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Local media and communications cuts highlighted in new book

Local Democracy, Journalism and Public Relations: The changing dynamics in local media and public sector communications  -  © Routledge

5 July 2019

Friday 14 June 2019 marked the second anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy which claimed 72 lives.

The events of that night and the role of response and managing agencies continues to play out in the public inquiry, which is now due to report back in October.

But should Grenfell have happened at all? Why did no one pick up on the very public warnings from tower residents that just such a tragedy was bound to happen? A growing chorus of voices from local and national journalism has pinpointed the absence of dedicated local media around Grenfell, saying no one was looking.

These issues, along with cuts to local government communications are explored in a new book by journalists, NUJ members and Sheffield Hallam University academics, Carmel O’Toole and Adrian Roxan.

Local Democracy, Journalism and Public Relations: The changing dynamics in local media and public sector communications exposes the increasing challenge of holding local politicians and public funded agencies to account as swinging government cuts hit council communications and local papers close in response to the shift to digital news. It was published on in May this year.

Carmel O’Toole said:

"The result is less information and consultation with local residents. At the same time the UK has seen the decline and disappearance of many local newspapers and journalists, who have traditionally scrutinised public sector spenders. This toxic combination threatens the ability of the media and public to hold local politicians to account.
"The ‘nose for news’ has been downgraded and local journalists, once the champions of public interest coverage, are a force much diminished, working harder than ever before, with fewer people and chasing online hits, damaging local democracy as a result, with no one holding those in power to account."

Carmel and Adrian present extensive interviews with senior communicators within UK council authorities; award winning local and national journalists, editors and media group executives.

The book, from Routledge publishers, also includes in-depth case studies on the Grenfell Tower disaster, the Rotherham child-grooming scandal and the Sheffield tree felling controversy.

Adrian Roxan added:

"These events all raise serious questions about the scrutiny and accountability of local authorities and the important role the media can and does play." 

Tim Minogue, editor of ‘Rotten Boroughs' in Private Eye magazine, commented:

"This book lays bare the ‘democratic deficit’ that ensues when local newspapers no longer properly hold councils up to scrutiny. The less accountable public servants are the worse their decision-making becomes – and as a society we are the poorer for it."

The book’s content was considered as part of the government’s recent Cairncross Review investigating the impact on local democracy of the loss of high-quality journalism.

In an interview for the book, Dominic Ponsford, editor of Press Gazette, suggests the number of UK local journalists has fallen by at least a half in the last decade. He has also described regional print media to be in ‘fairly desperate times’ facing a year on year, 10 per cent decline in print presence.

Dominic has chronicled the issue of the lack of local media coverage about Grenfell. He highlighted that despite the openly available warnings from Grenfell residents on their blog site, which should have been essential reading for local journalists, no journalists picked up the November 2016 prediction about the catastrophe to come.

Grant Feller is a journalist and corporate media consultant. He began his career on the Kensington News and Chelsea News, the two titles had an editorial team of ten and faced competition for stories from the Kensington and Chelsea Times and the Evening Standard (which then devoted more resources to local borough stories).

Asked by Press Gazette whether he thought the concerns of residents would have been picked up by the Kensington News in 1990, Feller said:

"One hundred per cent yes, we would have picked up on that. If we hadn’t found that story ourselves we would have been bollocked by the editor. Any local newspaper journalist worth his or her salt would have been all over that story because of that blog. We would have known about that local group’s concerns because we were very much in the local community. We would have pored over the council meeting agendas and asked questions of the councillors and the officers. But today there is no-one there. Those people can do what they like because there’s no journalists looking at what they are doing. That’s why local journalism is so important."

In the past decade hundreds of local UK newspapers have closed and each week brings news of more. Thousands of jobs have gone. Media owners play catch up trying to retrieve revenue from online content.

The journalists nose for news has been downgraded by the commercial priority to chase stories designed to drive an audience online.

Candyfloss videos of squirrels chasing puppies and crime coverage from cheap CCTV footage is popular with online readers but, as one council chief executive has already flagged, it risks ghettoising cities with crime heavy stories that scare off inward investors.

More and more media commentators are warning of the ‘democratic deficit’ created by the decline of local journalism.

Matt Chorley, in his ‘Red Box’ column, The Times, said:

"Every time a paper closes, lazy MPs, corrupt councilors, dodgy police chiefs, rip off businesses and anyone in the dock can relax a little. This isn’t just nostalgia. The great and the good didn’t stop behaving badly because we all got Snapchat and iPlayer…. Grenfell Tower tells us what happens when poorer areas lose their voice in the local media. Blogs aren’t enough."

Tags: , local government, local council, local journalism, local media, local new matters, local newspapers