Today’s been a rotten one if you believe in freedom of speech. You probably know already that the author of a police blog called Night Jack lost a High Court battle to stop The Times naming him. As the democratic world’s media powerhouses move heaven and earth to help ensure people can communicate freely and without fear from Iran, fearless Times hack Patrick Foster was helping unmask a bloke who wrote about his life in the Lancashire constabulary for – well, just for the hell of it, really. Where’s the public interest in this?
Of course, journalists tend to club together to help protect sources – but this one-man source, operating independently, presumably had to be stamped out by The Times. It’s bullying, pure and simple. Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers have a track record in this – in August 2006 the Sunday Times unmasked Zoe Margolis, author of fruity sex blog Girl With A One-Track Mind (and a pal of mine), for no real reason other than because they could. (By this time, a book version of the blog had just been released.) Three years on, I’m sure reporter Anna Mikhailova is very proud of herself – this sterling piece of public service journalism helped land her a full-time job. Zoe was the recipient of a threatening e-mail from ST news editor Nicholas Hellen trying to bully her into a “flattering” photo-shoot. The experience turned Zoe’s life upside down, she had to flee her home, it helped wreck her private life, and – despite the fact she’d been scrupulous in not identifying any of her partners – it helped destroy her career in the film industry. Three years on, she’s turned the situation to her advantage, in some ways, but her enforced “outing” has definitely left painful scars.
But there’s the battle – Big Media versus Little Media. Big Media is floundering around, not quite sure what to make of these new little fishes that are swimming into its tank. Sometimes it milks them for content (“here’s a roundup of what people are saying on the web”). Sometimes it patronises them – oh, these rude bloggers! Or sometimes it crushes them. As The Times has done with Night Jack. You can speak without fear and expose wrongdoing – but only if Big Media approves.
There’s a link with today’s Digital Britain report, which set out the government’s thinking on how the country’s media infrastructure should develop over the next few decades. (Look, stay awake, it gets interesting in a second, okay?) It strikes me that there’s a lot of stuff there about trying to prop up dying elements of Big Media. For example – if ITV isn’t going to produce local news and features any more, and its audience share is withering away, why should we be taking action to prolong that company’s existence? Why should its shareholders benefit from having an “independently financed news consortium” produce the news it has neglected over the years? And allowing the dinosaur firms that have allowed local papers to fade away over the years to merge – buy some shares now for a takeover bonanza!
But there’s precious little about, well, Little Media. There’s a few paragraphs about “local websites of all shapes and sizes” and “community websites with no old media legacy”, but that’s really about it. Nothing about nurturing what’ll succeed the likes of the Mercury and the News Shopper when they fade away and die. A line about a scheme in the Midlands which trains people, but no recommendations. Yet the actions of many local press owners in recent years – closing local offices, keeping reporters’ pay on poverty levels, cutting coverage of local councils – show that they simply can’t be trusted. Surely now it’s time to look beyond them? There’s already a variety of different types of community site – greenwich.co.uk has cash backing while volunteer-run Brockley Central has evolved quickly from its beginnings as a local blog. The daddies of them all are Brixton’s Urban 75 – run for love – and London SE1, which also incorporates a print version of its local news site. These are what need nurturing, not the busted flushes based far from the areas they claim to serve. All have varying elements of local news, but all have the same stated committment to their patches.
How to pay for them? Sadly, there is no body in the UK like the US Knight Foundation charity, which hands out money for people to start local news services. I think taking money from the BBC’s licence fee to pay for expanded broadband services is insane – surely the proposed tax on phone connections could cover that? People associate the BBC licence fee with content (and BBC content at that) so it should stay that way – if the licence fee survives the next government.
But the BBC could have a role in nurturing local news provision – its national news website is second to none (although it employed me for 10 years so I may be biased) but its local web output is often ropey to say the least, by far the poor relation to slick TV reports and long-established radio stations.
Its London site features “local reporting” but this is usually just cobbled together from television coverage – and, worse still, clearly features reporters who aren’t familliar with the areas they cover struggling to be the corporation’s “local face” in a particular borough (always an awkward way to divide up the capital).
This top-down approach is the wrong way around – that same BBC journalist could be helping train and promote community reporters right across the capital, who know their patch and can bring a level of credibility that someone parachuted in from Marylebone High Street never could. Sure, they probably won’t be on call to cover a 6-car pile-up on the North Circular, but they’ll be there when, say, roadworks there are keeping people up all night. BBC facilities could be made available for local podcasts – a podcast for Chelsea SW3 is more relevant to what the BBC’s about than a podcast about Chelsea FC.
The activities of the community journalists the BBC nurture will help keep the full-timers up to speed with the real issues affecting the capital, rather than slavishly following the diaries of the mayor or the Olympic Delivery Authority as they do now. Local people get to cover their own communities, and the BBC gets better stories out of it – everyone wins. And there’s a pool of talent waiting for when the BBC’s full-timers move on. The BBC could have a huge role in protecting and nourishing local journalism – it’s a shame the report didn’t see that.
But the report was all about protecting Big Media – the bullying, out-of-touch, out-of-date behemoths which help keep us in the dark about so much. Whether in the courtrooms or the thoughts of government, Little Media – you’re still on your own.
(UPDATE: Here’s some thoughts from ambulance blog guy Tom Reynolds on Night Jack, Chicken Yoghurt, and Paperhouse. Meanwhile, it turns out (thanks to Old Holborn) that Patrick Foster came from Oxford Student – the same place as Anna Mikhailova. Who’dathoughtit?)