Why health of local papers is more important to democracy than the crumpling of big media…

This year and last year we have deliberately left out the big three newspaper titles from our local newspaper competition. The reason for that is that to lump them in with the Mourne Observer, Mid Ulster Mail and the Londonderry Sentinel would be uneven competition. But also because they have in the past been the pure life blood of politics at its most local. Now that has been under pressure for years. In today’s Guardian George Monbiot offers a case study of what happens when local papers stop caring:

I’m prompted to write this by a remarkable episode in my home town, Machynlleth, which illustrates the problem everywhere. A battle has been raging here over Tesco’s attempt to build a superstore on the edge of town. Its application received 685 letters of objection and five letters of support(2), but the town council, which appears to believe everything Tesco says, supports the scheme. The local paper, the Cambrian News, appears in turn to believe everything the council tells it.

A couple of weeks ago consultants hired by Powys county council published a retail impact assessment which supports the arguments put forward by the objectors(3). If the new store is built, the assessment says, it will cause trade in the centre to decline and generate longer and less sustainable shopping trips. How did the Cambrian News respond to this devastating blow to Tesco’s application? By running a smear job on its front page.

According to the town clerk, the consultants had fabricated a complaint by the local butcher. They had claimed to represent his views in their assessment, saying that he feared he would be forced out of business by Tesco – “but they haven’t even spoken to him!” (4) The News, ironically, ran this story without speaking to the butcher, the consultants, or, apparently, performing even the briefest check. Its only informants were the town clerk and the councillors, who lined up to say that the behaviour of the consultants was “disgusting”, that they were “scaremongering” and that they should apologise to the butcher. It took me 30 seconds to discover that the story was completely untrue: the assessment says nothing about the butcher or his shop(5).

I asked the editor of the Cambrian News to tell me whether her reporter had read the assessment before filing his story or whether anyone at the paper had checked it. Her response was priceless. “Any information that we obtain, we keep exclusively for the Cambrian News and do not pass it on to rival newspapers.”(6) I pointed out that I wasn’t trying to steal her non-story, but asking her to defend her decision to publish it. She has not replied.

This petty affair is a synecdoche for the state of local journalism. Most local papers exist to amplify the voices of their proprietors and advertisers, and other powerful people with whom they wish to stay on good terms. In this respect they scarcely differ from most of the national media. But they also contribute to what in Mexico is called caciquismo: the entrenched power of local elites. This is the real threat to local democracy, not the crumpling of the media empires of bigoted millionaires.

I hope that acts as a prompt for you to vote in the best local newspaper of the year

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  • Great article by Monbiot, it seems now the bankers have got their greedy snouts into the public purse those who own the local media are after their slice of taxpayers coin. Can I expect a hue and cry here on slugger about scroungers etc, similar to that which regularly goes up when a media generated campaign is mounted against so called benefit scourgers and those who rightly claim DLA and sickness benefit.

    I will not be holding my breath, as we live in a nation in which those least able to defend themselves have become fair game for the media to attack and pillory, whilst many of sluggers nice middle class correspondents line up to wipe the bottoms of the rich and powerful.

  • “whether anyone at the paper had checked it”

    Mick, this isn’t just a problem for the local media as the ‘Not Marconi’s Cottage’ story on NALIL shows. Ballymoney and Moyle Times published the press release with a query and the Ballycastle Chronicle published a history of Marconi’s visit to Ballycastle:

    I read with amazement your article in last week’s edition of the Chronicle as I did in the national newspapers and on television that Marconi’s cottage was on the market for sale, that this is where experiments took place and that Marconi may have stayed at this cottage. There is no local evidence to support these claims at all and it creates a totally wrong impression of what actually did happen in the summer of 1898.

    “Most local papers exist to amplify the voices of their proprietors and advertisers, and other powerful people with whom they wish to stay on good terms.”

    George is on the money here. One former local newspaper photographer told me earlier this year that his former employer was now prepared to ignore court reports that reflected badly on their ‘important’ customers.