Tim Luckhurst: Hunt's local splash is good news for all

Media Studies: British local newspapers have shed hundreds of journalists and many have abandoned entirely the democratic scrutiny of local councils, courts and businesses
Click to follow
The Independent Online

In their 2004 spoof, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, writers Adam McKay and Will Ferrell celebrated an age when local television news was virile. "There was a time before cable," the narrator reminds us, "When the local anchorman reigned supreme... He was like a god walking amongst mere mortals."

In America, such parochial superstars still generate profits. Their British counterparts are less valuable, so ITV's retreat from local news has accelerated. It has taken a long time to prove, but the 1955 Conservative government's division of the UK into nine regional television markets was badly flawed. The regions were too big to inspire intense affection. And, in the internet era, fresh competition for revenue has forced ITV to retreat further from localism.

Local television advertising sells in the US because there are 220 franchise areas each appealing to a distinct community. Britain, in contrast, has ITV companies such as Meridian, which serves a "region" stretching from Oxford to Dover.

Jeremy Hunt, our clever new media secretary, thinks he has a solution. Abandoning Labour's plan for independently financed regional news consortia, Mr Hunt thinks he can nurture genuinely local commercial television. He asks why Birmingham, Alabama has eight local television stations while Birmingham, England has none.

Hunt enthuses about the US pattern in which independent local affiliates of national commercial stations produce three or four hours per day of local programming and fill their schedules with network shows. When he outlined his strategy last week a chorus of disapproval arose from Welsh and Scottish Labour and nationalist politicians. Pauline McNeill, Labour's shadow culture secretary at Holyrood, protested about "the Con-Dem's refusal to protect local news". Hywel Williams of Plaid Cymru said the Welsh "will not now be allowed a wider spectrum of news".

Hunt and his critics are answering different questions. The Secretary of State is proposing a market model that would let genuinely local media companies make intensely local programmes. The opposition's nostalgia for IFNC's is rooted in their desire to maintain competition against the BBC's output for the nations and regions.

Of course, diversity at a regional level suits devolved politicians. They crave coverage and fear the emergence of a BBC monopoly. But the sort of diversity they want is unsustainable in the multimedia era. By pursuing it they risk making their self-interest the enemy of robust local journalism. Local is popular, and it is possible that television for small communities can challenge the BBC's regional fare, not by competing with it head-to-head, but by offering an alternative viewers will prefer. But such programming will only include good journalism if it is offered as an element in a multimedia package. To understand why, politicians should look beyond television to the broader state of American journalism.

In their report, The Reconstruction of American Journalism, Leonard Downie Jr and Professor Michael Schudson show that declining US newspapers are "disgorging thousands of trained journalists who are now available to start and staff new kinds of local news organisations". They identify compelling examples. Across America local newspapers are being replaced or augmented by truly local websites and multimedia partnerships. This tailoring of services to local and hyper-local markets is viable, but it involves commercial and voluntary-sector partnerships of a type that hardly exist in the UK and some of which are blocked by cross-media ownership rules.

Last week Jeremy Hunt asked Ofcom to consider abandoning these pre-internet era rules. He believes diversity and the current requirements for competing news providers in each region have become incompatible. American experience suggests such restrictive regulation may prevent the growth of a strong, new culture of local reporting.

US local television has never been able to afford much original reporting and it employs few reporters. A recent study of local news stations found that 90 per cent of their stories covered accidents, crimes or staged events. Local affiliate stations were created to provide a service that would augment strong local newspapers. They have never seen themselves as standalone news suppliers. To secure good local journalism Mr Hunt should not contemplate television alone. British local newspapers are impoverished, too. They have shed hundreds of journalists and many have abandoned entirely the democratic scrutiny of local councils, courts and businesses.

Any deregulation of cross-media ownership must promote partnership between newspapers, broadcasters and web publishers that can fill this growing democratic deficit. Regional television belongs to a bygone age. The future will be local, multimedia and commercially, as well as technologically, converged. If the Secretary of State is wise it can enhance local democracy too. That would be a real triumph for the "big society".

ABCs: A Bit of Cheer?

For 21st-century journalists, reading Audit Bureau of Circulations figures is an exercise in masochism. Circulations have been declining fast enough to make Panglossians miserable. Journalists aged over 50 dare to hope print may endure until the end of their careers. Everyone else prays online micro-payments, paywalls or apps will make the web pay. But May's ABC's offered hope. Every quality British newspaper increased its circulation during the election campaign. The Independent did particularly well, up 3.39 per cent. Two conclusions: serious times demand excellent reporting and hope is cruel. They are not mutually exclusive.

Green with envy

As Sunday newspapers in England mulled Robert Green's custodial catastrophe, editors in Scotland struggled to stop schadenfreude erupting as rapture. "England's keeper calamity", declared the Sunday Mail. The Sunday Herald investigated the "shocking revelation" that some Scots may be supporting England. The evidence? A poll suggesting that 38 per cent of Scots did not care if England won or lost and 24 per cent were supporting America. Devolution and decline may have calmed Scottish newspaper jingoism, but it seems the narcissism of small differences survives.

Tim Luckhurst is Professor of Journalism at the University of Kent. Stephen Glover is away