The SOS for watchdog journalism in the UK and USA

Tuesday 26 January 2010, 16:20

William Horsley William Horsley is the international director of the Centre for Freedom of the Media and media freedom representative of the Association of European Journalists

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A kind of loya jirga of the British media tribe (or tribes) just took place: the Oxford Media Convention.

The young bloods - Google, the Tweeters and believers in 'street-level solutions' - are brazenly celebrating the birth of an era. But the tribal chiefs and elders, most of them, sounded rather as if they were announcing preparations for a funeral - their own.

The message was an SOS for the media's cherished role as the watchdog on power. The name of the body being prepared for burial was Good Public Reporting, also known as Media Scrutiny as the Lifeblood of Democracy.

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Especially local democracy. Thanks to the savage drop in advertising revenues for local papers. Joyce McMillan of the Scotsman raised the spectre of the death of regional papers in the UK. The last two survivors in Scotland - the Herald and the Scotsman - are both at grave risk, she said, despite a series of life-saving efforts. In England, Gloucester is one example of a sizeable city without a local paper of its own.

The consequence of the carnage continuing, she said, would be grave damage to civic life in the affected regions, because it would spell the end of the media's ability to expose failures in local government that affect whole communities.

Sly Bailey, speaking for the Trinity Mirror Group, identified a new and dangerous villain - council newspapers - mini-Pravdas, she calls them, and "propaganda dressed up as news". She blamed them for undermining local papers or driving them out of business and demanded that they be stopped. No defender of the genre was on hand to answer back.

Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, co-organiser of the Convention with the IPPR (Institute for Public Policy Research), was clear that traditional media lack the resources by themselves to fill the growing gap.

Social media and volunteer media workers may have the advantage of local knowledge, he said, but their work was bound to be of unreliable quality.

And there's the rub. It takes professional journalistic skills to report accurately on court cases, for example. And would 'village correspondents' be able to ask tough questions of local police or hospitals?  

Rusbridger's verdict is that "society can't live without verifiable reporting" on public affairs. But we still don't know what kind of hybrid model of local news provision may ultimately prove viable, combining the resources of mainstream media with input from active citizens.

The one-day mediafest included some expected skirmishing about the BBC's privileged position in the fast-changing media landscape, thanks to its uniquely secure funding base.

Sly Bailey called for strict limits on what the BBC can do in the regions, to avoid squeezing out struggling rivals which depend on advertising and sales.

David Wheeldon, director of policy for BSkyB, challenged the assumption that vital services like informing the population about serious aspects of public affairs could only be supplied by the BBC or others backed by public funds. The market was the best source of innovation (but no, he did not repeat James Murdoch's mantra that the profit motive is the only way of giving people independent news!).

For the BBC, Helen Boaden, the Director of BBC News, gave the assurance that the corporation would go on scrutinizing local political institutions as part of the BBC's duty of "sustaining citizenship". She denied suggestions that its size and market reach are damaging the interests of local newspapers. The BBC would restrain itself to that end by remaining "less local than local papers".

And she pointed out that the BBC College of Journalism's website materials are available as a resource for local newspapers. 

The event is an annual pow-wow of the restive and often warring tribes of the UK media scene. This one brought rival presentations from the government and opposition front-benches on the digital future and proposals for saving the UK's local and regional media.

But the big point this year was not that any agreed solutions are in sight. They are not. The most striking thing was that the moguls and strategists of what are called (at least for now) the 'mainstream media' sent out a clear message of distress for the future of an endangered species called 'independently verifiable journalism'.

We are not alone. A lengthy article on 'The Reconstruction of American Journalism' by Michael Schudson and Leonard Downie in last October's Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) illuminates a similar picture in the USA, where internet use has taken far more ground away from traditional media than in Britain.

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The authors' diagnosis is that "the era of dominant newspapers and influential network news divisions is rapidly giving way to one in which the gathering and distribution of news is more widely dispersed" so that "the economic foundation of the nation's newspapers, long supplied by advertising, is collapsing".

Schudson and Downie spell out the consequences of this massive change: much less newspaper reporting of city halls, schools, social welfare, life in the suburbs, local business, culture, the arts, science and the environment.

And these two US citizens have thought further ahead than anyone in this country. They recognise that the internet has vastly increased access to public information and specialist knowledge. But they describe how the dramatic decline of newspapers has also ended much of the day-to-day reporting of governmental and economic activity which used to inform US citizens about their own society. 

They call that "accountability journalism" and contend that it is something no democratic society can survive without. They compare its value with that of other essential public goods, like transport systems, social safety nets and public universities. 

They propose six concrete ways of reviving accountability reporting, including organised investments by foundations and philanthropists, government supports in the form of tax breaks and other privileges, a marriage between journalism and other institutions like universities, and a big programme to expand public television and radio broadcasting (in the general direction of what the BBC provides, in fact).

The CJR article has created quite a stir on both sides of the Atlantic. It's the new Great Debate in journalism. In a modern democracy we need both 'organised citizens' and professional journalism. Maybe journalists should pay more attention to a story that's staring them in the face: the survival crisis of journalism as a vital part of maintaining open societies.  

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