The excellent Emily Bell of the Guardian has been tweeting the Oxford Media Convention 2010 which is taking place at the moment in … er … Oxford. Among the many interesting matters being discussed (role and scope of the BBC, for example) there is one rather startling rallying cry being issued from a source with a huge vested interest. (It reminded me of James Murdoch’s obviously altruistic speech to the Edinburgh Television Festival last autumn…)
Sly Bailey, CEO of Trinity Mirror and ‘owner of a large stable of local and regional newspapers’ has said that “if we truly value local press we must stop council newspapers” and accused council-issued newspapers as “propaganda masquerading as journalism” – going on to call such organs ‘mini-Pravdas’ and asking us to “imagine if it happened on a national level with a government newspaper…”
This is startling for two reasons: (a) she would say that wouldn’t she? (b) she doesn’t appear to ask why local authorities feel the need to tell their own stories in the face of the treatment they often get from local newspapers.
I am not defending the decision by local councils to publish their own newspapers. I think there are dangers in this, but only if they take over from local newspapers as a main source of local information – which they won’t do, of course. However, I fully understand why exasperated local councils might want to tell their own story in the face of the aggressively negative slant given by many local newspapers.
When you feel you are being misrepresented by not-very-good journalists at local level and find yourselves never put in a positive light for public consumption, what do you do? Just sit back and accept it? Or proactively tell your own story?
Local newspapers are in serious decline. This is bad news in itself. Local newspapers have traditionally offered the local population scrutiny of local authority decision-making and spending. They have served the public as guardians of accountability by covering the detail of council meetings and committees and telling the community what is going on and identifying the right questions to ask of their elected representatives.
But this is no longer the case; the world has moved on. My own experience of local government coverage is that only negative stories play – that there is a less-than-intelligent and often ill-informed editorial bias brought to bear on stories involving the local authority. Many public servants simply feel that they are constantly fighting a losing battle in serving their local communities and that any effort to build up the positive image of a local community is undermined by insistent negative image-making.
If local newspapers are to be supported and rediscover their ‘vocation’, they will have to examine themselves as well as target local councils for by-passing them. Relationships of trust are not necessarily relationships of unaccountability. I know CEOs of local councils who believe passionately in accountability, but are fed up with the single diet of negativity. The only way of ensuring the accountability of local media for how they do their work is to affect their sales by finding alternative ways of telling stories.
I doubt if Sly Bailey ever actually read (or reads) Pravda. (I do, but would love someone to get them onto Twitter…) It would interesting to know if she actually reads any local newspapers from her own stable. But, if the cry to halt the ‘mini-Pravdas’ is to hold any weight, it will have to involve self-examination by local media themsleves (and their owners) and a willingness to base reportage on relationships characterised by intelligence, accountability and accuracy. (See previous posts and Nick Davies’s book Flat Earth News.)
The misuse of ‘Pravda’ (truth) works in more ways than one.