The prospect of the challenges facing local media being the subject of a six-minute feature on Radio 4’s PM programme is something which should be celebrated.
A chance for a sensible analysis of an industry facing huge upheaval, but still fighting to provide a useful public service to an audience which remains to be convinced it needs that service at all, by an organisation which prides itself on accuracy and impartiality.
So what on earth went wrong with Alice Hutton’s report on the PM programme about the regional press this week, and the follow-up article online which was not only one-sided, but horrendously inaccurate too?
The choice of journalist for this piece was perhaps a surprise, from an organisation which has reportedly banned journalists who express an opinion on equal pay within the BBC from reporting on equal pay at the BBC. Hutton has made it clear in the past her view of those running the regional press:
Yes, the Cambridge News front page was incredibly embarrassing, and Hutton played her part in ensuring it was seen far and wide. What’s more, the phrase ‘chewing off another limb’ hardly suggests an unbiased view on an issue which she was later to report. How long would a political reporter remain on air if they described Tory government cuts as ‘chewing another limb off Whitehall’?
As for ‘corrupt press barons’….
But, and I’ve argued this before, it should be possible for journalists to engage in the expressing of opinions and still report fairly. Sadly, PM proved that perhaps I’m wrong.
The audio picks up with a man who was a printer for the Coventry Evening Telegraph, which like many newsrooms, no longer shares a site with the printing press and is much smaller than it was. Like a washing line after a mix-up on laundry day, the piece then hangs up unconnected items as evidence of the decline of the press, while never asking the question: “Why?”
We hear that half of all Westminster constituencies no longer have a daily newspaper (which is rubbish, and takes all of 10 minutes for any journalist to see).
We hear that the Swindon Advertiser staff went on strike in January. We hear from the NUJ that newspapers are declining because they are less local than ever before (even though their newsrooms reach more people online than at any point since the 1970s).
We get the impression Grenfell would have been less likely to happen had the local Press reported on the concerns of local residents – even though there is zero evidence that the local media would have had any greater impact on the powers that be than the brave bloggers who did take the council on.
We even hear from Jonathan Heawood, chair of the press regulator IMPRESS, which has failed to convince any major publisher that it would be a fair regulator, lamenting the fact that most of the BBC-funded democracy reporters are to be employed by major publishers rather than independent ones, (of which a few have enrolled to regulated by IMPRESS for now).
Yet there’s no space in the six minutes of prime BBC Radio 4 airtime to get the views of any major publisher, other than to lump statements from Trinity Mirror, Newsquest and Johnston Press into a couple of summary sentences. In fairness, no time for the BBC to explain how its tendering process for the local democracy reporters project worked either, so at least there’s a fairness in the unbalance.
Most crucially, there’s zero discussion online news – or the revenue challenges which afflict all publishers. These aren’t just nice to haves when discussing the impact of journalism, or the future of journalism, but the very cornerstones on which to have the discussion. And much more relevant than the fact the Coventry Evening Telegraph’s old offices are becoming a pop-up tourist attraction in their own right.
Hutton’s piece went online today, too. The NUJ’s comments made way for mention of the Cambridge News front page which Hutton sought to share last year – indeed she even concluded the infamous front page was linked to cuts at the paper, and found a former deputy editor to back up that point. Was it?
An HMRC court case involving former Cambridge News owners Iliffe Media is referenced, but not a word about the fact Lord Iliffe has launched a new newspaper, the Cambridge Independent, in competition to his old title. Far be it from me to celebrate the competition, but doesn’t that strike you as odd?
At least, the assertion that the company I work for, Trinity Mirror, made staff at the Manchester Evening News redundant weeks after they covered the Manchester bombing so magnificently, was removed after it was pointed out the evidence they linked to was 11 months earlier – and also involved new jobs being created:
No correction at the foot of the article, explaining the error – despite it being promoted and there for all to read for hours on end. What are we to read into an error at the BBC? Is it a sign, like the Cambridge News front page is supposed to be?
The nearest we get to the true issues facing journalism is when Bureau Local’s editor Megan Lucero is interviewed and says: “It rests on how we see journalism- do we see it as a service or do we think it needs to thrive alone as a business? That is a decision we have to make as a society.”
That we get to hear jazz music playing in the old reception of the Coventry Evening Telegraph rather than analysis of that final point is, at best, a missed opportunity. At worst, it paints a misleading picture of an industry which still delivers more local news than anyone else and reaches more local people than anyone else.
The tragedy of the PM piece is that it will inform views of the local media by people who don’t know the ins and outs of what’s really going on – and that false impression should be a source of shame to the BBC, and one it should look into.
I hate moaning about journalism, because there are enough people doing it already. But when, as a journalist, you come away from a piece of work knowing it’s wrong, and unable to work out why it’s so wrong, you start to see the world through the eyes of people who feel the media gets things wrong.
When challenged on this, Hutton said she didn’t have space to mention everything she had wanted to. Which as a journalistic excuse, especially when so vocally critical about those you subsequently report on, doesn’t wash. Maybe the BBC will consider making their online piece more balanced now. And follow up on the PM programme with a more considered piece. We live in hope.
Amol Rajan, the BBC’s media editor, took to Twitter to praise the piece. The BBC’s Welsh media editor did too. That neither could see how hopelessly one-sided and fundamentally inaccurate the PM piece and the follow-up online article were, is as astonishing as it is frightening.
Local journalism is too important to be misrepresented in such a one-sided way. Doing so only harms it further.