Media scrutiny is a fig leaf
An informed resident is a happy resident. Indeed, we know that the key driver of resident satisfaction with local authorities is the provision of effective information which explains and conveys the council’s work and the services it provides.
In Essex, 74% residents who felt informed were satisfied with the council, a figure which drops to 38% for those who considered they were not.
We also know there is a growing and worrying gap between residents satisfied with council services in contrast to the council itself, raising concerns over levels of trust and participation in the democratic process and also, arguably, legitimacy and support for calls for a greater devolution of powers and responsibilities to the local body politic.
We also know that, despite the growth of e-communications, local newspapers remain an important avenue for residents to receive information about their council – read as they are by 40 million people each week, or 82% of the adult population.
Which brings us to the heart of the issue. In the last year, 60 local titles have closed and more than 1,000 journalists were made redundant, reducing the ability and capacity of local newspapers to effectively report the goings-on and decision-making of local government. For example, not one journalist turned up to Essex CC’s annual budget-making meeting earlier this year.
Research commissioned by the council has established that the demise of such reporting is far from sudden but has occurred steadily over the last 10 years.
In turn, although not exclusively for this reason, we have seen the growth of council newspapers accompanied by a lot of hot air, claims and counter claims and now an Audit Commission review.
Some will say local newspapers deserve everything that’s coming to them – for failing to diversify their product, being over-reliant on one or two sources of income, and that removing a persistent critic who does nothing but report trivia would be a welcome relief.
I think this misses the point. Leaving aside the roles they play in scrutinising local democracy and chronicling social history, from the perspective of wanting to drive up levels of resident satisfaction, effective local reporting remains an important mechanism to achieve just that.
Whatever the arguments over local newspapers, it is clear that there exists now a deficit in the reporting of local public institutions. Which is why the Press Association’s (PA) announcement earlier this month that it was looking at a pilot scheme for a public service reporting unit is potentially significant.
A dedicated team of journalists would, in effect, provide impartial news coverage of local public institutions, including councils, to anyone who was interested. This then would mean that any member of the public would be able to get an unbiased, straight reportage of what happened at, for instance, last night’s council meeting – potentially a powerful tool and a tantalising prospect in citizen empowerment.
Clearly, PA is keen to open a debate on public sector reporting and its funding, including, of course, the future of the BBC and the licence fee.
There is, though, growing support, at least within certain media circles, that public funding for newspapers or other news agencies which provide such a service should now be actively considered by the Government.
This is a debate local government needs to be involved in, not least because it has the potential to increase levels of both awareness and scrutiny of council activities while driving up and, of course, down, levels of resident satisfaction.
Furthermore, local government must resist any temptation that the funding for these schemes should come out of increasingly hard-pressed council coffers.
We shall await the results of the pilot scheme with interest. However, this proposal has the potential to significantly change the face of local reporting over the course of the next few years, and is the start of some fairly radical changes in regard to public sector broadcasting which local government itself will be a part of.
Giles Roca is head of communications at Essex CC
There'd be no room for them on the press bench at Reading Borough Council - it was full tonight, three journos and a press officer!Adam Hewitt, Reading Chronicle, Added: Wednesday, 23 September 2009 11:19 PM
In Ipswich I'm involved with a community radio station in the town, and am proud to host a programme which interviews local borough councillors each and every week. Our local newspaper carries some stories about events, but it is also one of the aims of our radio programme is to help people understand local politics and politicians more.Ken Bates, Presenter and Trustee, Ipswich Community Radio, Added: Thursday, 30 July 2009 02:46 PM
|Back||Top of page|