Non-Political Question Time
There was a ‘wish-list’ of local names that Waterfront Life wanted to court when it started late last year. The only significant one that had remained out of reach until now, was Ben Gummer MP. Ben’s office had been contacted at that time regarding Ben becoming a guest writer in print & online, but until recently his team seemed to have shielded him.
To be fair to all concerned, we had now been informed that our initial approach to the offices of Member of Parliament for the Ipswich Constituency – Ben Gummer, had not registered and that this was probably because it had been ‘lost’ in an email system that, understandably, featured an inbox peppered with 100’s of communications a day. As editor, I hadn’t been too concerned, as I reckoned on a meeting at some point; as our paths were more and more likely to cross as the ‘Life’ brands started having more and more doors opened to them.
Neither was I sceptical that when the call eventually came in - facilitated by friend of our publications Liz Harsant - it was perfectly timed to coincide with general election campaigning. My lack of scepticism was borne out of my knowledge that, when I did sit down with Ben, the resulting article was not going to be politically motivated or charged.
So, in a University of Suffolk, air-conditioned room on one of the hottest days of the year at the end of May, I opened dialogue with our MP by stating that I was on a fact-finding mission; a mission to chat about what I and my team were doing locally, more than what Ben had planned, up until Thursday the 8th of June and of course, in whatever guise thereafter!
Not wishing to come across as arrogant at our first ever meeting, I went on to explain that we were not a group of editors that favoured politics and nor were we interested in garnering comment from every political party to ensure balanced journalism….we were simply wanting to chat to a high-profile, pro-Ipswich figure, who – it seemed from knowledge gathered over the years – was a nice bloke, who loved his home town. To his credit, Ben immediately warmed to the idea that at 4.45pm on a Friday, he was likely to end his week – a fraught week which had included the Manchester terrorist attack which had understandably forced a re-schedule of our sit-down – talking about passions away from a campaign-remit, political arena.
We started off chatting about the regeneration of the Waterfront, but rather than ask about the effect on the economy of the new river crossings, or the local Highways’ plans for traffic management, I wanted to know about whether the money being spent in the immediate area was dividing opinion in the Town. Reassured and informed that it really shouldn’t, Ben openly chatted about regeneration in the wider area and was enthusiastic about the improving transportation and in particular, the completion of the long overdue refurbishment of the railway station and the plans for millions of pounds worth of new trains on our commuter lines towards Norwich & London. The resulting effect being that visitors (and indeed residents) would find it more pleasurable and convenient to get to our town and once here, would be greeted by a fit for purpose station and pleasant concourse.
We discussed the obvious flip-side to this being the western approach to the Waterfront and I was pleased to hear that Ben was highly confident that sooner than imagined, this area would join the ranks of the rest of the Waterfront’s desirable façades. In fact, a tanned looking Ben had only that afternoon been standing on top of the Winerack with John Howard, taking in the breath-taking views and celebrating the recent news of a timeframe for work commencing on the structure; another massive forwards move in positively altering the area’s skyline.
We touched on Ben’s 6-point vision for the future of Ipswich, but I swerved us away from any ‘party line’ and on to my and Rachel’s plans for our Student Life brand. An ever-more relaxing Ben told us how passionately his big boss – TM the PM (my words not his!) - felt about one of Student Life’s main focus points; mental health.
We discussed my own deeply held beliefs that mental health first aid should be taught/discussed alongside any physical first aid and Ben clearly and concisely offered his support to our aims. We discussed our plans that now involved local Year 12 & 13 students forming steering groups with us, along with the valuable buy-in of the University’s own Students’ Union and student population. Ben was acutely attentive throughout and I was left with a true feeling that our budding relationship could be developed in the near future, regardless of the upcoming vote count.
So, 30 minutes later our time was up…not because Ben was given any form of ‘wind this up’ sign from his companion, but because I (hopefully we) had achieved all that was set out to be achieved at a first meeting. Certainly, I was now aligned to the pre-interview impression that Waterfront Life / Student Life / The Saints would benefit from ongoing dialogue with a ‘high-profile, nice bloke, who loved his home town’ and who might just appreciate a tie with a publication that steered him away from out and out politics….at least most of the time!