As newsrooms shrink there has been concern over the poor standard of journalism to hold public institutions to account and inform the public. Under new plans from the BBC this may affect you.
by Chris Bolton GUEST EDITOR
Realistically, Public Service Local Journalism has probably never been away, but the latest proposal from the BBC could give rise to a new, bigger and improved 2.0 version, I hope.
As part of proposals for the new Charter starting in in 2017, the BBC plans to invest about £8 million a year to fund the activities of 150 journalists. If things go well, they may increase this to 200 journalists in 2019, and support other things like a Data Journalism centre. You can read about it in this article, ‘BBC and the News Media Association announce plans for ground-breaking partnership’.http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2016/bbc-nma-partnership. I should also mention that the use of video gets aired a fair bit in the discussions I’ve read, something that will please Dan Slee I’m sure.
What will the 150 New Journalists be doing? The focus of the role seems to be around reporting what local councils and other public bodies are up to. To (selectively) quote from the people in the article:
James Harding, Director BBC News and Current Affairs: “These plans…will enhance local journalism, ensure greater accountability of people in public life and enable… readers to get better coverage of what’s really happening in their communities… together, we will harness the potential of data journalism to improve reporting of public services and institutions across the country.”
Ashley Highfield, National Media Association Chairman: “We believe this will strengthen and enhance local journalism, and the critical role it has in holding local authorities to account,…so important in local democracy. More coverage and content from councils…ensuring greater accountability and transparency in an ever more devolved Britain. Reaching 40 million people each week, local newspapers…provide an invaluable public service which underpins democracy at local level”.
John Whittingdale MP, (former) Culture Secretary: “Local and regional media play a vital role in reporting issues that matter…and also help hold local decision makers to account.”
This might be just my biased reading, but the language here seems a bit adversarial and very focussed upon, ‘holding local decision makers to account’. I’ve nothing against that, but it might be worth thinking about how this will actually happen in practice.
If this new journalism is an ‘all out attack’ to; ‘root out’ incompetence, ‘dodgy-dealings’ and poor decision making, it might cause a few unintended problems. Local councils are having a tough time at the moment, a really tough time, coping with complex problems and reducing budgets. Many are trying new or innovative approaches that don't always work perfectly first time. If you've got an ‘over-zealous’ battalion of local reporters publicly humiliating councils for every minor mistake its not going to help. Triumphant ‘got ya!’ headlines are not going to support an environment of taking well managed risks and seeking out new ways of doing things. People either won’t try things in the first place, or will go to great lengths to hide their (well intentioned) mistakes from the journalists. Just something to ponder upon.
Public Service Reporting Version 1.0 Over the years I’ve observed 100’s of committees in Councils and other public bodies, it was part of the job at the time. Being a professional observer, you do notice what goes on, and spotting when the local journalist enters the room was something I got used to. There were always some good indicators:
• Most people would become more guarded and cautious when they spoke,
• Some would ‘grandstand’ for the benefit of the journalists,
• The Chair might publicly ‘welcome’ the journalist, just so everyone knew they were there,
• Committee Clerks would keep their heads down and avoid eye contact, and
• The PR Manager, if they weren’t there, would be urgently summoned to come and talk to the journalist (damage limitation/keep them at bay).
I remember sitting at one council meeting on cold, wet and windswept November night when the local ‘cub-reporter’ arrived just in time for a controversial issue. The impact wasn’t exactly like ‘death had entered the room’, but close; possibly a horribly contagious disease. I did speak with the reporter later, a reasonable and balanced person, new to the area, keen to do learn his craft as a journalist. That was going to be quite a challenge with the weight of past experiences that had shaped the existing relationship between the Council and the local press. Past relationships will have an influence on the future, something else to ponder.
So, what are my hopes for Public Service Journalism 2.0?
1. Move Upstream. If the idea is really about getting communities engaged with what public services are doing, engage early. Personally I don't think there’s a great deal to be gained from reporting the Council AGM and ‘holding people to account’ when something hasn't quite worked. How about engaging at the start of the process, using the power of a professionally trained journalist to engage the community in helping the council, and the community, solve their challenges together. That’s got to be more satisfying that replaying what a ‘grandstanding’ councillor has to say about their personal agenda at the AGM?
2. Work with the Locals. There’s already some excellent work happening across the UK to report on what is happening in local councils and communities. In Wales we have a number of hyperlocal news sites who are doing a fine job of keeping their communities informed and involved. I’m sure they might have a view on how the the BBC resources could be used effectively. The Cardiff University, Centre for Community Journalism maintains a list of the hyperlocal news sites active in Wales (https://www.communityjournalism.co.uk/find-a-hyperlocal/) along with many other resources. As a flavour, here are two of the hyperlocal news sites I’ve experienced:
1. Cwmbran Life. Run by Ben Black which in my view is everything a local news site should by about; ‘Cwmbran and nothing but Cwmbran’. http://www.cwmbranlife.co.uk
2. Wrexham.com. This is based in Wrexham, North Wales and is like the Premier League of hyperlocal news providers. Their website gets in excess of 1 million views every 30 days and has a very busy forum section with over 1500 topics discussed via 20,000 posts. Many of these issues are of direct relevance to public services (take a look at the Dog Poo & Litter thread) http://www.wrexham.com/forums/forum/wrexham-com-forums
3. Swansea Scrutiny Blog. Not exactly a hyperlocal news site, but a good example of where a council is trying to engage. It might be a good ‘space’ for a journalists, citizens and the council to all engage online? http://www.swanseascrutiny.co.uk
3. Be Part of The Solution. I’ve touched on this earlier. Public services are going through a tough time at the moment, trying to do things differently and not always getting it right first time. While there is a right and proper place for holding people to account, an overly adversarial approach isn't going to build fruitful relationships - and probably won’t get you the most useful copy (there are also plenty of regulatory organisations in place to do just this sort of thing). A professional journalist who provides a link between the community and public services can be a huge force for good.
I’m not sure if any of my hopes will materialise, it will take commitment from all sides; citizens, journalists and the public services. In my view, the least useful thing that could happen is an adversarial approach and the failure to create Public Service Journalism 2.0.
Notes for editors:
The Local Government Information Unit reports there are 217 Unitary and upper tier councils in the UK. 152, England, 32 Scotland, 22 Wales and 11 Northern Ireland.
The £8 million from the BBC will be used to fund posts in ‘qualifying local news organisations’.
Chris Bolton is good practice manager at Wales Audit Office.
Picture credit: State Library of New South Wales.