Proof the BBC just doesn’t understand the regional Press – but so easily could make a difference if it did

It’s easy to write a blog post bashing the BBC, especially when writing about the relationship the BBC has had with large parts of the regional press for a long time.

There’s no doubt that there has been a change in thinking and approach within parts of the BBC over the last year, perhaps triggered by the Revival of Local Journalism Conference, spearheaded by the Beeb and held at MediaCity.

I’ve sat on the regional journalism working group which was one of the results of that event for over a year now, working with colleagues from elsewhere within the regional Press, and from other sectors, such as local radio, the hyperlocal community, academia and, of course, a fair few BBC folk.

And I’ve enjoyed working with them. I think progress has been made. The BBC has listened and responded to concerns about lack of linking to original sources of content. It has tried to ensure credit is given where it is due – although national radio and TV remains a law unto itself, seemingly destined to disguise sources of material.

And there has been collaboration too, including a data journalism workshop, another workshop in the planning, support for Trinity Mirror’s Real Schools Guide across the BBC News website and early access to BBC projects which make new headlines for the regional press.

So the BBC’s new collaborative approach – a long time in the coming – is welcome. What I find incredibly frustrating is the insistence of the very top brass at the BBC to try and create a justifiable future for itself by diminishing the work of the local press in 2015.

Ever since James Harding, the head of news at the BBC, published his Future of News report last year – an excellent document in many respects, apart from the analysis of local newspapers – there has been an absolute failing to acknowledge that their view of the local press as articulated in that report is wide of the mark.

It marked a departure from his plaudits about the regional Press aired ahead of his revival of local journalism conference:

“Budgetary pressures have been brought to bear on regional newsrooms in recent years and there is a concern about the impact this is having on our society and our democracy. But is the pessimism overdone? Local newspapers are reinventing themselves for the age of mobile and social media; new forms of local journalism are emerging online; local and hyperlocal radio is proving to be commercially resilient, not to mention very popular; mobile phone operators are experimenting in the area; new television operators are starting out; and, from local radio to the nightly regional news on TV, we at the BBC see that nothing matters more to our audiences than what’s happening where they live.”

Is the pessimism overdone? Yes – and largely due to the BBC. Indeed, last week’s News Media Association report about the BBC was spot on when it said the BBC “misreads and overplays the imminent demise of other news media”.

And the problem that causes is that people believe the BBC and get the wrong impression. When even such experts as Roy Greenslade proclaim that the public is “getting less and less information at a local and regional level” – ignoring  the fact that many newsrooms now publish more articles than ever before – it shows the impact the BBC’s myth-making is having.

There is no denying that the number of people working in regional journalism is declining, but that’s very different to describing the regional press as in decline. The regional press, like the BBC, like all forms of media, is in a period of transition but as last month’s record ABCe numbers for many titles showed, in terms of audience, the regional press has rarely been bigger. As revivals go, the regional news is already on its way.

The Future of News Report, as far as its coverage of local Press is concerned, felt more a production from BBC Drama than BBC News. It flagged up the closure of the Reading Post, only later returning to fact that getreading still exists online (and reaches more people daily with local news than any other news provider in the area). It asked who was there to cover a hospital scandal in Scarborough now that Scarborough doesn’t have a daily newspaper. The answer, of course, was the excellent weekly newspaper, which did a fine job – and provided far more depth than the local BBC did.

It packed the report full of data about job losses – but failed to check with publishers if the numbers were accurate. An organisation with the reputation the BBC enjoys should never find itself in the position of being accused of ensuring the facts don’t get in the way of a good story, yet that is where it found itself.

The story the BBC wished to push was that there is a democratic deficit in parts of the UK and as the only media outlet tasked with providing coverage equally across the whole of the UK, it is the BBC that can solve this problem. It claimed local journalism was failing. This is nothing new. It also claimed that the areas suffering such a democratic deficit were getting bigger, but failed to provide evidence.

I look at papers and websites every day. Locally to me, there’s nothing to suggest councils are getting any less scrutiny than they were 10 or 20 years ago. But it is much harder to scrutinise public bodies, something the BBC could address, but chooses not to.

A plan to create 100 journalists covering public affairs would be doomed to fail. 100 journalists covering 433 principle councils, 155 main NHS Trusts, 209 Clinical Commissioning Groups, 41 police and crime commissioners … and apparently they’ll cover 92 crown courts too.

For public affairs journalism to make a difference, for it to matter, it needs to get the attention of people. For the BBC, it’s enough just to be seen to be doing public affairs journalism, for the press it’s case of combining the moral duty journalists feel towards holding those in power to account with the need to ensure it reaches a wide audience.

Jeff Jarvis rightly argues that for journalism to survive it needs to connect with people, and that will involve taking sides with the community and campaigning with them. The BBC simply can’t do that, nor can people employed by them to cover public service journalism. Simply reporting public affairs isn’t enough.

Content decisions aren’t entirely based on the number of people available to cover a story – the interest of the public in that story is also a factor. This isn’t new to online – although analytics make it easier to track – it has always been the case.

The challenge is about making people realise that stories about public bodies are relevant to them. Voter turnout is at an all-time low, and trust in those making decisions is rock-bottom too. That’s not because of the media, that’s a much wider issue.

Journalism can help, by working to make the stories about public institutions more appealing to people, by explaining the relevance. It can, and does, work. The Western Mail, Birmingham Mail, Nottingham Post, Northern Echo, Newcastle Journal and The Scotsman prove this every day.

Commentators like Greenslade (and he’s just one of many) still believe councils are covered by sitting through long, dull meetings. The Local Government Act changes in 2000 did away with the notion of public decision-making. Many NHS Trusts do their best to release as little information as possible. Education is becoming harder to cover because of the many ways it is run – directly by government, through councils, or via almost private companies.

Courts, too, are a cottage industry of adjournments which drive all within the system to distraction, newsdesks included. And with so many magistrates courts closing, the likelihood is fewer cases will be covered.

The way to solve the above is for the industry to present a united front on access to information. Court lists as standard. Standard accountability at local authorities. No giving lack of transparency as a prize for delivering government reform, as was the case with school academies and Foundation NHS Trusts. And committing, publicly, that with devolution will come the ability to monitor, report on and hold account those who are making decisions. The BBC could help lead the charge here.

I don’t doubt the challenge the BBC faces in protecting itself for the future. But creating phantom menaces and jumping up and down like a petulant child and pointing to perceived weaknesses in the regional Press isn’t the way to aid the continued revival of journalism. And it risks undoing a lot of the hard work done by many of its team in building relationships with the local Press too. That alone would be a very sad state of affairs.

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