The North West hasn't seen anything like this in living memory. Last Friday night well over a hundred journalists packed into a committee room at Manchester Town Hall to discuss the impending death of democracy.
There was no messing about, as speakers lined up to talk about newspaper offices becoming the new "industrial slaughterhouses". A proposed 78 journalists jobs plus a further 58 clerical jobs are to be cut around the region, from the Stockport Express to the Rochdale Observer.
In Salford, the Advertiser's office is closing and relocating to the Manchester Evening News building, meaning there'll be no independent media based in the city at all – that's Salford, Media City UK! It's also proposed that three journalists and three clerical staff on the Advertiser will be made redundant. Meanwhile, at the Manchester Evening News, 70 jobs cuts are proposed, including 39 journalists.
Now, if journalists merely made widgets any job losses would be bad enough. But good journalists make democracy and accountability. They ask awkward questions that no-one else can ask, and feed information back to the community, particularly through local papers. Journalists are democracy's knights and nurses.
The less journalists there are in a newspaper office, the less time there is to scrutinise what those in power are doing with all the public money. And no-one at the meeting, called by the National Union of Journalists, was surprised when the union's vice president, Peter Murray, quoted research that had been done on 2000 national articles – only 12% of them were original stories. The rest were re-hashes of press releases, news agency feeds and stuff nicked from other papers. He added:
"There's now widespread agreement that defending jobs in print, in broadcasting, or in new media is part of a fight to retain strong public services, under attack from executives who are more concerned about their balance sheets, shareholders or government targets than they are about our role as journalists to scrutinise and question those who hold public office."
While journalists are fighting for their jobs, councils around the country are busy oiling up their own propaganda machines, fuelled by huge amounts of public money.
Salford Council, for instance, has withdrawn £100,000 of advertising from local papers and stuffed it into its own Life in Salford magazine to finance its expansion to a monthly publication. The budget for Life in Salford is now almost £175,000. And it's a pattern that's happening all over the country.
The sudden overhaul of council magazines is being encouraged by the Local Government Association-owned Improvement and Development Agency (I&DEA) which has been responding to new government regulations where councils will be judged on public satisfaction with services. Thus, the new holy grail for councils is all about boosting reputation.
Unfortunately, as I&DEA explains on its website, "Case studies showed that local people still did not trust local government. Earlier research by MORI and the Audit Commission had found the same thing."
I&DEA recommends 12 actions "to boost your reputation", one of which mentions "changing residents' perceptions" using magazines and newspapers. Another urges "Publish a regular magazine or newspaper". Tameside Council has even launched its own tv and radio station, while Salford City Radio is financed and backed by Salford Council, even though its staff would argue that it is independent.
Now, Culture Minister, Andy Burnham, is calling the Local Government Association and its encouragement of councils' do it yourself media to explain its actions at a media summit at the end of April.
"On the issue of local councils, it is firstly about what they are doing and are they encroaching? And secondly, could councils play an enabling role?" Burnham told the Scarborough Evening News "The council issue is for councils to decide but clearly there are hard questions to be asked about whether it is appropriate for their communication or for their marketing.
"There are 50 or so newspaper titles closing this year" he added "The issue of council newspapers is top of my in-tray at the moment. There has to be a balance and councils are overstepping that."
If huge swathes of public money are being diverted away from independent media towards councils' own media machines, and newspaper fat cat executives are hacking journalists' jobs to keep their profits high, what is left?
In London, Tower Hamlets Council is actually producing its own weekly paper, East End Life which "only puts out the news that it wants people to read" argues Malcolm Starbrook, editor of the local independent East End Advertiser. In Salford, Lib Dem councillor, Steve Cooke, resigned from Life in Salford's editorial board last November saying it "provided a thin veneer of democratic respectability to an often misleading and relentlessly and unjustifiably upbeat publication."
A news story released today by the National Union of Journalists about last week's meeting reports that "local newspapers were in effect being penalised by councils such as Salford who had retaliated to what they regard as unfavourable coverage of council stories by withholding advertising from some titles."
In other words, councils now have the means to withdraw advertising from critical papers and still fulfill their legal obligations to publicise road closures and planning applications and stuff. And no-one has yet challenged this in the courts.
Last year the Salford Star interviewed Salford Council Leader, John Merry, about allegations that people in the Council and the Labour Party were trying to control the Salford Advertiser.
"I think they were saying that the Advertiser is perceived by sections as being very negative and misleading in some coverage" he replied "People were saying that we need to influence how the Advertiser was portraying Salford…"
At the NUJ meeting, journalists compared Life in Salford which doesn't criticise or scrutinise Salford Council, and has a publicly backed budget of £175,000, with the Salford Star which does criticise and scrutinise the Council and has a budget of £0. Last time the Star applied through the Council to community committees for devolved money, the Council ripped up the application.
With not a penny of advertising from any public body (the police, NHS, the Council and its so-called `arms length' companies) or any public finance at all, the Star has had to cease producing a printed copy of the award winning magazine.
Meanwhile, local MP and Communities Minister, Hazel Blears, who has been busy saying "a strong independent media is a vital part of any democracy" and advocating `community kitties' to empower local people and give them a voice, has still not responded to an open letter from Salford Star sent last November regarding the complete lack of funding for community centred magazines.
So where does this leave democracy? In the hands of overworked local journalists reproducing Council press releases? In the hands of the councils themselves producing their own magazines, newspapers and even tv stations?
Journalists from the Guardian Media group, which owns the Manchester Evening News and Salford Advertiser, are balloting this week for industrial action. The knights and nurses of democracy are preparing to go into battle…
To read Salford Star's open letter to Hazel Blears click on `Stories' and scroll down or click here http://www.salfordstar.com/article.asp?id=52
STOP PRESS!!! 1:30pm 31st March 2009
John Merry has just sent over a comment re the NUJ report on its website today (see above)
"I have every sympathy for the individuals that work for the Salford Advertiser who have done a very difficult job under the circumstances, but as the advert in the Guardian makes clear today the regional newspapers are still running at a profit and the Scott Trust would be perfectly able to keep them going, particularly as we have not shifted all our advertising from them. Secondly the Advertiser has a very bad record of distribution within Salford and simply to put our adverts through them would mean that a significant section of the community would not get to see them. The reality is that we have made savings and to go back on that would require us to spend extra money."
The Office of Fair Trading are now looking into the effect of Council publications on local papers
Also see our interview with Salford Council leader John Merry on the legality of Life in Salford
April 2nd - today the Press Gazette has done a story on the plight of the Salford Star