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Natalie Fenton: New ways of opening up local news

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The relationship between news and democracy only works under certain conditions. It is not a given. Local and regional news is in crisis. The crisis is being managed by closing papers or shedding staff. These cuts are having a devastating effect on the quality of the news. Job insecurity and commercial priorities place increasing limitations on journalists’ ability to do the journalism most of them want to do – to question, analyse and scrutinize. What we’re left with is a contradiction between the democratic potential of news media and the stifling constraints of the free market. The material conditions of contemporary journalism (particularly unprotected, unregulated commercial practice) do not offer optimum space and resources to practice independent journalism in the public interest.

Both Labour’s proposals for the Independently funded News Consortia (IFNC) and the Conservative proposals for the Local Multi-Media Companies (LMC) mean a radical change in the current rules on cross-media ownership – either getting rid of them altogether through complete deregulation (in the Tories plan) or significantly relaxing them in Labour’s plans. The inevitable result is a series of local commercial monopolies owned by a few national conglomerates. Unsurprisingly, the prime concern of these news owners will not be the relationship between news and democracy but profit margins and share returns.

Is there really no alternative? Would these forms of local journalism really deliver the plurality, range and depth of reporting that would facilitate democracy or will it be more of the same, corporate at its core, reluctant to question local power and disinclined to defy local business interests.

We need a renewed emphasis on freedom, plurality and integrity in news and journalism. By freedom I mean having the freedom to act in the public interest and not be entirely beholden to commercial gain. This could be enabled through the creative use of tax benefits and injections of other funding through the likes of industry levies with a commitment to support public service content and quality journalism.  Any cross-media merger should have to pass a public interest test as part of any new cross-media ownership regulation. In this brave new world where profit is not the only principle, local and regional media would be encouraged to embrace new structures of governance designed to protect and preserve the quality and diversity of news content. This type of governance would need to safeguard independence of the news organisations, but could also increase the involvement of civil society within local communities. Plurality means protecting and enhancing a diversity of media content – a task that has never been more vital. An enhanced local media should actively seek to increase media plurality in order to facilitate and maintain certain levels of news coverage in the public interest. This may mean that community media and mainstream media link up more readily and share training and facilities as well as cross-promoting content.

Integrity also means strengthening the transparency and accountability of news content production - ensuring that we know where each story has come from and who has produced it - particularly relevant for online and repackaged content that could become a sort of digital kitemark. To qualify for tax benefits commercial news media should be required to meet pre-established standards of transparency in news reporting/writing Revitalising or replacing the Press Complaints Commission so that it too includes direct representation of civil society associations including the media unions and offers some recourse not just to the public but to journalists who dissent from their owners directions.

We need to ensure that however local/regional news operates it does so within a value system based on the public interest. We need more thought about future funding models that recognise and regulate for the relationship between news and democracy. Sole reliance on fully commercial enterprises for the deliverance of news and current affairs journalism that purports to be for the public good and in the public interest has failed. In a particularly harsh commercial environment, we need to preserve and protect the things that news journalism ought to be doing – to monitor, to hold to account and to facilitate and maintain deliberation – we neglect this at our peril. To ignore it is to accept that the market can be relied upon to deliver the conditions for deliberative democracy to flourish. Markets do not have democratic intent at their core. When markets (and business models) fail or come under threat, ethical practice is swept aside in pursuit of financial stability. Protecting the public interest requires both a more determined stance on media concentration and a more imaginative approach to securing media plurality. One that is based not simply on economic benefits but on the advantages of stimulating vigorous debate and critical perspectives and securing the relationship between news media and democracy.