United Kingdom

Will hyper local reporting make councils more or less accountable?

By: Vicky Sargent @vickysargent
Published: Monday, September 1, 2014 - 14:02 GMT Jump to Comments

Will encouraging small web-based news providers deliver more effective public interest reporting than subsidising what’s left of traditional print media?

Last month, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles signed a Parliamentary order allowing press and public to report from all public meetings of local government bodies.

This resolved an issue that had led to skirmishes up and down the country, as local bloggers and reporters from ‘hyperlocal’ publications - spawned by the Internet - attempted to cover local democracy at work.

In the run up to the change, councils had been reacting in various ways to this new band of scrutineers, some restricting access only to ‘accredited press’ (usually paid journalists from the dwindling ranks of traditional media), others drawing the line at audio recording and cameras. Scuffles and police attendance were sometimes involved, with that old favourite, health and safety regulations, also invoked as a blocking mechanism.

Announcing the changes, Pickles said there was now ‘no excuse’ for behaviour like this, and that councils would be brought ‘into the 21st century’ allowing ‘a robust and healthy local democracy’.

Not everyone got the message immediately though. A Staffordshire newspaper reported that, on the same day Pickles signed the order, a local councillor opened a planning committee meeting with the statement: “If anyone has a recording device will they turn that off. This meeting will be recorded and any member of the public who requires a copy can apply to the council under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain one.”

News of the dawn of this new era will presumably reach those it needs to in time, but will it make any difference to local democracy and accountability? There are a number of anxieties.

First, what publishers, traditional or new media, have the resources to cover all these meetings and pick out the nuggets of interest from the vast landscapes of possibly important but nevertheless boring processes? Traditional local newspapers with trained, professional reporters and longtime access to council proceedings have found it harder and harder to justify the expense of this sort of reporting. Hyperlocal news providers, most of which rely on volunteers and only a quarter of which cover their own running costs, seem unlikely to pick up the baton in any comprehensive way.

Second, some commentators have suggested that as councils apparently open up, some have already started to move the real decision-making to informal pre-meetings that are not recorded.

Third, whatever the surface openness, critics point out that the complexities of official processes and procedures allow councils plenty of scope to do what they like and avoid accountability. One member of the Neighbourhood Planning Linkedin group is currently complaining that:

“My local District Council ' forgot' to notify anyone, or to put a notice on site or on its website, that it had received a notice of intent to dispose of our vacant village shop, listed as an ACV’ [ie an asset of community value, that, under the Localism Act, the community has a right to bid for when in comes up for sale]. He continues: “They have apologised, after a fashion, but say there is nothing they can do and we are now in the 18 month 'protected period'.”

On the plus side, there is evidence that for all their tiny resources, hyperlocal media can, and do, hold local public bodies to account. The State of Hyperlocal Community News in the UK, published in July by a team of media academics, found that of the 183 sites covered by the study, 42% had instigated their own campaigns over issues such as planning disputes, cuts to public services and local council accountability.

The study also noted that 44% of the respondents claimed to have carried out an investigation where the site “helped to uncover controversial new information about local civic issues or events”. Subjects of these included: the dumping of food waste by local traders, the council turning a greenfield site to brown field to enable building, plans for a free school that had not been announced, and plans to close a leisure centre.

To what extent participatory journalism like this really can challenge those in power remains to be seen.

The Carnegie UK Trust is running a current project that touches on this issue. The Neighbourhood News project is funding five UK hyperlocal websites to develop and expand their local news, information, and accountability outputs, and studying the impact in the places where they operate.

According to Talk About Local, a hyperlocal media support organisation that is working with the programme, the exercise has raised some pertinent questions for UK local media policy. In particular, whether encouraging market entry by many small web-based news providers might serve local media plurality, and public interest reporting, better than current policies that subsidise what’s left of traditional print media to limp on in our towns and cities.

The State of Hyperlocal Community News in the UK

Neighbourhood News Interim Evaluation Report for Carnegie UK Trust 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.

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