No-one would deny that both the local and national press are facing problems. In the past decade more than 300 local newspapers have been closed, and two thirds of local authority areas and more than half of parliamentary constituencies no longer have a local daily newspaper covering their affairs.

The number of local journalists has decline dramatically, most of those lucky enough still to be employed are shockingly badly paid, and far too many ‘local’ papers are produced in distant regional ‘hubs’, thus destroying the all-important link between a local paper and the community it is supposed to serve.

As NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet put it in welcoming the review:

‘Hollowed-out shells of titles are no substitute for properly-resourced titles, with real investment in the provision of news and information that communities are crying out for’.

But whose fault is the deplorable state of the local press, a state which long predates the arrival of the wicked social media? Local papers lost advertising to the online world in its very early days because their owners were too busy filling their shareholders’ pockets to spend money establishing an online presence. When advertising revenue inevitably fell, they sacked staff in their thousands, with the consequence that many ‘local’ papers, where they still existed, were just not worth reading (through no fault of the poor remaining journalists), so people simply stopped buying them.

In certain cases, councils have attempted to fill the local knowledge gap by producing their own freesheets, but, in a classic case of presenting effect as cause, the owners have simply added these publications to their demonology, and have also had the gall to accuse councils of putting out ‘propaganda’ – quite unlike certain staunchly Tory local papers in Labour-controlled areas, of course.

And who are these owners? As a key study, Monopolising Local News, has demonstrated:

  • Trinity Mirror, Johnston Press, Newsquest and Tindle own nearly 75% of regional titles.
  • 43% per cent of the 380 Local Authority Districts (LADs) in Scotland, England and Wales are served by a single publisher providing one or more titles, making for a total of 165 local newspaper monopolies.
  • 96% cent of LADs in Scotland, England and Wales have a dominant publisher, accounting for over 50% of the circulation of local papers publishing in that area. In 262 LADs (69%) a publisher accounts for over 70% of circulation figures.
  • Trinity Mirror dominates the local news market in 90 LADs across the country.

It is also extremely important to note that, thanks to endless lobbying by the NMA and its predecessor, the British Media Industry Group, both behind the scenes and in the pages of their members’ newspapers, the Broadcasting Act 1996, the Communications Act 2002 and the Media Ownership (Radio and Cross-Media) Order 2011 all radically relaxed the regulations on cross-media ownership at the local level, enabling press owners to gobble up increasing amounts of local broadcasting.  All this, of course, in the name of facilitating economies of scale via ‘consolidation’ – for which read oligopolisation, and, in certain cases, all-out monopolisation.

‘Local Democracy Reporters’

As if all this wasn’t enough, however, in December 2017, the BBC, no doubt keen to keep the government onside, announced that, in association with the NMA, 58 contracts had been awarded to commercial media organisations to fund 144 journalists as part of its drive to create what it calls ‘Local Democracy Reporters’. Most of the contracts went, yes, you guessed, to Trinity Mirror, Newsquest and Johnston Press. Of the 144 contracts, Trinity Mirror was awarded 64, Newsquest 37 and Johnston Press 30. Unsurprisingly, smaller and more radical publishers were outraged.

Take, for example, the Salford Star, whose 7 February edition accused May of talking out of her backside about democracy and the local press. This pointed out that the stringent criteria for qualifying for a contract, which included employing more than one salaried journalist, having the ‘ability to handle payroll, overheads, holiday cover, sick leave, etc’, having to “ensure submitted material has been checked by another trained journalist’, and so on, would simply disqualify most community media from applying in the first place. But the article also noted that:

What good community media does is tick all the other boxes that the BBC displayed, such as ‘targets an audience typically located in a specific geographical area’; ‘generates and distributes its own news content directly to local or regional audiences’; ‘demonstrates journalistic output covering a broad range of topical subjects’; ‘demonstrates coverage of all aspects of public institutions, organisations and civic life, including councils and public bodies’.

Unsurprisingly, the Star’s editor, Stephen Kingston, dismissed the scheme as a ‘total sham’, adding:

The news groups that have benefited from BBC funding have been sacking journalists for years in the relentless pursuit of more profit. The reason they do not hold public bodies properly to account, or report consistently on council meetings, is that, firstly they haven’t got enough journalists because they’ve sacked them all; secondly because these stories are neither easy to research, nor do they usually farm thousands of readers for advertisers; and thirdly, because it’s less time consuming cutting and pasting press releases from the police, councils or wherever.

A relentless downward trajectory

Turning now to the national press, the case for aiding the major publishers is equally threadbare. Furthermore, the goodwill which is rightly extended to local journalists doing their best in appalling circumstances which are not of their own making, cannot simply be transferred wholesale to the far less popular national press. However, this is exactly the sleight of hand which the press owners are constantly trying to pull off.

As is well known, readership of the national titles has long been on a relentless downward trajectory, particular at the popular end of the market, and this continues apace, with some 40,000 people a month no longer buying a daily paper.

