David Byers

We still need local scrutiny

Should there be a levy on the big social media companies to fund local and investigative journalism? David Byers thinks there should.

July 06, 2017 13:56

"Urine Pours Down On My Head!” screamed the Gloucester Citizen newspaper’s eye-opening front-page headline in the summer of 2002. It was, undoubtedly, the silliest story of my career — but to this day also one of my favourites because of what it says about the tenacious community press in which I used to work, and its modern failings.

A visibly distressed woman had just visited our office, complaining that six dogs were, quite literally, relieving themselves through her ceiling. This, she claimed, was because the man living in the flat upstairs was keeping his pets confined all day in filthy conditions, never allowing them outside. I went to the scene and established (through mild nausea) that the story was true. After we published it, the local council duly served the neighbour with an environmental health order and repairs were then swiftly scheduled for the poor woman’s flat.

The Citizen used to run about 10 stories like this per week (mostly on rather more tasteful themes), with many gleaned from council meetings we attended. Residents frustrated with council inaction rang us, and we aired their grievances. The paper got things done, and councillors knew we didn’t miss a trick.

Here’s the bad news: the local newspaper industry doesn’t do that any more. In 2016, weekly local papers lost 11.2 per cent in print circulation, while regional dailies fell by 12.5 per cent — a trend that has gone on for 20 years. Many have merged with neighbours or slashed reporters, paying the price for being hopelessly slow to anticipate the digital news revolution. Keith Perch, former Leicester Mercury editor, suggests that some newspapers have lost 80 per cent of staff in the past 10 years.

This new lack of local scrutiny matters for communities all over Britain, including British Jewry, and here’s why.

Imagine if residents of Grenfell Tower had had at their disposal a powerful local organ with which to interrogate Kensington and Chelsea council about their safety worries. We know the residents’ association alerted the council and blogged about their concerns extensively, but no one was around to notice, and no journalists were attending council meetings.

For Jewish community groups, meanwhile, papers like the Jewish Chronicle are a critical force for exactly the same reason: after all, if the Jews have no one to stand up for them, or scrutinise our community leaders, then who will? The JC’s pioneering investigation into Labour’s cover-up on antisemitism at Oxford University illustrates this perfectly.

So what, then, is the solution? The National Union of Journalists has called for subsidies for the regional press. A precedent already exists in France, where the media receives more than €1 billion a year. Opponents retort that the industry’s failure to keep up with the modern world is its own fault and the market-place should dictate which news organs survive.

There might just, however, be a fairer and more radical option worthy of consideration: in a report last year, think-tank ResPublica suggested that new media platforms, like Google and Facebook (accused recently over giving airtime to fake news), ought to pay a one per cent levy from their revenue into a pot to fund local and investigative journalism. This sum would represent a drop in the ocean for both companies, which generate billions annually from — among other things — displaying the stories of other news organisations.

British Jews would benefit from such a plan, too: for years, we have been victims of fake news and conspiracies published online — a digital manifestation of what we have endured for centuries.

A “new media levy” like this could breathe new life into the half-dead forces of properly sourced journalism and strike a blow against the disreputable blogs which poison people’s minds. It could provide a desperately needed victory for truth in these uncertain political times.

David Byers is assistant editor (property and personal finance) at The Times.



July 06, 2017 13:56

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