Leading article

Who will safeguard our democracy if local news dies?

2 March 2019

9:00 AM

2 March 2019

9:00 AM

The announcement this week that Capital, Heart and Smooth radio are cutting back their local news shows might not in itself seem important — they have loyal audiences keen to know what’s happening outside London — but it’s part of a worrying trend. Over the past two decades, important powers have been devolved to regions and local areas, a process that began with Tony Blair’s regional assemblies and picked up with David Cameron’s ‘localism’ agenda. We now have several elected mayors, while local authorities have more responsibility over the NHS. The decisions that affect our lives are more likely to be taken locally than nationally.

And yet at the same time the local media that once held local government to account has atrophied. While councillors and local officials make ever-more important decisions, fewer and fewer of us find out what they are up to. This matters. When Lynton Crosby was David Cameron’s campaign chief, he eschewed BBC radio and instead alternated between Heart, Smooth and Magic, saying he wanted to hear about the country as ordinary voters did. Now, at Heart Radio, a single, nationally focused breakfast show will replace 22 local breakfast shows. On Capital Radio, one London-based breakfast show will replace 14 local breakfast shows. While local news will still be covered on radio programmes, reporters are to be made redundant, making it less likely that they will expose local scandals or inform voters of what kind of job their elected representatives are doing.

As in radio, so in print. Local newspapers have been closing down over the past decade. Harlow, in Essex, has lost all three of its titles. Many of those that remain are shadows of their former selves, slimmed down and with far fewer journalists. A newspaper purporting to be local may in fact be edited many miles away. Many have given up on what was once their bread and butter: reporting on council meetings and the courts.

Of course council meetings, with a few exceptions, do not make for riveting entertainment. The same is true of most of the activity at Crown and Magistrates’ Courts.  The occasional lurid murder aside, there is limited entertainment value in reports of thieves being prosecuted or motorists convicted of dangerous driving. Yet it matters that coverage of these things has declined.   The less we read of the everyday workings of the courts, the less we appreciate how the judicial system functions. The same is true of politics. It is so easy to complain about public services when you have no idea of the cost pressures which councils find themselves under and the hard decisions which need to be made.

Conversely, it is easy to overlook genuine scandal when there are no reporters to poke their noses into a council’s affairs. A recent study by King’s College London found that 330 constituencies out of 650 were no longer covered by a dedicated daily local newspaper at the time of the 2015 general election. Of those where there was no local newspaper, 206 of them were mentioned fewer than five times in the national press during the campaign. The decline of local media is helping to fuel the shift towards highly targeted election campaigning via social media, whereby specific demographic groups are fed pinpointed political adverts, while others receive little communication from the candidates.

It is not difficult to diagnose why local media is in decline. Advertising is migrating online, and publishers find themselves with a tiny share of the digital market. Advertising revenue for the UK press has tumbled from £4.6 billion to £1.4 billion over the past ten years, and this has hurt local newspapers hardest, especially as many of them have large debts. Last month, a review by Dame Frances Cairncross raised the prospect of tax relief and charitable status for local news organisations. This might tilt the balance. The success of the Manchester Evening News (which has just launched a Sunday edition) shows the demand for first-class local reporting, but too few titles are in a financial position to make the necessary investment.

It is becoming harder for local radio stations and publications to compete with the tax-funded BBC, though the BBC behaves ever more as if it’s a commercial station, with entertainment shows with highly paid presenters. Why should local newspapers and radio stations have to grub by on meagre earnings from advertising when their news coverage has a much greater claim to be a public service?

Local newspapers in Britain were never quite as powerful as those in some countries (notably the US). Our small size allowed for the distribution of national papers as soon as the railways came into existence. But our local press — newspapers and radio — nevertheless forms a vital function in the workings of democracy. If we are not to lose them, the government will have to give them some kind of helping hand; if not tax breaks, then perhaps a revenue-sharing scheme with the BBC. Until a few years ago, it would not have occurred to anyone that our democracy was underpinned by the revenue from classified advertising. Now that revenue is being lost, the workings of that democracy are all the weaker.

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