The modern curse of news deserts

With more places lacking a local news service, councils and advisers are increasingly avoiding scrutiny, writes Deputy Editor Jessica Hill

If the local council of Lewisham in South London, Whitby in North Yorkshire or Tiverton in Devon engaged in corrupt practices or recklessly wasted all their funding, there is a high risk that their residents would find out. ever – but not because of an intentional concealment. This is because these three areas are part of a growing number of “information deserts” without a reliable source of information, either because local newsrooms have closed or because publishers have reduced their local reports on these communities.

A recent report by the Charitable Journalism Project on how democracy has been affected in these regions highlights the value of local and trusted journalism and should be read by anyone who thinks the BBC’s licensing fees and reporting service on the local democracy it provides should be reduced. “The alternative is practical but suspicious social media; deserts dominated by Facebook,” laments project president George Brock.

The report focuses on six news deserts in England and one in Wales; of those in England, half (Whitby in North Yorkshire, Corby in Northamptonshire and Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria) are in areas that have recently had or are currently undergoing government reorganization local. Thus, people in these areas do not have a reliable source of local information about significant changes occurring in the way crucial local services are delivered.

Another, Tiverton and Cullompton in Devon, is in a county that is currently negotiating a devolution deal with the government. There was, according to the report’s author, Steven Barclay, “evidence of apathy” and “widespread ignorance” about these political issues in these regions.

Another of the authors commented, “A lot of getting the truth out of things comes down to the local level, especially in the age of fake news. If people don’t understand what is happening locally, it can really undermine democracy.

During the May elections, I observed that councilors who made questionable financial decisions that forced their councils to seek government support to stay afloat were generally not punished in May by local voters; Labor managed to retain most of their seats in Slough with a single Tory win, although local Labor councilors drove him into bankruptcy with debts of £760million.

And the Tories have clung to power in a shaky minority coalition in Peterborough, despite its continued financial turmoil. Neither region has a daily newspaper anymore. It is interesting to compare their election results with that of Croydon, which has also recently flirted with financial ruin.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that this former Labor stronghold has hired local reporters from the daily news site Inside Croydon who tastefully report every misstep of their council. Last month Labor lost control of the council as locals also named a Tory as their first mayor.

At an event in the House of Commons last week to launch the report – which unfortunately was only attended by a small handful of MPs – one participant referred to the former Sunday Times editor’s memoir Harry Evans, in which he spoke fondly of his early career at the end of the Second World War as a local newspaper reporter, and how he was “welcomed with open arms” when he had to “death blows” because people “trusted him” to make history. “Because the public trusted us with the little things – the flower shows – they also trusted us with the big things,” Mr Evans reportedly commented.

There is a lot of truth in this remark. While Mr Evans would have known many of the locals whose lives he wrote about at the time, nowadays much of the information gathering is done remotely via social media and regional office phones and he is unusual for many people to meet a journalist.

We were about 17,000 front-line journalists in 2018, down from 23,000 in 2007, and that number has likely fallen further since the pandemic.

“The images are captured on Google Maps and people notice that the journalism is done remotely. They then trust him less,” Brock said.

In “information deserts”, the lack of local journalists has a ripple effect on the ability of municipalities to communicate their news to residents. Lewisham LBC has its own publication, Lewisham Life, which it distributes to residents and one commentator questioned the ‘appropriateness’ of a council ‘using taxpayers’ money to publicize its activities in a journalistic publication’. “But without press journalism, that’s all people have,” they lamented.

Another impact of the lack of local journalists is that institutions no longer need to employ as many press officers, which can save money but raises accountability issues; Whitby is covered by Scarborough BC, which, LGC notes with some frustration, is nearly impossible to reach as a reporter. A Google search for ‘Scarborough council press office’ brings you to the council’s main customer service line and a voicemail with no option for journalism inquiries – probably because there are so few of them.

Social media was often a ‘source of misinformation’, with respondents commenting on the ‘overall negative influence of these groups’. A Facebook group in one such area, described as “toxic”, had 31,000 followers in a community of 46,000. A far-right group posted a story on its site that led a resident to mistakenly believe that a local church was being torn down and replaced with a mosque.

Concerns have been raised that the local democracy reporting program run by the BBC is not operating as effectively as it should. In some areas, the perception was that people were somewhat aware of what their local council was doing, thanks to the program – but that other local public institutions were not covered much. ‘Nobody has a clue what’s going on with the NHS,’ one person commented.

In one of the ‘news deserts’, a local clinical commissioning group with a budget of £500million has apparently taken special action, but no local media source has mentioned it .

Mr Barclay claimed that in North Northamptonshire – which has a new functioning unitary system which would be well served by local scrutiny of its decisions – there has been a vacancy for a local democracy reporter for “well over ‘a year”. “Because the salary is low and the skills required are high, it seems difficult to find journalists willing to do this,” he said.

Despite its flaws, the local democracy reporting system nonetheless fills a void left by the shrinking local newspaper bureaus. But Mr Brock remarked he would be ‘surprised’ if the BBC extended the programme. “My impression is that they will find it difficult to justify, given the circumstances.”

It’s easy to despair at the current state of local journalism – but hopefully a solution is in sight. The Charitable Journalism Project is campaigning for a change in the law to make it easier for newsrooms to become charities, so they can attract donations and be “accountable for the integrity of their journalism”, as says Mr. Brock. Hopefully the future holds fewer deserts and more media havens, where journalists can hold local politicians accountable for the decisions they make.