Some thoughts on the accountability vacuum left by a crumbling local media – and what we could do about it
This post stems from Emily Bell’s column in The Guardian following the Grenfell Tower inferno where we still don’t know – and may never know how many people perished in the fire. The executive councillors for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea have rightly come in for criticism – as have ministers over their failures over building regulations. So far, the only person to lose his job is the chief executive of the council concerned. The council leader is said by multiple media outlets to have tendered his resignation but it was refused by councillors.
With so many checks being made on buildings all over the country, what is appalling is how many samples on existing blocks of flats have failed the tests being carried out by Whitehall.
The lobbyists in the construction industry are going to have their work cut out in the next few weeks, explaining to politicians how this happened. I expect senior executives from across the industry will be hauled before Parliament to explain themselves to some very angry MPs….
The importance of local political and campaigning blogs
It was only because of the Grenfell Action Group blogging at https://grenfellactiongroup.wordpress.com/ that the mainstream media were able to ask lots of very tough questions to ministers and local councillors. The former had been posting time after time their attempts to get the safety issues resolved. And they were ignored. With fatal consequences. When the mainstream media turned up, locals were understandably angry at having been ignored and took them to task.
Here’s Jon Snow speaking about when he was confronted by residents.
Watching the news coverage and the social media feeds, I got the sense that those reporting on the ground had recognised that residents had them bang to rights, and that the media collectively had failed to report the real and substantive issues.
A plethora of issues raised that all need examining in detail…
Such was the fury of the residents that many in the broadcast media simply pointed camcorders towards those that wanted to have their say and let them get on with it. And what we saw/heard were a host of incredibly well argued, passionate and articulate arguments over a host of issues where state, society, economy (and economic systems) and democracy had all failed. The one policy area that has received a much-deserved existential shock is housing policy.
It would have been unheard of for former senior ministers under Blair and Brown to be calling for the requisitioning of property, but this is what Harriet Harman and a number of Labour MPs called for. But perhaps we should not be surprised as the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 enacted under Blair contains enabling provisions that allow ministers to make regulations for the confiscation of property ***with or without compensation***. (S22 (3) (b) of the CCA 2004).
The importance of local journalism
In Cambridge we’re fortunate to have local reporters who will turn up to local council meetings. Or failing that who will watch video footage of important ones that they were not able to get to. But it’s a thankless task going along to meetings that normally go on for at least two hours if not longer. I’ve sat through them, I’ve filmed them, and at times it can be a soul-destroying function. Especially if no one is paying you for it but you know that your presence/reporting is for the wider civic good. Those who film, blog, live-report from local meetings without pay may never know just how important their work is. The reporters 100+ years ago in Cambridge’s local newspapers could never have known how much of a historical treasure trove they left me with. For example what must have seemed like a quaint little feature in 1930, today reveals just how much the women who shaped modern Cambridge have been ignored – even though the women at the time were household names locally.
In Cambridge, local journalism is of increasing importance because of the amount of money being spent on housing and infrastructure. External scrutiny is an incredibly important role. It’s only in recent times that we’ve been able to stem the flow of people losing interest in local democracy with the advances in social media. Though again I’ve got nothing to compare it to. Is it a case of a larger number of people have become even more interested in local democracy while the rest of the city and beyond have been losing interest? More people see the front pages of the local newspaper than see the tweets or blogposts of those that report on local democracy in an online-only presence.
In my case, I’ve tried to take a few steps back from being an opinionated little so-and-so, and focus more on filming, editing and uploading video footage with the proviso that it is up to the viewers to spot the important bits and take action where they deem it necessary. Being the cameraman, reporter and the activist all in one go is now something beyond my health.
“Big society journalism” isn’t enough
Emily Bell hints at this towards the end of her column – at some stage we’ve got to decide what new model for funding local professional journalism we go for. The BBC have set aside some funding for this, but in the grand scheme of things it is a pittance. Would economies at the top end of the corporation help fund greater expenditure across those areas of the country that lack a strong local media presence? What should the relationship between local independent media and the BBC be? Because accountability matters.