Letter from Simon Kelner: Local news for local people makes Britain great


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The Independent Online

One of the more memorable scenes in Armando Iannucci's peerless political satire The Thick Of It has the hapless government minister attempting to boost his popularity by visiting an industrial plant in the Midlands. He is deeply annoyed by the lack of national journalists covering his visit, and complains to his aide.

"We thought it was just a local story," says the aide. "Local story?" fumes the minister. "The shooting of JFK was just a local story, too." Superficially, he was right: of course, the local can very easily become the national. We are blessed in Britain to have the BBC (and don't let anyone convince you otherwise), a broadcasting corporation that cares about serving its public on a local, as well as national, level.

And the Coalition Government cannot be faulted in their intention to invest more power in people at a local level, as enshrined in the Big Society. So it seems rather counter-intuitive to hear that, while BBC cuts will leave, for instance, Radio 4 largely untouched, there appears to be a disproportionate reduction in the budget for local radio.

Unsurprisingly, this has caused some anger from, quite literally (as I believe they say on radio), Penzance to Carlisle, with many voices explaining that the ability to serve local communities, particularly in England, will be seriously impaired.

Let's be honest: to an outsider, quite a lot of the output you might hear when driving through, say, Norfolk would make Alan Partridge blush, but it's the parish pump nature of some of these offerings – disputes over a new bus lane, lamenting the loss of a public convenience and, yes, bin collections – that puts these stations at the heart of local democracy. This is particularly true these days, given the decline, both in standards and ubiquity, of our regional press.

I would argue that local radio does much more for Britain than 6Music, the station that was saved for the nation last year, and we diminish it at our peril. Many of today's nationally renowned broadcasters learnt their trade on local stations – Kate Adie, Richard Bacon, Sophie Raworth, and Michael Buerk, to name a few – and some of the more recent examples of news stories which went quite quickly from local to national – foot and mouth, the floods, the Cumbrian shootings – were all covered with great distinction on our regional radio network.

And where would we be without the phone-in show? There, in all its unvarnished glory, is Britain itself: honest, opinionated and, occasionally, inadvertently hilarious. Like the woman who joined a discussion about unusual places to have sex. When her turn came, she thought for a few seconds, and then responded. Unfortunately, she gave an anatomical rather than geographical answer. Radio gold! See you on the same wavelength tomorrow.