Why a council is threatening journalists’ access — and what it says about local news

ban symbol by Vince

Ban symbol – photo by Vince

A council is warning it will reduce access to journalists if they aren’t regulated or don’t offer a right of reply. Andrew Brightwell asks if this marks a turning point for journalism’s relationship with local councils.

Two weeks ago, Thurrock Council approved its communications strategy, setting out how it will talk to residents and media.

Communications strategies are approved every day by councils without controversy, but Thurrock’s has provoked accusations that the authority wants to play ‘judge and jury’ to its coverage in the media, as YourThurrock first reported.

What does Thurrock Council’s strategy say?

Most of the document — which you can read here (PDF) — is innocuous, but a section on media liaison says it will only consider journalists’ organisations as ‘media’ if they are signed up to a press or broadcast regulator.

“The council will recognise organisations as ‘media’ who are are a member of the Independent Press Standards Association (IPSO) or equivalent regulator and comply with the Editor’s Code of Practice. Television and radio broadcasters, such as the BBC, are regulated by Ofcom.

“Any organisation which has membership of such a regulatory framework will be offered a place in the ’media area’ for the benefit of reporting on council meetings. Other media organisations and reporters will be welcome to report from the public area.”

The strategy also says the council will expect organisations to report in a fair and balanced way and offer a right of reply.

“Media liaison must be undertaken in a timely, consistent, professional, transparent and non-party-political manner. The Communications Team aims to provide an efficient and professional service to the media and treat all outlets fairly.

“In response, the council expects the media to report in an accurate and balanced way, including use of headlines. An agreed ‘right of reply’ is assumed in order to concurrently explain the council’s position and protect its reputation as part of a media story.”

Finally, it warns that if a media organisation doesn’t meet these standards the council will not recognise or engage with the organisation.

“Should a media outlet, or one of its journalists, fail to adhere to the regulator’s code and in particular not reflect the council’s position accurately ensuring a ‘right of reply’, the council will not engage and recognise that organisation and/or journalist as ‘media’ for a period of time determined by the council.”

Why are journalists worried?

Michael Casey, the editor of YourThurrock, an online newspaper covering the council, worries that the threat of ‘removed access’ hangs over his own stories.

“If I put the question in, write a story and publish the story, saying we’ve contacted the council and will publish their reply when we get it, [then] they don’t reply till Tuesday afternoon… I guess, according to that document, they would now ban me, possibly for life.”

Casey’s YourThurrock is a founding member of regulator Impress, so the council’s decision to insist on media regulation will not affect him. But he is concerned it may affect others, particularly those who want to report on the council but have no intention of becoming part of the commercial media:

“If you’re somebody who is thinking about starting up a paper or indeed just wants to go to council meetings to campaign for a cycle lane, or improved bin services, you have to think how does this look? It doesn’t look great. It almost looks as if somebody has something to hide.”

Lichfield Live

Ross Hawkes, a journalism lecturer at Birmingham City University, and the editor of one of the UK’s most established hyperlocal news sites, Lichfield Live, says the council’s approach is bizarre.

“I have no issue with the terminology they use. It’s right that you should expect it to be balanced and even, and give a right to reply. The issue I have with it is [firstly] the punishment that they’re metering out, which is basically that it’s ‘our rules’. Given that they are a public body I find that a bit bizarre, that they are making their own rules up as they go along.”

He also questions the wisdom of asking for journalists to be regulated while reserving the right to act itself.

“On the one hand they are saying to people you must be part of a regulatory scheme. Well, therefore let the regulatory scheme decide what the punishment should be, if they want to go down that route, not that I necessarily agree with that.”

What does the council say?

YourThurrock Story

The council says the strategy simply sets out how it can communicate with its residents and businesses in the ways they find most popular, which is increasingly digital.

It says there is no intention to shut down access to the growing number of online newspapers, bloggers and social media users that the council deals with.

Cllr Shane Hebb told us:

“The new strategy is simply clarifying how the council will communicate with residents, and the rest of the world, whilst making clear how it works in partnership with recognised media organisations in line with their existing nationally acknowledged codes of practice. The council continues to welcome attendance at public meetings — however, there are a very limited number of media seats available, and those are reserved for media organisations. 

“Since the implementation of the strategy, nothing has changed – this strategy simply sets out how the communications team works with the growing and diverse media audience. It is making an un-coded status quo in a documented one.” [sic]

The relationship between local media and councils is changing

Districts served by a local daily newspaper - from 'Monopolising Local News', produced by the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power, at King's College London

Districts served by a local daily newspaper – from ‘Monopolising Local News’, produced by the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power, at King’s College London

Thurrock, like other councils, attracts coverage from a growing number of online groups and publications, in addition to the newspapers, TV and radio stations it has always dealt with. That includes a panoply of blogs, Facebook groups and other online presences.

