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Local democracy at risk as newspapers go to the wall

Local democracy at risk as newspapers go to the wall

Categories: Latest News

Thursday September 24 2009

  Professor Roy Greenslade (pictured) in his blog on MediaGuardian writes of the continuing demise of local newspapers across the UK and the vacuum that is being created in local ‘public service reporting’.

The problem of local and regional newspaper titles shutting down due to reasons of unprofitability – due mainly to huge falls in advertising revenue – and the problems this poses for the proper scrutiny of public life and statutory institutions at the local level was spelt out earlier in the year in a speech delivered by the Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, at the Media Standards Trust on ‘Why Journalism Matters’.

Rusbridger said at the time:

It makes me worry about all of those public authorities and courts which will in future operate without any kind of systematic public scrutiny. I don’t think our legislators have begun to wake up to this imminent problem as we face the collapse of the infrastructure of local news in the press and broadcasting.”

The view is echoed in Professor Greenslade’s blog today. He writes:

‘…cuts [in local newspaper staff] have reduced the possibility of reporters doing their jobs and ended the papers’ ability to act as watchdogs.

‘Justice in some courts is no longer being seen to be done. Police forces, having already erected a defensive PR screen to keep the press at bay, now find that there is little journalistic probing to worry about.

‘Crime is covered, forming a disproportionate part of local paper editorial agendas, but only in the most superficial way, as a series of fear-inducing sensationalist events, lacking in any analysis. These are routinely spoon-fed to reporters down the phone.

‘Decisions by local authorities and other localised public bodies – in health and education for example – are not being properly scrutinised. Full council hearings, let alone committees and sub-committees, often go uncovered.’

He warns that ‘The press is no longer acting as a watchdog. It does not bite or bark. It has muzzled itself and retired to the kennel to live off PR scraps.

The problem is one that has also attracted the attention of some politicians with 140 MPs supporting an early day motion sponsored by John McDonnell MP in February this year on ‘Support for Local Journalism’.

The EDM notes that ‘coverage of court trials, council meetings and local elections is in massive decline [and] re-affirms a commitment to high quality local journalism as an integral part of engaging people in their community, strengthening local identities and democracy’.

Greenslade notes that a remedy for the problem is being sought in an initiative of the Press Association which will see it take on the responsibility of public service reporting with charitable financing. Whatever the case, the closure of local titles and cutbacks in local newspaper staff will mean a greater burden in scrutinising local government and public bodies will be borne by local citizens without the added advantage of a robust local press.


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