HOUSE OF COMMONS CULTURE, MEDIA AND SPORT SELECT COMMITTEE REPORT on the FUTURE FOR LOCAL AND REGIONAL MEDIA…
ON COUNCIL MAGS…
Today the House of Commons Committee, made up of cross party MPs, absolutely slaughtered the current state of council publications and called on the Office of Fair Trading to investigate.
Encouraged by the Local Government Association, nearly all councils now produce some sort of newsletter or magazine but only 14.4% publish a monthly magazine like Salford Council's Life in Salford. The Report states that it costs councils on average £70,000 per year to produce such magazines. Salford Council's costs nearly £28,000 per month (as shown in previous Salford Star articles).
While the Government's Department for Communities and Local Government does issue some guidance for council publications, the Report argues that it "is currently being breached" and that the guidelines do not go far enough. It explains that some council publications are "misleading to the public", and that it is "unacceptable that a local authority can set up a newspaper in direct competition to the local commercial newspaper…nor should any council publication be a vehicle for political propaganda".
The Report adds…
"There should be specific detailed guidance for local authority newspapers and magazines which should state that it be mandatory that all publications of this type make clear, not only on the front page but throughout the publication, that they are a local authority publication."
Nowhere on the front cover of Life in Salford magazine does it say that it's a Salford City Council magazine – and only if you get a magnifying glass out can you see it written in tiny letters on page 3. What residents can read on the same page in big lettering (of the March issue) is a whole paragraph about "a zero per cent rise in council tax"…and a paragraph on an Audit Commission report from three months earlier saying that the council was "performing well".
The chief exec of media watchdog OFCOM says in the Report that this whole area of publishing is "completely unregulated" and MPs recommend "that the Office of Fair Trading should conduct a review specifically on the impact of council publications on commercial local newspapers".
ON DEMOCRACY AND LOCAL JOURNALISM…
The Select Committee Report does say all the right things about the part that local journalism plays in holding public bodies up to account but doesn't come up with any answers at all. And despite taking evidence from the Salford Star, and acknowledging problems people have with accessing the internet (the "digital have-nots" as it calls them), hardly mentions community magazines at all…
"The implications of a decline in local newspapers, in terms of quantity and quality, are far reaching" it states "Reporting on public institutions is a key function of all news media but at a local level it is usually solely the local newspaper that provides this service. We are concerned that there are signs that the problems in the local media industry are leading to a scrutiny gap."
The Report adds that (like the Salford Advertiser), many local papers have moved out of the areas they cover and "are no longer `on the beat' in their communities". The National Union of Journalists brought to the committee's attention the loss of staff on local papers and the `negative impact on the quality of print journalism' this has brought.
And Tony Watson, Managing Director of the Press Association told the committee that local journalism needs to be publicly funded…
"The industry has always set its face against direct public funding" he said "but I think things are getting so difficult in parts of the regional press now that there is a serious danger that courts and councils and other public bodies will not be covered to the extent that you would wish to be the case in a functioning democracy…"
Recognising this the Committee concludes that "The importance of reporting on local institutions and local democracy cannot be overstated; without it there is little democratic accountability."
However the Report doesn't come up with anything that might help the situation, apart from telling local papers to change their business models to "survive in the new digital era".
LOCAL MEDIA ONLINE…
Incredibly the report states that only 4% of people use the internet as a "primary source of local news", while 22% of people nationally do not have access to the net at all. In Salford we reckon that 60% of people don't have net access (based on a council figure of 80% a few years ago), which means very few people look online for local news.
With the Salford Advertiser stopping distribution completely in the poorest areas of Salford, the Salford Council magazine is the only form of print information in vast areas of the city. Where does this leave local democracy? In the hands of untrained bloggers and `hyper local' websites – including the current incarnation of the Salford Star since a lack of funding has forced it out of print.
Here the Report becomes increasingly patronising… "Hyper local blogs and websites can offer a valuable service to local communities" it states "Hyper local websites can potentially also be good for maintaining local identity and can provide healthy scrutiny and discussion of local democracy and local issues, which is to be encouraged…There is still, and always will be, a need for local professional journalism"
The Report concludes… "We endorse the sentiment that it is local journalism, rather than local newspapers that needs saving…"
The MPs who wrote the Report don't offer any concrete proposals or even ideas on how this can be done…
While the Report sums up the problems of local democracy and the current state of the local media, it provides no glimmer of hope for local journalists trying to hold public bodies up to account and provide a public service.
The Salford Star submitted evidence to the Select Committee – in future we won't waste our time.
Read here how Salford Council ripped up the Salford Star's latest funding application to the community...
Read the full Select Committee Report here
MPs who sat on the House of Commons Culture Media and Sport Select Committee responsible for this report on the Future For Local and Regional Media…
Mr John Whittingdale MP (Conservative, Maldon and East Chelmsford)
Mr Peter Ainsworth MP (Conservative, East Surrey)
Janet Anderson MP (Labour, Rossendale and Darwen)
Mr Philip Davies MP (Conservative, Shipley)
Paul Farrelly MP (Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme)
Mr Mike Hall MP (Labour, Weaver Vale)
Alan Keen MP (Labour, Feltham and Heston)
Rosemary McKenna MP (Labour, Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East)
Adam Price MP (Plaid Cymru, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr)
Mr Adrian Sanders MP (Liberal Democrat, Torbay)
Mr Tom Watson MP (Labour, West Bromwich East)
Mr Nigel Evans MP (Conservative, Ribble Valley)
Helen Southworth MP (Labour, Warrington South