Local press is the limit of local accountability
A few weeks ago, his Department for Communities and Local Government introduced citizens’ rights to inspect councils’ ledgers:
“New transparency rules will require councils to publicise to the press and public the little-known rights to inspect councils' detailed financial accounts, ledgers and records. This is designed to increase scrutiny of councils' spending decisions by armchair auditors and local investigative journalists.”This is in addition to plans for online transparency – not just publishing spending over £500, but also contracts, tenders, staffing and more:
"The Code proposes the minimum datasets that should be released, openly and for reuse, by local authorities are:So far every council has started publishing their spending over £500 – apart from Labour-run Nottingham. They alone appear to believe that it is for them to determine what transparency and accountability the people may enjoy.
-expenditure over £500, (including costs, supplier and transaction information)
-grants and payments under contract to the voluntary community and social enterprise sector
-names, budgets and responsibilities of staff paid over £58,200 - equivalent to the lowest Senior Civil Service pay band
-an organisational chart
-councillor allowances and expenses
-copies of contracts and tenders to businesses and to the voluntary community and social enterprise sector
-policies, performance, audits and key indicators on the authorities' fiscal and financial position
-data of democratic running of the local authority including the constitution, election results, committee minutes, decision - making processes and records of decisions"
But there is a crucial problem with localism: the weakness of the local press. The nationals can (and frequently do) jump in with both feet, regardless of the consequences: it’s not so much ‘publish and be damned’ as ‘harass, eavesdrop and intercept mobile phone messages and be damned’. It is a highly competitive, aggressive and invasive pursuit, to the extent that journalists are prepared to transgress the law in order to secure their story. And they do so, it appears, because (on the off-chance they’re caught) they can afford to pay the odd £100k in compensation to make it all go away.
But the Burton Mail, the Bedford News, the Shields Gazette and the South Bucks Star can’t work that way. In difficult economic times they are more vulnerable. There are only around 90 city-based and regional dailies and 1,200 weeklies, but they are all struggling to survive in a world of free internet. Local readerships are already ageing, and when local newsagents and post offices close and the papers lose their three key regional advertising markets - property, cars and jobs – local reporting is cut back and thousands of journalists are made redundant. The very mechanism for local scrutiny and accountability is precariously dependent on the boom and bust cycles of the economy.
Further more, local editors do not dare touch some stories for fear of an instant lawsuit: they simply cannot take the risk for fear of bankruptcy or uninsurability should they lose a case. An allegation of financial impropriety doesn’t even have to name an individual before it becomes libellous: if the subject may be identified by anyone from discursive description or elliptical allusion, the newspaper has committed a tortious act and the journalist or editor becomes a tortfeasor. Punitive compensation is then due for any emotional, economic, or reputational injuries.
The nationals can afford to investigate rigorously, and they have highly proficient journalists who are up to the task. They can and do risk tort by publishing a partial truth in order to eke out the greater truth. They can hold Parliament and politicians to account because they operate under a secure financial aegis. The locals have no such liberty, and rarely do they have journalists who up to the task. Indeed, while there are a few notable exceptions, many view local journalism as little more than work experience where they learn their craft as they await their elevation to Fleet Street. Local journalists are frequently beholden to local officials and friendly councillors for their stories, and they would be loath to compromise a cosy relationship of mutually-beneficial back-scratching.
So, when a local council pays its chief executive £200k a year while it is closing libraries and cutting care for the disabled, the local narrative is one of ‘Tory cuts’. When council managers are paid more than MPs while ‘Sure Start’ centres are sacrificed and grants to voluntary organisations are slashed, the local narrative remains that of ‘Tory cuts’. A journalist eager to investigate waste, mismanagement or downright fraud is all too often warned off by their editor, because they can’t make the story ‘stand up’: if it’s not watertight, they won’t risk.
Localism is a laudable aim, and Eric Pickles is a vastly underestimated and unjustly derided politician of great knowledge and considerable expertise. But ‘armchair auditors’ become largely redundant when their only media outlet is the local rag populated with not-so-investigative journalists and a hyper-cautious editor. And since local rags are read by only a tenth of a local population, the vast majority are still dependent on inter alia the BBC to perpetuate the narrative of ‘Tory cuts’. Ironically, the localism designed to foster transparency and accountability may founder not for want of the necessity of local curiosity, but for want of the luxury of the medium for disseminating what is uncovered. If the timid local press is eroded further, the crisis in local democracy will simply be blamed on central government. And the wheel will have come full circle. Again.