by Dave Boyle
It was a shame that in her recent intervention on the subject of local newspapers, Home Secretary Theresa May chose to use the opportunity to indulge in every government minister’s favourite sport of bashing the BBC.
In seeking to implicate the BBC in the decline of local media when speaking to the Society of Editors, she flattered her audience by avoiding the uncomfortable reality.
The BBC does, of course, have strong regional coverage, but this in no way can be said to be local in any meaningful sense of the word; if viewers and listeners and website readers are happy enough with what the BBC produces, then the real problem is that local media has been producing a fully-featured product for generations of people who would have been quite happy with the odd snippet.
It was a shame that May ignored the elephant in the room, because she has direct experience of it. In her remarks, she praised the Maidenhead Advertiser’s editorial freedom, but didn’t talk about its economic and strategic independence.
The paper, like others in the Bayliss group, were moved into a trust in 1962 by their founding family of owners, to ensure that they remained independent and locally focussed. They knew that they couldn’t rely on benevolent, wealthy people to guarantee the concern with local matters and undertook to make them unavailable for sale to anyone else.
Contrast that with the reality in the majority of the UK, where titles have been aggregated into 4 major groups, where decisions with serious impact on local community and civic life are made by people looking at spreadsheets hundreds of miles away for the benefit of people of shareholders thousands of miles away.
Papers merging content or merging titles, groups closing papers because they’ve squeezed all they can from them, editors being told to sack hundreds of journalists in the name of efficiency, whilst working those that remain ever harder with the resulting growth of churnalism. (The NUJ’s Chris Morley writes brilliantly about this here.)
If May wanted to give communities everywhere the kind of service that she and her constituents enjoy, she would do better to look to guarantee local ownership away from remote and distant groups and ensure it was in the hands of people who cared passionately about the ability of the local media to hold their councils and MPs to account.
One route would be the kind of ownership in trust enjoyed in Maidenhead (or The Guardian and Observer), But whilst that might protect a publication, it doesn’t enhance it, which is where community ownership would work much better, opening up the press to genuine engagement and control by local people (as well as helping the balance sheet by bringing new capital and revenue in the form of membership).
This is – slowly – happening, but Ministers who care about this can help by ensuring local communities get the chance to control the destiny of their local media by giving them a right to operate local media wherever the current owners wish to close or merge a title or reduce locally generated content below a certain level, or even better, a right to buy a paper if they can meet an agreed and independently verified fair price.
Both would do so much more than blaming the BBC, which is the equivalent of treating the very serious issue of ensuring journalism survives in local communities with leeches.
Dave Boyle is a researcher, writer and business consultant, who wrote Good News: A Co-operative Solution to the Media Crisis and organised the Carnegie UK Trust / Co-operatives UK programme ‘Make Your Local News Work‘. He blogs at daveboyle.net and on twitter as @theboyler.