Why the BBC’s Local Democracy Reporters Scheme won’t help London’s local media

Should the owners of the News Shopper, who have sacked journalists to boost profits, benefit from licence fee funds?

Earlier this year, the BBC launched a scheme which it says will help boost the UK’s beleaguered local press. It will fund 150 journalists who will be “embedded” in local news organisations to report on meetings of councils and other decision-making bodies.

In London, where major publishers have cut back their local titles this means 12 journalists will be recruited, covering groups of (mostly three) boroughs. Local news organisations will be able to bid to “host” them. You might be able to spot the flaws in the plan straight away.

The BBC asked for comments on the Local Democracy Reporters scheme, so here are mine, sent a few hours before Sunday’s deadline.

I would like to make some observations on the BBC’s Local Democracy Reporters Scheme. I would also like to support some of the comments made by Mark Baynes of the Love Wapping website, and plan to publish these observations myself to promote dialogue about the scheme.

I publish two local websites in the south-east London area: 853 covers issues affecting Greenwich borough, while The Charlton Champion is a hyperlocal site aimed at the Charlton area within that borough. I’ve given a talk about my work at the Centre for Community Journalism in Cardiff, and spoken to students about Freedom of Information at University of Central Lancashire. Until 2009, I was a senior broadcast journalist on the BBC News website, so I hope I have an appreciation of the industry politics that have led to the creation of this scheme.

I believe the aims of the scheme are admirable, but I do not believe it should be funded by the BBC; it appears to me to be using licence-payers’ money to reward companies that have reduced once-indispensable titles to husks of their former selves, the same companies that have fought against the BBC’s text journalism since the days of Ceefax. The Press Association seems to be a much more natural partner. However, now the scheme is in place, I hope the BBC makes full use of the content it is funding so the material is seen by the greatest possible audience.

The Mercury: A rare sight on the doormat these days

Who should be eligible to publish material

I write and publish 853 alone and the Charlton Champion is produced with one other person; both sites carry commentary and opinion as well as some straightforward news reporting. They won’t be eligible for material from the scheme. This is not something which bothers me, as I try to follow stories and issues that aren’t being covered elsewhere.

But I do feel that the guidelines should be made more explicit so that any new entrants know what they should be aiming for. At present, there’s a strong argument to be made that at least one long-established local newspaper in my area would fail the requirement for a “consistent level of contemporaneous coverage of all aspects of public institutions” if that requires anything more demanding than writing up press releases.

Smaller titles such as The Greenwich Visitor are shut out of the scheme, even though they carry at least as much public service reporting as their legacy media rivals

Who should be eligible to employ LRDS reporters

It is regrettable that the reporters will be employed by the same organisations that have cut back coverage over the past two decades, leaving my area with legacy titles that are a shadow of their former selves.

Greenwich borough is currently served by two weekly titles (a third is due from the publisher of Southwark News as a result of an ad deal with Greenwich Council; though this may be an arts/leisure-led title). The Mercury was once a respected campaigning title, but it is now a poorly-resourced freesheet operated by Capital Media Newspapers as an offshoot of the neighbouring South London Press and produced in Penge, a long way out of the area. Its sole reporter/editor produces a good product against the odds, but I fear for the future of the title should she depart.

The News Shopper has endured rounds of well-publicised cuts by Newsquest leaving it a flimsy product, leading to the departure of several extremely talented journalists. It is now effectively merged with the South London Guardian series and produced even further away in Sutton, with “Greenwich” reporters covering a news patch that stretches as far south as Biggin Hill. A recent website feature about workplace romances asked readers if they had “dipped their wick in the office goods”, which should tell you all you need to know about its attitude to public service reporting.

Can the BBC trust these legacy titles to use LDRS reporters to produce coverage to enhance their existing “contemporaneous coverage of public institutions”? Or will they simply replace the work of existing staff members, enabling further cuts?

Greenwich borough has two independent monthly titles that have been established for a few years now — Greenwich Visitor (published by Greenwich Visitor Ltd) and SE Nine (published by SENine Ltd). Both are one or two-person operations, but can also claim a consistent record of public service journalism; not by attending council meetings but by maintaining contacts and publishing stories the legacy titles overlook. It is a shame that the requirements to have payroll/HR functions would appear to rule out well-established smaller operations such as these.

Will a reporter go to cover Greenwich Council at Woolwich Town Hall, or head to Bromley? And what about Bexley?

There simply aren’t enough reporters

I fear the LDRS reporters covering the south-east London boroughs will struggle to achieve a decent standard of coverage. In general, London as a whole seems to be grossly under-represented in the scheme, with just 12 reporters covering a conurbation of eight million people. There is also no reporter allocated to the Greater London Authority.

