Why does Whitehall give local newspapers such a hard time?

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The Independent Online

It is tough to make predictions, especially about the future. Here's one: that people will still be turning to their local newspapers a generation from now.

One of my dot.com friends was talking the other day about the forthcoming demise of what he called the Dead Tree Daily. Halfway through a discourse on how one could get to the grassroots through a chatroom, I stopped him. I am as keen on the computer as the next nerd, but if he changed the nomenclature a bit, he was describing a few of the functions provided efficiently, cheaply and reliably by a good local newspaper.

It listens to what people have to say and gives them a platform.But it also does something that the cheerful anarchy of cyberspace cannot: it can deploy reporters and photographers to investigate things affecting the community that people in control, in business, trade unions and government, would prefer concealed.

A wisely led local newspaper can lend its authority and promotional powers to campaign for action from the inert and honesty from the dissemblers. Its credibility is enhanced by the fact that it lives in the real world and must be prepared to defend itself against terrestrial prosecution.

As I write, the Press Gazette arrives with the news that my old paper, The Northern Echo, has won a High Court campaign of benefit to the whole community. It sought and won the permission of the Bishop Auckland Youth Court in County Durham to name a boy of 15 convicted over and over again of burglary, stealing cars, intimidating witnesses and assaulting a policeman. The boy's solicitor appealed, but the High Court upheld the magistrates' decision. The public's right to be protected, it ruled, outweighed a gang leader's right to anonymity. Remarkably, The Northern Echo's crime correspondent was allowed to address the magistrates. He was, they acknowledged, speaking for the local community.

The good local newspaper does that every week - and lets the community speak for itself. In this regard, it is superior to Fleet Street. It seeks sensation for the sake of circulation at its peril, for it must live in the community. I will never forget the greengrocers who arrived angrily at my office in Darlington when we unfavourably compared their produce and prices with those in Newcastle.

The local newspaper reflects and enhances the values of the community. It does not recklessly intrude. It will encourage the strivers as well as the achievers. It is interested in the happy commonplace. It has sense of proportion. When we pick up a good local newspaper anywhere, we can say: "So this is how it is here."

Regrettably, an appreciation of what the local newspaper represents has not galvanised Whitehall. I believe Tony Blair meant it when he proclaimed a new era of open government, but the drafters of legislation, by clumsiness or cunning, have framed bills that, for all the rhetoric, would enable local government to present its public with faits accomplis, decided in secret without advance provision of agenda papers.

Local newspaper editors are right to argue back, and their publics, whom they serve so loyally, would do well to support them in Local Newspaper Week with a little old-fashioned letter writing. E-mail if you like.

Harold Evans has been editor of 'The Sunday Times' and 'The Northern Echo', and president of Random House