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A roadmap for the BBC’s support of local journalism

Instead of strengthening the UK’s local news monopolies, here’s how the BBC could support civic journalism.

Dan Hind
23 May 2016
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NUJ Protest in Norwich against Archant's staff cuts. Credit: Roger Blackwell

The White Paper on the future of the BBC published on May 12th notes that the corporation has made a number of proposals to establish ‘a positive partnership with the local news sector’. These include a ‘Local Public Sector Reporting Service’, which would ‘report on local institutions.’

The BBC has already indicated that it intends to fund 150 journalists to work in the local and regional sectors. This means that from next year a population of around 400,000 people – a city the size of Bristol, say - could expect to have a journalist reporting full time on local government and other public sector institutions.

The government ‘welcomes’ this and other moves but ‘recognises that these plans will need to be implemented in consultation with industry’. Rather more ominously the White Paper says that ‘we expect to see a positive partnership with the local news sector’.

It goes on to say that ‘in particular there are details about the Local Public Sector Reporting Service which still need to be resolved’. It notes that the BBC ‘has been working with the News Media Association (NMA) to develop proposals and good progress has been made in agreeing the principles of such a service that sees the BBC providing some funding for local journalists to provide reporting for use by the BBC and other news providers.’

The NMA describes itself as a body that ‘exists to promote the interests of news media publishers to Government, regulatory authorities, industry bodies and other organisations whose work affects the industry.’ It doesn’t say exactly who these publishers are but its members include the chief executives of two of the largest local and regional newspaper groups; Johnston Press and Archant. These, and companies like them, are presumably what the White Paper means when it talks about ‘the local news sector’.

According to the White Paper the local and regional press are facing ‘challenging times … in large part attributable to the increased role of the internet’. But the sector is not only under pressure from the internet. For one thing there is a troubling lack of competition. In 2012 researchers found that in the overwhelming majority of Local Government Areas one company controls at least fifty percent of the market for daily newspapers. In over a third of them the companies’ dailies enjoy a total monopoly.

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Credit: Newsquest

Far from being a ‘key element of our plural media landscape’, as the government claims, local and regional news provision is characterised by the domination of a few companies based in London – or, in the case of Newsquest, in Tysons Corner, Virginia - and by the near-absence of meaningful competition.

And yet the BBC proposes to pay for journalists who will be ‘under the editorial direction and control of their employers’ as part of its ‘plans for a ground-breaking partnership’ with the New Media Association. That is, the journalists will be working for companies that enjoy effective monopolies in most of their markets. Connoisseurs of state-media coordination will be pleased to note that the BBC made this announcement on the day that the White Paper was published.

If the aim really is to ‘provide a positive contribution to the diversity and quality of local news provision’ this is about the worst possible way of doing it. Local councils, and national governments for that matter, have enjoyed far too cosy a relationship with the media for far too long. The concentration of media power in Britain is inseparable from the pervasive problems of opacity and unaccountability that beset public life at all levels. By all means make television licence money available to support civic journalism, but do so in a way that helps local and national publics hold the institutions of power to account, including the monopoly publishers.

The BBC could take the lead in this process of democratisation through an integrated exercise in deliberation and debate. The corporation would explore the principle of civic journalism through its news and current affairs programming, and, in partnership with its audiences, decide which geographical areas these journalists will cover.

A medium-sized city like Bristol might have one journalist. Three local authority areas, for example Thanet, Dover and Canterbury in Kent, might share one. Greater Manchester would probably have six or seven, but there would have to be some thought given to how their responsibilities would be shared out.

There would also be opportunities for the public to discuss the journalists’ terms of reference and their wider purposes. Mary Beard could explain how classical Athens would have felt about media monopolies, the problems of scale, and the principle of countervailing power. Perhaps we will decide that we want the journalists and their managers to be resident in the areas they cover. We might also want to oblige council-funded newspapers to print reports on their activities under defined circumstances. The idea of the local itself could be interrogated. We could learn a lot from examining the connections between, say, English local government and the offshore system.

The BBC will then invite proposals from groups who want to deliver both reliable reporting of public institutions and effective scrutiny of their activities. The public would then vote, a bit like on The X-Factor, and the winner would receive a two-year term. If we can elect Police and Crime Commissioners we can also elect the bodies that will try to keep these and other public officials honest.

The groups would have defined responsibilities to report on local government but would also perhaps have resources to develop their own lines of inquiry. A new or existing independent publisher could develop its reporting capacities and at the same time enhance its ability to conduct in-depth investigations.

To begin with, the BBC ought to publish in full the minutes of its meetings with the NMA, including the sums it proposes to allocate to the project. It would be interesting to know what kind of money the monopoly publishers expect to receive for overhead and administration costs. A contestable, accountable and transparent method for allocating these funds might free up resources that would strengthen locally controlled and independent media operations. The BBC should also say who else it has been discussing the idea with, and explain how it will widen the consultation process to avoid the impression that a deal is being done behind closed doors to give guaranteed revenues to large and highly profitable companies.

Meanwhile, independent media groups, universities and other interested civil society organizations might want to develop proposals for independent local media, and set out how BBC money might best be used to that end. Cities and regions could then build public support for a system that in turn supports local democracy. After all, if we cannot be bothered to agitate for accountable and effective media we probably don’t deserve to have them.

The current mix of public and private provision is not working. But the solution is not to take money from the public and give it to private monopolies. Let’s instead use seed funding from the television licence to create or strengthen news organizations whose interests are aligned more closely with their publics’.

 


 Dan Hind’s books include The Return of the Public: Democracy, Power and the Case for Media Reform and The Magic Kingdom: Property, Monarchy and Maximum Republic.

 

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