Conversations on press freedom #3: James Hatts

World Press Freedom Day fell last weekend on 3rd May. Through a series of interviews and articles with journalists and activists, our Artistic Director Euchar Gravina is exploring press freedom as a fundamental component of any healthy democracy and transforming communities. Our next guest is James Hatts, who runs SE1 News, a local media organisation.

For many, Waterloo and the South Bank bring exclusively to mind images of a transport hub, a workplace and a centre of arts, culture and entertainment . Indeed, Waterloo Station - which has been around for almost 175 years - receives over 100 million entries-and-exits a year and is the country’s busiest railway station. For several years, it was also London’s international station with a pass to the rest of Europe. The South Bank, over the past few decades, developed into one of the world’s most-renowned cultural centres with over 30 million visitors every year. For others around the globe, this district is synonymous with the London-Eye and its hosting of the New Year’s Eve fireworks celebrations.

Yet SE1 is much more than an internationally-recognised area. It is a local postcode shared by 65,000 residents, some of whom have been living in this neighbourhood all their life with strong family and cultural connections to their surroundings. Working at St John’s, I soon discovered that the neighbourhood has been very active over the years in protecting its existence as an anchored community, making its presence felt and voicing its opinion on the ongoing developments in their area: the story of Coin Street Community Builders, the support towards the large homeless community around Cardboard City as well as more recent protest movements on environmental regulations with St John’s opening its doors to Extinction Rebellion.

Back in 2018, when I started putting together the programme of my first Waterloo Festival as director, I was very keen on familiarising myself as best as I can with the locals. I was interested to learn more about what was going on off the main streets of this central district of London and develop the right connections. My workmates at St John’s straightaway advised me to get in touch with James Hatts, who runs the London SE1 community website. In my current quest to explore why press freedom is such a fundamental component of healthy transforming communities, even small local ones such as those of Waterloo, I followed the same advice.

And it doesn’t get any more ‘local’ and ‘locally-informed’ than chatting with James. Born at St Thomas’ Hospital, “I have lived for most of my life in SE1, apart from my university years. When I was growing up, my family lived just off Blackfriars Road. Today my home is at the Elephant & Castle.”

Recalling that he was still at school at the time, James told me London SE1 was founded exactly 22 years ago, in May 1998, as a joint project between him and his father. “If you think back to 1998 there were a lot of big projects in motion in the SE1 area as part of the build-up to the Millennium celebrations: the London Eye was being built, the Jubilee Line Extension was nearly completed, Bankside Power Station was becoming Tate Modern, the Millennium Bridge was planned, amongst other schemes.”

“There was a bit of a gap in local media at the time. There had been a community newspaper called SE1 that had thrived during the 1970s and 1980s, but in the early 1990s it had fizzled out. My father was editing a ‘what's on’ guide for the Square Mile, focussing on things people could do in their lunch hour, like concerts in the City churches. We saw the potential for doing something similar for our home turf south of the river! There were more and more cultural and community events taking place locally but no-one was drawing all the strands together in one place.”

“So we began to publish a monthly listings guide. And a website at the same time, which was quite advanced for 1998 and makes us one of the longest-running neighbourhood websites anywhere. We stopped producing the printed publication in 2014 and have been online-only since then. We also produce a weekly email newsletter, and a few weeks ago we sent the 1,000th mailing, which is quite an achievement.”

Over time, SE1 developed from a regular ‘what’s on’ guide to a publication focussed more on local politics, planning and development issues. “I particularly enjoy finding the juicy story buried deep in an official document that few will have taken the trouble to read.” He goes on to tell me, though, that there is no substitute for spending time on the ground in the patch he’s covering. “I can walk or cycle across SE1 and find half a dozen leads for stories, just by spotting public notices on lamp-posts, or shops that have opened or shut down, or building works in progress. Over time you develop well-tuned antennae for potential stories.”

James Hatts

Over the last twenty-two years, SE1 has played an active role in community building, from covering local initiatives to bringing light to conditions and regulations across the local area that have negative impacts on the neighbourhood. “I'm quite proud of the small part we played in preventing the Elephant & Castle pub from becoming a branch of Foxtons estate agents. That was something I spotted deep in the recesses of Southwark's planning database. I wrote about the story, and it led to local politicians and community groups taking swift action to protect the pub. I also appeared on TV and radio to talk about the story.”

More recently, James Hatts received the Honorary Liberty of the Old Metropolitan Borough of Southwark in recognition of the coverage which SE1 and its social media channels provided in the aftermath of the first London Bridge terrorist attack. For the residents just south of the river, this episode was not just another news-story from the capital but another deadly attack on the streets off their homes.

“During those 10 long days when Borough Market and its environs were behind a police cordon, I chronicled what was happening and shared practical information in a way that was only possible because I had such an in-depth knowledge of the area.”

There are several such advantages behind the presence of local journalists who live and report on their area. I have recently read The Shipping News, fiction by Annie Proulx, which, in the background of its main narrative, highlighted the positive impact which a local newspaper - in this case, serving a remote comm