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