Greenwich is generally paired with Lewisham by the legacy publishers, however the LDRS scheme will see the two boroughs split; Greenwich with Bexley and Bromley, Lewisham with Southwark and Lambeth.

One reporter for three London boroughs is simply inadequate. Greenwich is a mostly-urban borough undergoing a level of change unseen since the early 20th century, as new developments rise on former industrial land, with a sharply rising population. Bromley is a vast borough stretching from urban Penge to rural villages in the North Downs; Bexley is a great swathe of classic suburbia. How is one reporter meant to keep across three councils and several different NHS providers, many of which overlap with over areas in south London and Kent? I fear one borough will lose out — I expect it will be lower-profile Bexley, which has fewer regular council meetings. What happens if two or more councils meet on the same night, particularly when they come to set their budgets and council tax rates?

I fear there will be a similar effect in Lewisham, which is paired with the extremely busy news patches of Lambeth and Southwark, both of which cover parts of central London, and has a slightly different form of governance in the form of an elected mayoralty. The borough of Lewisham is also extremely poorly covered by local media, and I don’t see this scheme helping there.

Dirty streets: Just covering council meetings means you may not be alert to the consequences of bad decision-making

What is the focus?

I have to agree with Mark Baynes that the real value in public service reporting lies in knowing the streets as well as the corridors of power. One reporter covering three boroughs will struggle badly.

Last month, 853 ran a story about the departure of the senior council officer in charge of Greenwich Council’s street-sweeping service after streets went untouched for weeks on end. This didn’t come from attending council meetings, it came from tip-offs and personal observations. There was great interest in the story; many residents were angry about the state of their streets. But it wasn’t covered by the Mercury or the News Shopper.

They aren’t here in this borough day in, day out; and the issue hadn’t been directly raised in council meetings, so there was no clue about the internal problems the council was facing. This is basic public service reporting, but an LDRS reporter would miss it. This scheme simply won’t address that. I fear it is naive to expect that the legacy local media will reallocate resources to cover this kind of basic local governance issue as a result of the LDRS; particularly if reporters are based many miles out of the area.

If an LDRS reporter is mainly reporting meetings, then which meetings are they going to attend? Covering multiple boroughs will lead to schedule clashes. They will no doubt be encouraged to go to the showpiece full council meetings — but while these are often (but not always) a source of simple stories, will they be going to cabinet meetings or scrutiny panels? And what about planning or licensing? There have been a number of hugely contentious planning decisions in Greenwich borough in recent years — will a LDRS reporter be able to balance these with giving proper time to Bexley and Bromley affairs? And this is before we get to covering NHS bodies such as clinical commissioning groups and hospital trusts.

Hearings into the proposed Silvertown Tunnel scheme have gone unreported by legacy local media in south London

There are also issues such as covering judicial reviews into council decisions and public inquiries: at present there is a public examination into a controversial scheme to build a road tunnel between Greenwich Peninsula and the Royal Docks. Apart from for the first couple of hours of a pre-examination meeting, when the Newham Recorder had a reporter present, no journalists have been there to cover it; something the panel’s chair found surprising. (I am involved in a campaign against this scheme, so have not been in a position to cover it myself.) Would a LRDS reporter cover this?

The conflict between Millwall Football Club and Lewisham Council is a useful example; the disagreement between the two bodies over Lewisham’s plans to compulsorily purchase land at Millwall’s ground has been rumbling for some years, but was little-reported locally.

If the local media in Lewisham — which is the same as the media in Greenwich — had covered council scrutiny meetings, the story could have been bigger some time ago. Instead it ended up being The Guardian which did the investigative work on the story through tip-offs and trawling Companies House and Charity Commission records, investigative work that the local media in south-east London simply doesn’t have the capacity to do.

Would an LDRS reporter be given the time to attend these scrutiny meetings and build up the necessary contacts to do at least the initial legwork on such a story? If they have to deal with public bodies in three boroughs at a time, I am sceptical that they will.

Data Journalism Hub is a positive step

I do, however, feel that plans for a Data Journalism Hub are a positive step. Some publishers — notably Trinity Mirror and BBC English Regions — have made great use of data journalism, whether by submitting Freedom of Information requests or by utilising datasets that are already public, and this knowledge should be shared more widely.

But I would urge the BBC to widen access to training beyond those already employed by the big publishers who should be footing the bill for this themselves, rather than expecting licence-fee payers to subsidise their own staff development. There are many smaller outfits up and down the country who would benefit more from training in data journalism — and would probably make more use of it.

In summary, while I feel the aims of the Local Democracy Reporter Scheme are laudable, I feel that — at least in my part of London — it is too poorly resourced to “build a better understanding of local democracy”. I also fear it will just be abused by legacy news operations which will take advantage of the BBC’s generosity, but will contribute little themselves. I hope I am wrong, but I wish you luck with the scheme regardless.