A weakened regional press should worry us

As smaller papers shed resources, openings for pro-Palestinian activists increase.

 

Britain's regional press is in dire straits. The circulation of morning titles is in freefall; the Birmingham Post's, for example, has declined 51 per cent since 1989. Circulation of other titles including the Leicester Mercury, the Northern Echo and the Argus in Brighton - an evening paper - have also been devastated. Weekly titles disappear on a regular basis.

The forces devastating the regional press are not that dissimilar to those which are eroding the circulations of national titles. The difference is that, in the nation's regions and cities, the forces are more pronounced and targeted.

The BBC is among the main culprits. It offers regional news both on television and online and is using the digital revolution to increase its reach into Britain's homes. In addition, paid-for titles must compete with the freesheets. The latter are often short on news but heavy on classified ads, one of the major selling points for local newspapers. Commercial websites offering residential-property advertising, second-hand cars and jobs also have become big rivals to local titles.

Last month, several papers owned by Trinity Mirror (publishers of the Daily Mirror), including the Birmingham Post and Mail and the Coventry Telegraph, were required to accept savage cuts - with up to 70 newsroom jobs going - as integration of websites and the printed word continues apace.
The defenestration of local newspapers, once the main training grounds for national reporters, has important consequences for Anglo-Jewry. With the decline in the number of professional journalists and editors with real status in their local communities, the regional press has become easy meat for activists. These can either be individuals with a particular axe to grind or well-organised and -funded concerns like Palestinian Solidarity.

For a couple of years now, Lionel Jacobs, the Board of Deputies representative in my own Richmond community, has been fighting a lonely battle against biased and inaccurate articles on the Middle East which have been appearing in the Richmond & Twickenham Times.

A similar tussle went on last year in Brighton, where community activists were stunned by the appearance of what was perceived to be anti-Israel material in the main paper, the Argus, and a subsidiary magazine, the Rocks (which has since closed). In both cases, weakened papers, with strains on editorial resources, proved susceptible to articles placed by individuals with connections to organised leftist and pro-Palestinian lobby groups.

In Brighton and Hove, local community representatives, marshalled by Irvyn Isaacs, engaged directly with the editors, sub-editors and reporters at the Argus and the Rocks. What they discovered was not a deliberate policy of favouring the Palestinians, but a paper struggling against cuts which had become vulnerable to accepting contributions from activists with little sympathy towards Israel.

A concordat has been struck under which the Jewish community seeks to bring to the attention of the local paper upbeat stories with a Brighton connection. Among these was the tale of a Brighton emigre to Israel who established a successful football team which includes Jewish and Palestinian players. Similarly, it has already managed to persuade the Argus of the importance of covering a forthcoming regional Limmud, at which there will be several sessions on Israel-Palestinian issues.

The Brighton policy of constructive engagement shows that it is possible, with the right commitment, to counter pro-Palestinian lobbies seeking to take advantage of the weakness of the regional press.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

 

    Last updated: 2:49pm, September 4 2008