Now why might that be? It couldn’t possibly be linked, could it, to the fact that British national newspapers are just about the least trusted of any in Europe, with only one in five people trusting their journalists to tell the truth? And if, as NMA propaganda constantly trumpets, people are being lured away from ‘proper’ newspapers by ‘fake news’ online, this is simply to ignore the extremely inconvenient fact that, as Jim Waterson has pointed out on Buzzfeed:

‘Analysis of UK social media habits reveals the most popular dubious stories on British politics were almost always the work of long-established news outlets’.

Indeed, the Sun itself let the cat out of the bag in its report on May’s review by stating that ‘most news you read online originates with newspapers and their websites’. Yes, precisely. As Waterson concludes:

Traditional publishers have grown more reliant on Facebook shares for internet traffic and advertising income, ratcheting up the shock value of headlines to meet demand. This also suggests that any regulatory attempt to crack down on ‘fake news’ …  would in reality require making editorial judgments against substantial British media outlets rather than simply shutting down opportunistic fly-by-night fake news sites.

Waterson argues that such press-originated stories rely ‘at most on exaggeration rather than fakery’ and that they ‘contain at least a kernel of truth, even if the facts are polluted or distorted’. This may be true in certain cases, but numerous stories which appear in British newspapers, particularly about the ‘loony left’ and Muslims, are fabrications pure and simple, and known to be by those who confected them.

The free press and the rigged market

Just as British newspapers would never publish stories which they knew to be either wholly false or seriously inaccurate, so, of course, they would never steal stories from each other in the manner of the hated social media. But just to add to the foul stench of hypocrisy and special pleading, we now witness the spectacle of newspapers bitterly opposed to any kind of regulation (vide Leveson) that would impinge on their particular version of press freedom demanding that the  media market be – regulated. And as Roy Greenslade has enquired:

‘Would that be the free press that has traditionally championed business competition and praised the virtue of technological innovation in other industries where jobs have been wiped out?’

Well, yes indeed it would. But in fact this is a market which is already rigged in favour of the press, and particularly its biggest and richest players. Indeed, if the government is as concerned as it claims to be ‘underlying and persistent structural market failures which might require intervention’ it should take a long hard look at concentration in the British press industry. Instead it actually subsidises wealthy press owners in ways of which most people are completely unaware.

As Brian Cathcart has pointed out:

All newspapers and magazines are zero-rated for VAT, and that’s worth hundreds of millions of pounds to the industry every year. The local press also benefits to the tune of tens of millions from requirements on local authorities to advertise with them, and also from a special business rate discount.

There are, of course, all sorts of ways in which newspapers, both local and national, which really do seriously attempt to provide that ‘genuinely high quality journalism’ which is crucial for ‘public debate, scrutiny, and ultimately for democratic political discourse’ could be helped to survive, or even to come into being.

For example, in 2012, the House of Lords Communications Committee recommended reform of charity law to allow for certain forms of journalism to be recognised as a charitable activity, in the same way as education. Or levies on highly profitable media companies, of the kind proposed here in a different context by IPPR, BECTU and the NUJ.

But, of course, ever since the very first Royal Commission on the Press in 1949, the dominant press interests have set their faces rigidly against any measure whatsoever which might support newspapers which find it difficult to survive in what is clearly a broken, not to say rigged, market, let alone encourage new entrants who might bring much needed ideological diversity to what is any overwhelmingly right-wing national press owned by unaccountable and extremely rich men.

And now, thanks to endless lobbying and propagandising, those who have sacrificed our once-great local and regional newspapers on the altar of shareholder value, and turned the values of the Fourth Estate entirely on their heads in most of the national press, appear to have persuaded the government that they should be protected against what it is now de rigueur in these circles to call ‘the duopoly’ and featherbedded against competition in a manner which, if it happened in any other industry, would be denounced in the pages of their newspapers as flagrant interference with the ‘free market’.

Switching the tram

Those keen to utilise this review to criticise the masters of the British press and to argue for measures which might protect and encourage genuinely high quality journalism, as opposed to channelling funds to the client press, will be watching like hawks how the appointments to its external panel are handled, who is appointed, and the subsequent announcement of the review’s precise terms of reference.

However, it is perfectly clear from the manner in which the review was announced, and in particular from the inclusion of the statement from the NMA in the accompanying press release, that the tramlines have already been set (I mean, parameters established), which is of course reminiscent of the way in which the DCMS select committee inquiry into fake news was set up so as to exclude consideration of the British press. (My own efforts to circumvent this can be found here).

It is thus going to take very considerable effort, involving the presentation of copious empirical evidence and rock-solid arguments, if those campaigning for a genuinely democratic press want to try to switch the tram down an even slightly different track.

Julian Petley is Professor of Journalism at Brunel University 

Part 1 of this post was published yesterday