the more fruitful our conversations can be.

Chris Stokel-Walker is deputy editor of The Northern Correspondent


(Views expressed on our website and in our magazines and emails are not necessarily endorsed by Northern Correspondent.)