Let’s improve public accountability with a local scrutiny levy
When I started off as a local government press officer in east Lancashire, the Accrington Observer had six reporters who were each dispatched to cover the council’s various meetings. Now the paper doesn’t even have an office in the town, writes Kevin Meagher, communications consultant, political blogger and former editor of Postcode Gazette.
It’s the same everywhere. The past decade has seen the precipitous decline of local media titles and the complete hollowing-out of careers in local journalism. Even some of our bigger regional titles are using reporters on short-term contracts, while more experienced staff are put to the sword in round after round of redundancies.
The accumulated intelligence – the institutional memory - of local newspapers is diminished when this happens, with many ceasing to be newspapers of record any longer.
The situation is even worse on weeklies. Without the resources to cover court, or have a reporter spend the afternoon sitting in a council meeting, many of them are now reliant on following-up reports of fly-tipping or scouring Facebook for titbits of community news.
And as these cuts and growing casualization have washed through newspaper groups in recent years, the net result is that councils – and other public bodies – are facing less and less scrutiny from fewer and fewer specialist journalists.
Indeed, it was no surprise that the child sexual exploitation scandal in Rotherham was uncovered by a national investigative reporter, The Times’ excellent Andrew Norfolk.
The chances of all but the most dedicated local reporter finding the time to wade through reams of documents to unearth municipal malfeasance, amid incessant demands to churn out copy, are remote. That’s assuming they have the interest and expertise to do so in the first place.
Yet for our democracy to function properly, we need to be able to hold decision-makers to account. And to do that, we need proper independent scrutiny of what they do in our names. It is clear that the conventional arrangement, where strong local newspapers fulfil this function, is dying.
So what is to be done?
My solution for addressing this problem is to oblige public bodies – councils, the NHS, the police, universities and colleges – to cough up for being held to account through a new local scrutiny levy.
Each public sector organisation in a town or city would pay an amount - depending on their size and budget - that would go towards a bidding pot. (To be clear, we are only talking about a tiny fraction of the collective billion-pound plus public sector budget in an average town).
Newspapers would be able to bid from the pot and the amount they received would depend on them earmarking a dedicated reporter or reporters and guaranteeing to firewall their time and workloads to let them focus solely on public affairs.
And to separate the professionals from the frivolous amateurs, a new journalistic accreditation could be devised to ensure quality control.
Crucially, there is no reason why this pot should not also be available to support the growth of independent specialist bloggers. This would be a massively exciting innovation, transforming the local media landscape and making it financially viable for new one-man operations.
This is all the more important given the changes that have recently taken place in local government, where Communities’ Secretary Eric Pickles has announced that in future anyone will be able to turn up and record council meetings.
This is going to lead to a barmy army of vexatious bloggers making a grand old mess of things. Indeed, it is in the interests of public agencies, who will no doubt grumble about footing the bill for being held to account, to deal with journalistic professionals rather than a potential rag-bag of keen amateurs.
Of course, a closer focus on their work and the decisions they take will undoubtedly lead to greater conflict with reporters. This is to be expected. Quite frankly, public bodies have had an easy ride in recent years. But this change will also see better informed media coverage of their work, allowing them to showcase their successes, improve engagement and build trust with their local communities.
And as we already subsidise the BBC’s public interest journalism through the license fee, there is no great loss of principle in moving towards the partial subsidy of the independent media through this levy. (Indeed, many local newspapers are already reliant on the income from the statutory notices that local authorities are obliged to publish).
Ultimately, if holding the powerful to account is a public good, then given the state of local newspapers and hard commercial reality, we are going to have to help pay for it.
The nub of this change is that key public bodies would receive proper attention from specialist independent journalists, increasing the likelihood that incompetence, waste and anything darker, will receive proper journalistic inquiry.
The scandals in Rotherham and at Mid-Staffordshire Hospital show what can happen when the scrutiny of our public agencies fails. Without a vibrant independent media to tell us about these things, how will we know in future?
Kevin Meagher is a communications consultant and political blogger and a former editor of Postcode Gazette