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

Related Topics

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Retail Team Leader - Clothing / Footwear

£18000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Does this sound like you? - Fri...

Recruitment Genius: Head Chef

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an indepe...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Services Team Leader

£18000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Area Manager - North West - Registered Charity

£31800 - £35400 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This registered charity's missi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Channel 4's Married at First Sight  

Married At First Sight is the social experiment that proves we've forgotten how to fall in love

Ruby Thomas
Dolphin Square where Lord Sewel allegedly took drugs with prostitutes  

Lord Sewel's real crime was joining the House of Lords in the first place

Boris Corovic
Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

Latest on the Labour leadership contest
Froome seals second Tour de France victory

Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

The uses of sarcasm

'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

No vanity, but lots of flair

A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

In praise of foraging

How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food