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Local news ‘black spots’ threaten social cohesion and democracy, councils told

Council should “worry quite a lot” about the growing amount of ‘journalism black spots’ emerging across the country as local newspapers and news outlets are shut down and communities become increasingly alienated from their relevant authorities as a result – a phenomenon which poses a significant threat to social cohesion.

Speaking at the LGA Conference yesterday, Dr Martin Moore, director of the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power and senior research fellow at King’s College London, issued a stark warning to local government delegates about the shaky future of their individual constituency’s democracy.

Using the Grenfell Tower tragedy as a recent and relevant example, Moore emphasised that there was not a single dedicated journalist responsible for reporting about issues in the Kensington and Chelsea borough specifically, despite the area being densely populated.

“By no means am I saying that had there been a dedicated reporter, the fire could’ve been prevented,” he clarified. “But a dedicated reporter could’ve done a number of different things: listened to the residents in the tower, helped voice their concerns, investigated and exposed some of the issues they raised, brought local residents together around a local campaign to provide better fire protection, reported on the failure of the local council to take concerns seriously or take action.”

But Kensington is not the only borough or local area whose democratic values are at risk due to a black spot in dedicated reporting. Research carried out by Moore’s centre last year found that over two-thirds of local authority districts and over half of Parliamentary constituencies are not served by a dedicated daily local newspaper whatsoever.

The number of local professional journalists in the UK has also more than halved in the last decade, with many papers closing down due to a lack of funds. Although some journalists tried filling the gap by setting up an online website in a few areas, many had to shut down because they didn’t have enough money or volunteers to cover running costs and produce news.

While the picture is not the same everywhere – Moore did point out that some areas are almost overserved by local news, and discussed the emerging phenomenon of ‘hyperlocal’ and co-operative, albeit financially fragile, news sites – it is a nevertheless a prevailing one.

“The consequence of a decline in professional reporting is there’s an increasing number of what we call ‘black spots’ around the country – areas where there’s literally no professional reporting being done,” he said.

There’s an even greater number of places where one local paper covers a very large territory. A weekly paper in East Northamptonshire, for example, also covers Kettering and Corby, amounting to an area of around 240,000 residents.

“From a democratic perspective, this is pretty disastrous. Many local issues are just going unreported,” added the director. “There are fewer journalists attending local council meetings, magistrate courts and county courts aren’t accounted for, as are NHS trusts and local authorities.

“Equally importantly, local residents lack a community voice and someone that will represent their concerns and campaign on their behalf. Over time, what we’ll see happening is residents becoming less and less familiar with their local authorities and more and more distanced from them.

“Of course, it’s no good looking to Google and Facebook to fill the gap, since neither organisation employs any journalists even though they are gathering increasing amounts of revenue from local businesses. And as yet, sadly there are very few members of the public reporting regularly from local council meetings or political spending commitments.”

The army of armchair auditors that former PM David Cameron predicted would arrive to scrutinise local government spending, for example, is now more like a platoon, argued Moore. That’s not to say the data isn’t available, but there are very few journalists around to analyse it.

“I’d suggest that local authorities should worry about this, and worry about this quite a lot,” he stressed. “In the short term, it might seem quite unhelpful to have someone around observing, reporting and asking difficult questions, but in the longer term, it means people will lose contact with what’s going on in their community.

“They grow unfamiliar with their local authority and local representatives. They lose a sense of community cohesion. They become more susceptible to believing rumours they hear on Twitter, urban myths circulating on WhatsApp and Snapchat. They become vulnerable to the infamous fake news. And don’t expect it to get better anytime soon.”

Asked by an audience member what councils can do now to ensure they don’t lose that connection with their constituency, Moore argued there are several low-cost solutions that can be implemented to help people do journalism, such as making available data a lot more useable and livestreaming all council meetings.

“It would be fantastic if local councils could shout about this and make clear this is a real significant problem,” he concluded.


David Walsh (Councillor)   06/07/2017 at 12:23

The platoons where they do exist (and certainly in my area) seem to go to totally different meetings to the ones they observe. They must also have the words "brown envelope" on a very handy predictive text, as it occurs on every observation of a planning committee or a cabinet meeting where contracts are signed off.

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