Local Democracy Reporters are having an impact and making councils accountable

Jeremy Clifford

Jeremy Clifford, editor-in-chief at JPI Media, led negotiations for publishers with the BBC which led to the creation of the Local Democracy Reporter scheme. Now chair of the NMA/BBC group which governs the project, Jeremy looks back on where the scheme is after 12 months:

January 15, 2018, reporter Caitlin Webb files a news story about Kent county council proposing to put up council tax bills by 4.9%.

That may not sound particularly significant, but fast forward 12 months and 50,000 similar stories of this type have now been written.

These are the work of a new breed of journalists launched in the industry under the Local Democracy Reporter Scheme — the product of a partnership between the industry body the News Media Association and the BBC.

So far, more than 100 publishers representing 850-plus titles have joined the partnership publishing the work created by these journalists across radio, websites and printed products.

It was a ground-breaking partnership forged by the two organisations under the auspices of the Government’s Department for Culture and Media and Science.

So successful has it been, it has attracted attention from state publishers in Europe, New Zealand and just this month, Japan. They are keen to learn about how the partnership came about, how state broadcasters can work with the private media industry, and what impact it is having on public service journalism.

The partnership is helping the regional news media and the BBC to address the perceived democratic deficit brought about as a result of the challenges every publisher large or small, private or public, faces in Britain and evidently around the world.

Local Democracy Reporters across Britain are now attending all the major council chambers with a regularity that was either patchy or ebbing away before this scheme was created.

As a result, councils and councillors are increasingly being held to account, the speeches they make are being more regularly reported and their decisions not going unnoticed by the people who elect them.

The scheme and the publishers who employ these journalists, funded by the BBC licence fee as part of an £8m per year agreement over 10 years, has not been without criticism because it is being seen as subsidising the print-based industry.

However, the Government set up the partnership because it recognised an industry under pressure and it was concerned about the impact on open democracy. The BBC was instructed to form a partnership to help support the regional media.

Since its launch in January 2018, 135 reporters of the 150 allocated posts have now been employed, with the scheme about to be launched into Northern Ireland.

Local Democracy Reporter Caitlin, who is based in the Kent Messenger newsroom and serves media outlets across the county, said: “Being in the room where important decisions have been made in the past year has been an honour and having the power to share what goes on has been a privilege.

“As is having talented, hard-working colleagues to call on when deciphering reams of council documents.

“This year has changed my career for the better by broadening my skills and my contacts book.

“Going on the radio feels less daunting so does interviewing people with a microphone as well a as notepad.

“While I have learnt a lot this year, I know I have much more to uncover and I look forward to the challenge.”

Ian Carter, Editorial Director of KM Media Group, which holds the contract for the LDR scheme in Kent, said: : “We didn’t set out to be the first publisher to recruit an LDR, but Caitlin was such a strong candidate that we didn’t hang around when she applied.

“The scheme has been a huge success for us, covering stories and generating debate about articles we would never have previously have been able to.”

Stories broken by the LDRs have included the revelation that the new Liverpool Royal Hospital would be delayed by more than two years; The Edinburgh Evening News revealing care services were at breaking point; the £10m bill in just one month for the cost of cancelled operations in Leicester; and the revelation about the way councillors behaved in the council chamber in Basildon.

Without doubt this partnership has been a success.

I acknowledge the scheme has its detractors, but overwhelmingly it has the support of most publishers. The fact 100 different publishers representing 850 titles are part of the partnership speaks for itself.

It has enabled around 140 specialist council reporters to be recruited, providing a level of scrutiny of public funded councils that has not been possible for many many years.

The quality of stories that have been uncovered, told in print, on radio and on websites is testament to the brilliance of the reporters who have been employed.

Finally, their stories are having real impact, they are changing council policies, encouraging councillors to contribute more and making the councils work harder to justify themselves to the public.

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