The BBC and the future of news – Investing in local democracy

BBC, by Tony Hall 


The third area we are really focusing on is investing in local journalism and supporting local democracy.

We’re all aware of the effect commercial pressures have had on local journalism. In the last decade, circulation for local newspapers has halved. Titles have merged or folded right across the country. We’ve seen a net loss of 245 since 2015.

There’s an irony that, in a time of so much information, the flow of information we all need to participate in democracy where we live has been drying up.

Last month, Dame Frances Cairncross’ report into the future of UK media made the stakes clear. She underlined that, as the number of local reporters has shrunk, so has their coverage of the whole machinery of local democracy.

In Port Talbot, a study found that reporting of council and political meetings declined by 90 per cent when the local paper closed.

In West London, the Cairncross report highlighted concerns that the decline of the Kensington and Chelsea News was a factor in council’s failure to act on residents’ concerns over safety risks at Grenfell Tower prior to the tragic fire.

What’s now happening in local radio is amplifying the damage to local communities.

Last year, Ofcom issued new guidelines allowing station owners to reduce the minimum amount of hours of local programming on local radio – from seven daytime hours to just three. They also removed a requirement for local stations to produce their own breakfast show.

Already we’ve seen the results of this.

We’ve seen the axing of around 60 local breakfast and drive-time programmes, to be replaced with shows hosted from London. Dedicated studios will be closing from Brighton to Lancaster, Kendal to Kent, Swindon to Norwich. Huge swathes of the country will be covered by a single programme.

Now, I’ve had the opportunity to visit virtually all the BBC’s 40 or so local radio stations in the past few years and what strikes me is how they are so often part of what actually defines our communities, gives them their sense of identity.

BBC Radio Merseyside is brilliant, for example – but then I would say that, wouldn’t I? It’s been defining scouseness for 50 years. And it says something that it was recently awarded the Freedom of the City of Liverpool for its service to the community and relationship with listeners.

At the BBC our priority must be to fill the gap – to move even closer to local communities. That’s why I want to invest more in local radio and create new shows on our local stations. That’s why we want to give station editors more creative freedom to celebrate local life, reflect local identity, make local voices heard.

I have always believed that the BBC should find ways to support a healthy local media ecology. Not least because it’s so often what communities trust and rely on most. So I’m proud that we’re working in partnership with regional newspapers and the local media sector more widely to support a new network of local democracy reporters. They’re managed by local media, but funded by the BBC. And it’s their job to hold local politicians and public institutions to account across the UK.

One year since launch, we have 136 reporters in post. And they’ve produced more than 50,000 public interest stories so far.
The new Royal Liverpool Hospital, built with unsafe cladding. Northamptonshire County Council underpaying childminders and nurseries by thousands of pounds. The £24 million health centre in Altrincham that will never be used, but is still costing the NHS over £2 million a year. All stories essential for holding local institutions to account. All stories that might not otherwise have been heard.

The Culture Secretary, Jeremy Wright, has called the Local Democracy Reporter Scheme “a shining example of what can be done”.
Dame Frances Cairncross has called for it to be extended. And I should pay tribute to former Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, for his continued championing of the scheme.

We’ve proved this approach works. I think it’s now time to build on that ambition.

We know we have to do more to fight back against the chronic underreporting of events, issues, politics and crime in local communities. It’s led to whole sections of our society feeling left behind and ignored, and reinforced a disconnect between the big cities and the rest of the country.

This is not simply a challenge for politicians. The media must be part of the solution. This is something I feel really strongly about. Obviously I want the BBC to be at the heart of any solution. But my question is: Could – or should – it involve others?

That’s why I have already started a conversation about the possibility of a dedicated foundation – independent of government and others – to support a strong local media landscape and nourish the foundations of local democracy.

It’s just one idea – there may be more. We will need to discuss with the news industry to find the right approach together. But I think there’s potential to unlock money from a range of businesses and institutions.

My goal is to mobilise a powerful coalition behind the creation of a Local Democracy Foundation – employing independent reporters to cover what really matters to local communities.

I want us to do all we can reverse the damage that has been done to local democracy in recent years and bring about a sea change in local public interest journalism.

Read the full speech here