Local democracy reporters aid transparency

By Dan Peters | 07 November 2018

The Local Democracy Reporting Service – the new BBC scheme that attempts to fill the gap in the reporting of local democracy issues – is already having an impact, reports Dan Peters

T he local reporter furiously scribbling in their notebook used to be a staple fixture in council chambers around the country. But local media resources have become ever more stretched in recent years.

Since 2005, more than 200 local papers have closed in the UK and the number of regional journalists has halved to around 6,500.

The result has often meant dismal scrutiny of council affairs, as desperate newspaper bosses chase the bottom line – a situation illustrated by the lack of local paper coverage of safety fears before last year’s Grenfell Tower fire.

‘There’s a massive drive to get as many web hits as possible and it’s sometimes difficult to do that with council coverage,’ confessed one reporter who was working in local newspapers until earlier this year.

Slowly, this situation is being recognised. In February, after figures showed that around two-thirds of local authority areas do not have a daily local newspaper, the Government launched a review into the sustainability of the regional press.

The review comes as a new BBC scheme – the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) – attempts to fill the gap in the reporting of local democracy issues, with the creation of up to 150 new journalism jobs.

Already these local democracy reporters (LDRs) are having an impact, with more council stories appearing, more media attendance at meetings and previously hard-pressed journalists having more time to engage with, understand and follow town hall issues as they develop.

‘The outcome is that more residents get to hear about local decision-making,’ says Vanessa Andrews, marketing and communications manager at North Somerset Council.

Chief executive of Durham Council, Terry Collins, says: ‘We’ve seen increased press attendance at council meetings as a result of the project and a slight upturn in volume of coverage of the authority. This has included the LDRs picking up a number of stories from scrutiny meetings that have been positive for us and which may not have been covered in such detail in the past.’

Some council media managers admit they were worried before the project started.

‘I was worried the whole focus would be on the negative, alarmist stuff, but the opposite has been true,’ says one senior communications officer.

‘My fears weren’t realised.’

Head of communications at Wirral MBC, Kevin MacCallum, adds: ‘I was really nervous about it at first, but it’s been overwhelmingly positive.

‘The local paper had no staff and was just reprinting press releases, but the LDR is finding new angles and reading every council report.’

However, a lot does seem to depend on the quality of the person who bagged the role, which has an average salary outside London of just £22,000.

One county council head of communications says: ‘We haven’t seen much difference at all. They do really petty stuff. The bloke actually falls asleep in committee meetings.’

Other communications managers – while understanding and appreciating the role – complain it has led to increased demand on already-scarce resources.

A spokesman for Sefton MBC says: ‘There has been a noticeable escalation in the number of media enquiries from the reporter along with a sharp rise in Freedom of Information Act requests.

‘While we have no objections to the added scrutiny and in some cases the reporter has positively promoted local campaigns, a more targeted approach would reduce the significant impact on council capacity.’

A press officer from a different council adds: ‘From a workload perspective, it is really quite onerous. We get tons of enquiries from them.

‘They quite often come in just fishing – there’s no clear steer as to what their angle is and they don’t seem to know themselves.’

Buckinghamshire CC leader, Martin Tett, says it is ‘absolutely right’ that councils are held to account but queried the ‘tone and balance’ of the reporting.

He says: ‘We all know bad news sells, but some more reporting of the positives by LDRs would help spotlight the fantastic work councils do for their local residents and help foster greater engagement on key issues.’

But while some press officers complain of sensationalist and negative coverage others describe the reporting as ‘full and fair’.

On the whole it seems LDRs are making a highly valuable contribution to the transparency and accountability of local government.

The BBC’s head of local news partnerships, Matthew Barraclough, writes for The MJ on the impact of the local democracy reporting service - https://www.themj.co.uk/local-democracy

What they said:

‘We want more people to get involved with local democracy and have their say….all year round – not just at election time. A good foundation for this is a greater understanding of what we do and the LDRS is helping achieve this.’ Calderdale MBC leader, Cllr Tim Swift

‘I do think it has helped our struggling local press get back to covering the democratic process as they once did. Proper reportage is also reducing the fake news space for rumour, which is helpful for everyone.’ London borough head of communications

‘The fact that the reporter’s copy is shared with other media organisations is great for us when they’re covering a positive story because it spreads the word further about how brilliant our district is. When they produce a negative story we just have to grin and bear it.’ Geoff Podmore, head of marketing and communications, Bradford City Council

‘The local democracy project encourages the public to take more of an interest in local democracy and how their local council works, and is welcome because it increases interest in local government.’ Portsmouth City Council leader, Cllr Gerald Vernon Jackson

‘Having a dedicated reporter who is able to spend time finding out more about the stories behind the headlines and delve deeper into topics that affect residents every day is a positive development.’ Hampshire CC leader, Cllr Roy Perry

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