As William Perrin, of Talk About Local, says, the rapid transformation around who talks about a council has demolished the settled relationship local authorities once enjoyed with traditional media.

“There is a complex media environment but for a long, long, long time councillors had a well-understood relationship with the existing media, with the press. A press person who you could identify by their shabby attire, pencil behind their ear, and so on, who would turn up at the press box — there was a good relationship, and the council’s media people probably used to work at the local paper, there [was] a handy circularity.

“And the new paradigm, where anyone can report on this stuff, by Twitter, for instance — you don’t need to be able to blog — has broken that down.”

This breakdown is the result of twin changes. On the one hand, councils have seen a growth in social media and blogging. And on the other, the local press has declined drastically.

The Press Gazette reports that former newspaper editor and now journalism lecturer, Keith Peck has estimated that as much as 80 per cent of local journalism jobs have disappeared between 2006 to 2016.

The Gazette itself has evidence of 50 per cent of jobs going in a similar time frame. Research by Gordon Ramsay and Martin Moore has found that less than a third of local authority areas are covered by daily local newspapers.

Local newspapers and hyperlocals

Hyperlocal Websites Directory - Talk About Local

In some areas, local newspapers are being replaced by ‘hyperlocal blogs’. Even though coverage remains patchy, Talk About Local‘s map of hyperlocals includes 700 different websites and online communities. This compares with 1,045 local newspapers. (It should, however, be noted, that Talk About Local’s map isn’t regularly updated and some sites may be dormant.)

A survey, carried out by Damian Radcliffe for Nesta of 408 hyperlocals, says that more than 80 per cent reported on their local councils and 48 per cent have journalism training and/or experience of working as professional journalists.

But while some hyperlocals are online newspapers, covering whole boroughs, most are run by volunteers and dedicated to community-focused news for neighbourhoods.

Perrin says:

“On [our] website we have the full spectrum from tiny, village blogs in Devon, in villages you’ve never heard of.

“And those are a really important part of the local media landscape, because they are providing basic information about local civic activities, by the parish council, by the church, and so on.”

As well as hyperlocals, local authorities are confronted by the growth of more ad-hoc online communities, including Facebook groups. These sometimes boast thousands of members, but thanks to Facebook’s social graph search, which presents results based on your connections, are harder to track.

Dan Slee, co-owner and co-founder of Comms2Point0, which helps local council communications teams to engage online, says that he is aware of one council with more than 2,500 Facebook groups and pages in its area.

“Some of those are really small and haven’t got off the ground. Some have got 19,000 members in. But the idea that no one is going to post anything on Facebook unless it’s cleared by a press officer or if no one can publish anything unless they’re regulated, isn’t going to hold water.

“I think how local government can have its voice in those places is something that it really needs to think about pretty darn quickly.”

Slee believes that some local authorities are tempted to shy away from engaging with online groups, because of the difficulties they present. He points out that councils themselves have looked on as their resources are picked over and reduced by central government.

While councils want to engage, working out how to do it properly is difficult with modest resources.

“Certainly for the past few years with those groups and pages local government generally has cocked a bit of deaf one and kind of pretended that they’re not there. That is sort of understandable, because there are so many and how do you look to engage with people who may not be the most pleasant people to have a discussion about what you’re doing?

“The broad point I’d make is how is that working out. The answer is not really that well.”

Losing (and retaking) control

In such a climate, councils may want to return to an earlier time, when they had a small number of publishers to deal with. But Slee, Hawkes and Perrin agree that won’t work.

Perrin says that councils, with fewer local newspapers around, need to embrace new engagement:

If someone is slagging you off on Twitter, and you know they’re not a mad troll and they’ve just got it a bit wrong, then you need to engage with them. Just as insisting that they go away and join a regulator or something is ridiculous.”

Hawkes worries that the decline in the local press has let some authorities off the hook – and this may store up trouble for newly emerging online news outlets, like hyperlocals.

“I can see councils who’ve had an easy ride in terms of scrutiny, in terms of people looking at them when nobody turns up and holds them to account as much as they used to, particularly at a district and parish level.

“Suddenly this new wave of journalism has arrived and people have started to take an interest. And then they think ‘let’s shut the doors.'”

And he points out that the UK government has cracked down on council-run newspapers precisely because of concern that local authorities could use them to control coverage. His own experience, however, offers hope.

“For me you should embrace the different types of media in your area. And I know from talking to my council that — and I’ve talked to my MP about it in a similar fashion — they’ve really embraced us, because we’re talking to a different set of people.

“And if we’re talking about local politics is that really a bad thing? OK, they might not always like the tone but if people are engaging in the debate, particularly at what is a difficult time for local councils, surely you’d want more people involved in the debate, not less?”

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