The decline of local journalism may mean more than just a lack of transparency…

Amidst the drama of Brexit, the Guardian covered a report from the US which may well have gone unnoticed by many. “Financing Dies in Darkness? The Impact of Local Newspaper Closures on Public Finance.”, published by academics from the University of Notre Dame and the University of Illinois at Chicago on 8 May, might not, on the face of it, seem of great import, but I would suggest that it gives those of us who care about local government some cause for concern.

The authors summarise their report as follows;

The loss of monitoring that results from newspaper closures is associated with increased government inefficiencies… and higher government wages, employees and tax revenues.

Now one ought to bear in mind that the American system of government is quite different to our own, even at local level, but we’ve been seeing the impact of the withdrawal of newspaper coverage from our councils for some time now. Where once a cub reporter would have cut their teeth on provincial council committees, now what is often published is a rehashed press release from the council’s own in-house communications team.

What is left beyond that is the partisan leaflets of whatever local political party is active, either glossing over anything negative if you’re the governing party, or emphasising failure or risk if you’re the opposition. And that isn’t good for keeping ruling groups on the straight and narrow.

Traditionally, Liberal Democrats have focussed on transparency and devolution in local government, on the reasonable basis that people have a right to know what is being done in their name, and that said people should be encouraged to exercise power at the most appropriate level for the task.

But perhaps we should now be emphasising efficiency too. For, without proper, independent, scrutiny, various one-party fiefdoms are given free range to be wasteful, capricious and ineffectual. The traditional solution is legislation, placing limits on the freedom of local government to act, which merely allows ruling groups to blame central government for all that ails them.

And whilst, as Liberal Democrats, we campaigned for the power of general competence to be granted to local councils, we also tend to be keen on the prevention of “postcode lotteries” (also known as the inevitable outcome of devolution), and on mandatory imposition of things that might better be left to local discretion (the proposal for mandatory 20 mph speed limits, for example).

So, if we genuinely want to make local government more efficient, the answer seems to be to find ways to encourage emerging hyperlocal media to venture into the Council chamber and to cover it more widely than at present. It has happened in some places, such as Barnet, where the local blogging fraternity actively covered Conservative efforts to contract out virtually every council service. But, unfortunately, such coverage has often become politicised and as partisan, or more so, than the competing political parties are.

Our democracy and its very effectiveness, rely on an engaged populace to operate at optimal efficiency. And when times are hard, as they still are despite nearly a decade of austerity, we cannot afford to allow inefficiency to flourish under cover of media darkness…

* Mark Valladares is Monday Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and takes a keen interest in issues of governance.

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  • Little Jackie Paper 18th Jun '18 - 10:50pm

    This is a really interesting point. What we are really, I think, talking about here is the decline of civil society. That might be reflected in the decline of things like local news media, but it is a symptom of a wider problem. And one which we as a society at large really have been reluctant to grapple with.

    Indeed it is one of the biggest ironies of recent politics. David Cameron declared that Britain was ‘broken’ and that we needed to manufacture a ‘big society’ to fix it. The analysis was sound, even if one was left with the feeling that Cameron wouldn’t know what civil society was if he were bitten by it.

    I perhaps don’t want to look back on a golden age of local journalism. Lots of local media was junk and I stopped paying my 70p a week for a reason.

    But the point remains about the loss of real and meaningful engagement. The internet and those blogs you mention are, frankly, a poor substitute. We all would do very well to remember that sitting on our backsides tapping away on keyboards is not real participation.

    The ‘engaged populace’ you talk about in the last paragraph is exactly right – it’s civil society and we need far more of it. Local journalism is symptom, not cause.

  • Little Jackie Paper 18th Jun '18 - 10:56pm

    Without wanting to sidetrack this to Grenfell, it is also worth reading this –

    We – all of us – need to have a long, hard think about what we can do to rebuild civil society. No one is being done any favours by what we have now.

  • William Fowler 19th Jun '18 - 7:07am

    Removing the council from things like health, schools, police etc whilst at the same time involving locals more directly in these things might be worth a look as the current system at best muddles through.The more power you put into the hands of local govn the worse off are the local populace.

  • Richard Underhill 19th Jun '18 - 9:16am

    “William Fowler: Removing the council from things like health”
    There is a connection, which is money. In Tunbridge Wells the PFI hospital has used expensive consultants to reduce its tax burden, according to the free newspaper, the Times of Tunbridge Wells, leaving others to fund a six figure bill.

  • Peter Hayes 19th Jun '18 - 1:36pm

    I am not convinced local papers help democracy. My local evening paper, now once a week, seemed to have a Conservative bias. The local free paper with its columns by the MP and occasional members of the council needs to have “printed and published on behalf of” for the Conservatives.

  • I entirely agree. We are fortunate to have an independent local newspaper covering a fair swathe of our constituency and it is invaluable for impartial information, accurate reporting and allowing diverse voices to be heard via a vibrant letters section. It has the added advantage of having a policy of publishing virtually all letters submitted thus avoiding one of the headaches of regular writing them.

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