In Manchester at the local elections, 115,000 turned out to vote. In the 10 days around the election, more people than that within Manchester visited the Manchester Evening News website.
In Birmingham, it was a similar story on the Birmingham Mail website – more people from within Birmingham visited the Mail website than appear to have turned out to vote.
I mention this for two reasons. It debunks the myth the detractors of the regional press put about that brands that have served their communities for over 100 years are irrelevant in the digital age.
But perhaps more importantly, it shows the power returning to journalists to hold public authorities to account for the greater good.
Many of my colleagues were pleasantly surprised by the level of interest in the local elections on the websites I work with. There could be a number of reasons for this. It could be that the determination by the Westminster parties to run the elections as a referendum on current national party politics performance meant fewer outlets focused on local matters. The predicted rise of UKIP could have been a factor.
Or it could be more mundane – most councils now release the results of their elections the day after voting closes, rather than overnight. Websites in towns and cities with next day counts saw, in my experience, more people viewing the results than those that didn’t.
At the Revival of Local Journalism conference, held by the BBC at MediaCity last week, the importance of public authorities being held to account was raised time and again.
The perhaps eternal question around such journalism – similar to the watchdog journalism American newspapers take so seriously – is how do you strike the balance between covering what is clearly important, and what we know is immediately popular with readers?
The Leeds Citizen blog summed this up neatly by doing an instant snapshot of the ‘most read’ lists on a number of news sites and blogs. Note the lack of stories which tick the ‘holding public bodies to account’ box.
Looking at the sites I work with, if you look just at the news section, and filter users just to local locations, the picture changes somewhat. Stories involving public bodies do get attention, because they impact people’s lives. The message I constantly get from audience data is that local issues shift page views, stories about tit-for-tat politics don’t.
The challenge when doing accountable journalism is that it’s actually quite hard. No-one’s asking for stories on a plate – press releases are available for journalists who prefer that sort of work – but it is time for the nodding heads towards accountability within local and national government to take action.
I blogged last week about how some local authorities and other public bodies appear to be abusing the privilege they have now of communicating directly with the public via social media. This is a short-term approach to a long-term change … local councils will find they are trusted less if they deliver spin as fact.
That ability for any organisation to be a publisher means ‘traditional’ publishers finding their way on the web need to establish – or re-establish – credentials which make them stand apart. Helen Goodman, the shadow culture secretary for Labour, told the BBC conference ‘professional journalists’ were required to make such public bodies were held to account.
She went on to say that this will become increasingly important as more devolution occurs. She wasn’t specific here on what devolution would occur under Labour, but it’s been a consistent trend in politics for the last decade to promise more power to the regions.
However, public accountability of those devolved powers has often been forgotten:
- Councils were steadily given more clout over a wider swathe of day-to-day life by Labour, which at the same time tweaked the Local Government Act so that councils weren’t obliged to meet in public, and also introduced the ‘cabinet’-style structures which killed off public debate of issues which affect daily life.
- Regional assemblies hoovered up powers from local councils on the grounds of ‘regional strategy’ and became a turn-to place for the government to consult on matters impacting a region, but access for the media was strictly on the local body’s terms.
- Regional development agencies, given billions of pounds of government cash, weren’t even subject to the Freedom of Information Act until 2010. The Tories then scrapped them.
- School Academies – run by private organisations using public cash – weren’t subject to FOI legislation until 2010, a good three years after the first ones opened. By this time, many regular schools were converting to academy status.
- Foundation Hospitals came with ability to hold board meetings in private and not reveal board papers.
- Local Enterprise Partnerships have been set up to bring public and private organisations together to drive economic growth, but with little detail on how they will be accountable on the money they have from Government to spend. Some, such as Greater Manchester’s do share meeting papers, others, such as Lancashire’s, don’t.
- Even where the coalition has made a big fuss about transparency, it often fails to deliver. The big promise to make police forces release data on the number of people caught at each speed camera and the cash netted appears to have died a death.
- And the biggest fuss of all, for the call for every council to release details of every item of spending over £500. Eric Pickles, the local government secretary, said it was a new dawn for armchair auditors. The reality is much different – it’s impossible to work out what the spending is for.
All of the above make holding public bodies to account much harder than it should be. The Tories are now floating the idea of region-wide mayors to drive economic growth. But as with police and crime commissioners, there’s a real danger that their role becomes confused in the public mind, and journalists struggle to hold them to account for what they are actually responsible for.
As the PCC elections show – with turnout as low as 15% – it’s not enough just to offer people the chance to vote for an extra role in public life. The public needs to understand what the role will do, and how well they do the job.
That’s where the local media plays a part. As local election results show, many people simply don’t care or feel they know enough about the council to bother voting. It’s a long time since the local Press could say more people were reading them during a week than turned out to vote. But it’s where we are now.
Local audience data shows there is an interest in stories which hold public bodies to account and which reveal how their decisions will impact readers’ lives. For local newsrooms everywhere, there is now proof that accountable journalism is also popular journalism.
For local councils and the government, there’s an opportunity to re-engage with voters – by ensuring everything is done to make local bodies easily accountable. As the old saying goes, you only have something to worry about if you’ve got something to hide.