For some time – many would say for too long – I’ve opened speeches at events about journalism and democracy with the example of Long Eaton - a town which no longer has a commercial radio station, garners little coverage on regional news and last year saw its only local newspaper closed.
The Long Eaton Advertiser was closed, not because the people of Long Eaton did not want news about their council, their health service, their education system, their local community or even news about their MP’s activities but because of what the company called “difficult trading conditions”.
The paper was profitable, just not profitable enough for shareholders.
The Long Eaton Advertiser was not a victim of the recession, even though it had seen a huge fall in advertising revenue –it was a victim of a failed corporate business model for news. A model encouraged by governments through deregulation and turning a blind eye to the effects of mergers, indebtedness and excessive profiteering on citizens rights to information.
I always said Long Eaton was rare. But as I’ve travelled across the UK doing meetings I’m finding it’s less rare than I thought – or feared.
Macclesfield, Stockton or even Manchester are not safe from collapsing in to a democratic black-hole. Today Channel M is axing its local news service. The MEN is to move to Oldham. It’s weekly titles are to leave the city.
Since the Long Eaton Advertiser shut a further 107 newspapers have closed across the UK. Almost one in four jobs in local newspapers have gone. Thousands of jobs have gone across national newspapers – not just in old-fashioned print but in shiny new media. Dozens of local media offices have closed removing journalists from the communities they serve. ITV has cut more than 1000 jobs and halved its regional news services. A growing number of newspapers have gone from daily to weekly, from evening to overnight, from paid for to free. Local and late editions are cut, supplements axed, specialists ditched. Media analysts predict that half the country’s 1300 local newspapers will close between now and 2013, destroying a further 20,000 media jobs.
As a result local and national democracy is suffering – councils, courts and public bodies are no longer being properly scrutinised. 64% of editors believe they are not adequately scrutinising local councils. 80% of judges believe courts are not subject to adequate scrutiny. Journalists are increasingly stuck in offices rewriting press releases – relying ever more on corporate or celebrity PR.
Everywhere the corporate business model is threatening quality journalism, cutting at what is perceived to be expensive newsgathering – investigative and original newsgathering.
Increasing commercialisation, coupled with deregulation is damaging journalism for the public good and in the public interest.
So what should be done?
At the heart of this debate must be a total rejection of the idea set out by James Murdoch that profit is the best guarantor of media quality and independence. It’s not.
The supply of the independent information people need to be engaged citizens is too important to be left entirely to companies motivated primarily by profit.
The founders of the free press never thought that freedom of the press would only belong to those who could afford a press. They would have been horrified at the idea that if rich people determine there is not sufficient commercial value in news that communities should be deprived of quality information and quality journalism.
There are those who argue the answer is to keep cutting costs. It isn’t. No newspaper was made better by having fewer reporters.
There are those who argue the answer is to sweep away ownership rules, deregulate media further and allow greater consolidation. It isn’t. Enabling greater concentration of ownership not only undermines plurality but also threatens democracy and in practice leads to fewer jobs, fewer titles, less resources devoted to newsgathering, greater homogenisation and media more remote from the communities they serve. Lack of regulation wasn’t the answer for the financial markets and banks, it is not the answer for media. Regulation in the public interest is.
There are those who argue that the answer is to reduce the newsgathering capacity of public service broadcasters because they represent unfair competition. It isn’t. In the US they don’t have the BBC yet the situation facing the newspaper industry is if anything worse.
And there are those who argue that the answer is to reduce the public service obligations on media. It isn’t. If anything it is to put public service and the public interest increasingly at the heart of media policy.
And so, the case for public support for public service media has never been greater.
We need political action at a national and European level to save, build and sustain newsgathering. We’ve called for an economic stimulus plan for journalism with action aimed at encouraging a variety of voices, across all platforms, a greater plurality, maximised through a combination of different ownership models – commercial, public, mutual, employee, co-operative, for profit and not for profit.
New media could be stimulated through public support in the form of start-up grants, subsidised technology or training grants, solutions driven by journalists and communities themselves – online radio, broadband tv, print and online.
Such moves could be supported by tax breaks for local media who meet clearly defined public purposes, tax credits for individuals subscribing to publications that meet such public purposes.
Such action is not about propping up failing companies or business models but about delivering public service content across platforms. To ensure any public money is used for the public good, for the benefit of the communities media serve – not primarily private businesses and shareholders – clear and enforceable conditions need to be applied – that safeguard the production of original content in the public interest - reinvestment quotas to ensure the maximum amount of public money invested is used for content rather than profit; guaranteed levels of original content.
Politicians say they like such ideas. Restate their commitment to local and national democracy. Recognise media, news and information is vital to that democracy. But say it is not affordable.
Even if you could bring the supply of fair and balanced information down to a simple economic equation, safeguarding the future of the media is not a question of resources but a question of political will.
With the right political commitment we could levy those who profit from re-broadcasting public service content but pay nothing towards its creation. News aggregators – such as Google - exploiting news content for commercial gain, could be charged.
Funding for news is not a question of resources it is a question of political will.
I’m sick of hearing politicians say “but can you imagine what Rupert Murdoch would say about that” while bemoaning the closure of another newspaper, a scaling back of local and regional TV news or the hubbing of yet another set of radio stations.
Without action what we are left with is as Natalie Fenton writes: “a contradiction between the potential of new technologies and the stifling constraints of the free market. The material conditions of contemporary journalism – particularly unprotected commercial practice – do not offer the space to practice independent journalism. On the contrary, job insecurity and commercial priorities place increasing limitations on journalists’ ability to do what most of us want them to – to question, analyse, scrutinise.
Digital media offer us huge opportunities to enhance our democracy through investment in newsgathering and enhancing pluralism. Protection of the internet and journalism from commercial suffocation could create a vastly expanded and critically engaged public space operating in the public interest.
Politicians must find the will to create the structures to enable democracy to flourish.