Sometimes it takes someone outside your immediate sphere to point out the blindingly obvious. That happened this morning when I caught an interview on BBC Radio 4's Today programme about the latest craziness going on in America.
"You shouldn't let local news die" - Prof Timothy Snyder
When asked whether such things could happen here, Yale history professor Timothy Snyder came out with what at first seemed like a left-field answer. However all of a sudden his words slapped me full in the face. His point?; the chaos we're witnessing in the USA, where conspiracy theories take hold and truth goes out window, can be traced right back to the loss of local journalism.
Bang! After a lifetime working in regional broadcasting I have long been concerned at the abandonment of serious regional current affairs & news reporting by UK broadcasters and newspapers. I'd always made the case that local reporting was vital to local democracy in its own area but I hadn't thought of the bigger picture. Here, out of the blue, came a perfect explainer for the vital importance of regional journalism to wider society and how a failure to protect it has serious, potentially calamitous, consequences.
"If people don't have local news then they don't believe in the media in general.... It's only local news that tells people things they need to know about their actual lives, like: is there water pollution? or is this new politician actually corrupt?" - Prof Timothy Snyder
He went on to argue that when people can no longer read/watch stories they can relate to locally and have confidence in, all they are left with is national news that is seen as remote and part of an elite. From that point on it all starts to unravel.
"Most of our country (USA) is technically a news desert. When that happens a vacuum is created. People go on to social media and they start to concern themselves with things that don't really have anything to do with them directly and they can't verify, but given the way social media is organised, appeal to their emotions and pre-existing convictions. That drives them into 2 camps and before you know it, politics is all about fiction." - Prof Timothy Snyder
If visible in your browser, click on image above to hear an extract.
Full interview BBC iPlayer: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000r4tn from 02:34:05. Credit: BBC Radio 4, Today programme 13/1/2021 at 08:34 am
That vacuum is appearing here in the UK. The life is being sucked out of serious regional journalism. Here in the North East the once proud local newspaper titles are a shadow of their former selves. It saddens me to see an inexorable descent into the cess pit of click-bait stories and websites so cluttered with ads you cannot see the actual story.
It's not unknown for PR companies to see their press releases reproduced verbatim. Great for them and their clients but disastrous for the rest of us. Anything appearing in a journalistic outlet surely needs to go through a filter of scrutiny and scepticism before it sees the light of day. Credibility is key.
Colleagues who used to be out of the office gathering stories, talking to people and spotting stories on the hoof are increasingly chained to desks, often reduced to regurgitating and reversioning other outlets' material. This was true even before Covid. Journalists are doing their best but without proper resources and staffing they are in danger of becoming mere word-processors.
TV colleagues in daily news do a fantastic job of giving an audience a record of current events, but having done the job myself for many years, I know that 24-hour news cycle does not lend itself to in-depth investigations.
All local reporting is important and should be nurtured
But the costliest in terms of time, money and editorial backbone is serious, in-depth, original journalism. Shedding a light on what is going on behind the day-to-day doesn't come cheap.
Sad to say, hard-pressed media are simply cutting regional news. Sat in a corporate office the easiest thing for an executive to do is axe that which is furthest away from their own chair.
Even publicly funded broadcasters like the BBC are abandoning serious regional output as they seek to make savings. A trump card for defending the licence fee surely has to be regional broadcasting, where market failure has left the commercial sector devoid of local programming apart from daily news. Yet the corporation is currently blind to the value of what should be one of its core activities - a service it is denuding.
How ironic that Professor Snyder's plea for everyone to understand the importance of proper regional journalism was made during an interview with the BBC. I only hope the bosses were listening and taking note. Not least because if we go back to the question Professor Snyder was asked: "Could it happen here?" then those in charge need to understand the role they have in deciding the outcome.