26th September 2022
Spotlight On – Lionel Blackman, Director of Epsom and Ewell Times

“Charity begins at home and so does accountability.”

Lionel Blackman provides legal and secretarial services for Epsom and Ewell Times, a Surrey-based local news service and one of Impress’ newest members. He directs a number of local charities including Epsom Music, The Friends of Horton Cemetery and Surrey Stands with Ukraine. From 2005-2008, he served as a local councillor.

In our latest Spotlight interview, Lionel spoke to Impress about the responsibility of supporting communities through robust civic and community journalism, and the importance of local journalism for local democracy, accountability, and its invaluable historic merit in providing a record of local life for the benefit of generations to come.

> When did Epsom and Ewell Times start and what brought it into being?

Around June 2021, a small group of concerned Epsom and Ewell citizens got together and agreed that an effort needed to be made to produce a quality local news service. The area was once served by two quality broadsheets, The Epsom and Ewell Herald and the Epsom and Ewell Advertiser. They had full-time local professional journalists. Both titles demised nearly twenty years ago. Encouraged by the example of The Guildford Dragon, we felt we could provide a similar service in Epsom and Ewell.

We saw that The Guildford Dragon had succeeded in bringing together a team of dedicated volunteer reporters and we thought why not here? Print costs have killed the newspapers, so we agreed that an online service was the next best solution. It feels right to support this responsibility.

In the great scheme of life, local government may not be of the greatest importance, but it is, and to individuals, can be a crucial thing. “Charity begins at home” and so does accountability.

> What are some of EET’s proudest moments so far?

To qualify to be regulated by Impress is an important milestone for us in showing the world our quality. Also, qualifying to be partner in the BBC’s Local Democracy Service is a very proud moment. This proves that our coverage of local council meetings and business has been appropriate and valuable. A recent article we published criticising a national BBC News report on local planning decisions in Epsom and Ewell is proof of our independence.

Why did you choose to join IMPRESS?

Impress is the only regulator recognised by the Press Recognition Panel.

Being regulated gives our readers confidence in the quality journalism and accountability we aspire to.

What do you think the industry could do to better support a healthy local news landscape?

We would really benefit from philanthropic grants. They do not need to be big, as our overheads are quite low, but it would be encouraging to attract some funding from institutions and individuals who recognise the important contribution our service is making to local democracy and accountability.

You’ve been involved in multiple high-profile human rights reports and a submission to the Chilcot Inquiry. Internationally, what do you see as some of the most pressing human rights issues today?

Reporters Without Borders documents, with depressing detail, the assaults on independent journalism across the world, from the murder of journalists in Russia to the detention without charge of journalists in Egypt, and more. The repression of media by the growing number of authoritarian regimes is the biggest threat to human rights.

Social media has been and can still be a force for freedom and democracy.

I am concerned, however, that social media together with the diffusion of traditional media are diminishing the impact of quality journalism.

Societies are at risk of sleepwalking towards a brave new world where human rights do not retain an elevated status in our consciousness.

> You mention that the EET team were encouraged by the example of fellow Impress member The Guildford Dragon. How significant do you feel local journalism is to communities across the country?

I have to echo the words of Dame Frances Cairncross in her review of the sustainability of the local press.

Local journalism can enhance community life and cohesion and improve the functioning of local government and democracy.

Our news service can also act as a repository for the contemporary archives of the Borough. The local history website, Epsom and Ewell History Explorer, has been documenting the newspapers of the Borough since 1856. With a gap since 2010 – it now lists our Epsom and Ewell Times as the news source of today. We hope our readership will continue to grow and once again, for one example, local residents can post family notices of births, deaths and marriages, for all to read. The schools can have their achievements recorded and the sports club their triumphs and losses reported. The range is unlimited.

> What does EET have planned for the future?

Once we have increased our online readership to greater levels, we are contemplating some print runs, which we can cover the costs of through advertising. We’re also looking to grow the number of contributors and citizen journalists, from sports clubs, schools, and other such local communities, that are willing to watch and report on council meetings and court cases.

Lionel Blackman is an English solicitor advocate and senior partner of an Epsom criminal litigation practice. He has written and co-authored investigative reports in civil and political human rights and is the current Director of the Solicitors’ International Human Rights Group (SIHRG), a group he co-founded in 2005 and chaired between 2009–15.