Missing media means missing voices.
I am the owner of a Peugeot. This may not seem relevant to commentary on post-EU Britain, but it does mean I spend a lot of time in my local garage, because it is without doubt the most unreliable car I have ever owned. It is a commodious garage — with comfy seats and Sky news to while away the time spent waiting for the results of the latest diagnostic tests. And lots of people coming and going and discussing the issues of the moment.
On Tuesday the talk of the day was inevitably Brexit — prompted by the coverage on the waiting room TV. And it was here that I got a reality check on the likely outcome of the vote in my community (for the record I live in a rural part of the Midlands). Not the inevitable Remain victory, as I supposed, but a real chance that that the majority of the people around me would vote to leave.
Now, polls are not my business; neither, any longer, is taking the temperature of local opinion on any given issue. But it once was. I worked for 15 years as journalist in the regional newspaper industry. It was my job to identify the issues that we supposed to be important to our readership and find out about them. This process revolved around spending time with those readers; indeed, we were part of those communities ourselves and got instant feedback on our reporting.
This way of working would no longer be recognisable to most journalists in the legacy newspaper industry; the decline of local newspapers, whether on paper or online, and their removal from the communities they claim to serve has been well documented in academic and industry circles. The 2008 recession and the move to digital has slashed the advertising revenues which have funded newspapers for more than 100 years. As a consequence the corporate owners have cut costs to the bone as they try to reimagine the product for the 21st century. In reality this means titles are produced centrally, by fewer staff who are no longer physically present in those areas.
Most people are probably unaware of this process, apart from thinking that their local paper isn’t what it used to be. My own research focusses on this issue and indeed, if we think of the newspaper as a business alone, then we have to ask if it matters? If there is insufficient demand or income stream for a product then surely it falls by the wayside?
Then we have an event like this. Never before in my lifetime has a political event sent such shockwaves through my country. The disbelief which has greeted the vote to leave the EU, as has been noted, appears to have surprised even those who campaigned to sever the links between the UK and the European Union. To say that I am unhappy with the result is an understatement. But after my visit to my local garage, surprised I was not because of my word-of-mouth contact with public opinion.
Trouble is, in the not-to-distant past the local newspaper would have recorded that public opinion. A decent title — maybe with a specialist political team, maybe not — would have reported the political rhetoric for sure. But they would also have gone beyond the press release and analysed the issues for their community, talked to their readers, published their letters, taken the temperature of the public opinion around them. The proximity of local journalist and community makes misreading that opinion incredibly difficult because if you get it wrong, you will be told, usually emphatically and not always politely.
Now I wonder if the loss of this documentation of public opinion by those local journalists is having a real impact on the political landscape. That there is a real disconnect between public and political opinion is unquestionable; huge swathes of the population feel excluded from the riches of the metropolitan areas and disenfranchised from the process of Government. Guardian commentator John Harris is among the few who venture out from London as a matter of principle and he, for me, hit the nail on the head on Saturday morning when he wrote: “Of course, most of the media, which is largely now part of the same detached London entity that great English patriot William Cobbett called “the thing”, failed to see this coming. Their world is one of photo ops, the great non-event that is PMQs, and absurd debates between figures that the public no longer cares about. The alienation of the people charged with documenting the national mood from the people who actually define it is one of the ruptures that has led to this moment.” (It’s a great article, you can read all of it here http://www.theguardian.com/politics/commentisfree/2016/jun/24/divided-britain-brexit-money-class-inequality-westminster).
The news industry used to be a continuum. Local fed regional fed national. We all bought each other’s papers, listened and watched each other’s broadcasts. Even the structure of the regional news industry — focused on complementary but monopolistic circulation areas, was such that together those newspapers formed a national network. And that network gave a voice to people in a million ways each day. But now that network is fragmented and degraded because local news no longer documents communities in the same way. There is much talk now of media ecosystems — a recognition that the plethora of media which we now experience map together to form some sort of an entity. But what if there is a gap in that whole, if one part of the system is failing to perform a function on which the other components rely? What if those newspapers are not simply commodities to be sold like so many tins of beans, but actually cogs in a much larger wheel of communication?
The answer is that some stories are simply go untold and some voices are not heard. And we wake up with surprise to find ourselves voted out of the EU.