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Committee Corridor podcast: The impact of declining local journalism

30 June 2023

How do we hold local Government and public services to account for the decisions that affect our everyday lives without local media? And what does it mean for our understanding of institutions like the courts if we don't engage with coverage?

A global study of our news habits has revealed a sharp decline in the number of those who take a strong interest in news coverage, falling levels of trust in news and growing numbers of people who avoid news stories. 

It comes as local newspapers and broadcast services are disappearing due to cuts, centralisation, and mergers. The Justice Select Committee has highlighted the impact of reduced court reporting on the public’s understanding of how justice works, from understanding sentencing guidelines to the long-established and respected principle of open justice – ‘justice must be done, and seen to be done.’ 

In this episode of Committee Corridor, the podcast from the House of Commons select committees, the Chair of the Petitions Committee, Catherine McKinnell MP sits down with the Director of the Reuters Institute, Professor Rasmus Kleis Neilsen and Sir Bob Neill MP, Chair of the Justice Committee to consider the impact on local democracy and our engagement with it.   

The latest Reuters Digital News Report surveyed more than 93,000 online news consumers in 46 countries covering half the world's population. It tells us that the audience for TV and newspapers continues to fall, and that our online and social media consumption of news isn't making up the gap. 

“We have every reason to be concerned that the dearth of local coverage, and frankly, the dearth of public interest in the coverage that exists is going to be quite challenging in terms of how our local democracy works in the future,” Professor Neilsen tells the host. 

“So many people in our research say that they find that the news is relentlessly negative, depressing, and irrelevant, and that they say they have an appetite for things that help explain things more, that help identify not just problems, but also solutions that help document things that work in the world and not just those things in the world that do not work.” 

Along with countering misinformation, engaging with local news has important advantages, he says. “There is a popular saying that familiarity breeds contempt. If anything, I think the opposite is often the case when it comes to civic institutions, to news media and indeed politics.” 

“So often, people who take a very dim view of politicians in general may have a more nuanced view of their local MP or the challenger that may run against their local MP. Often, people who may feel that society at large is falling apart, may feel that their local communities’ perhaps not such a bad place at all.” 

And similarly with news: “Even though they don’t always engage with it, people often have a higher opinion of local journalism than they do of national journalism, which is seen as partisan, it’s seen as remote, it’s seen as distant from people’s lived experience. Whereas, when they engage with media that have true roots in the community, are seen as part of that community and often regarded more positively.” 

The Justice Select Committee has published a report on court reporting in the digital age, concluding that the decline of print media has resulted in court proceedings being less visible to the public. As many regional titles have closed, the number of dedicated court reporters has fallen.  

It’s essential that the court system embraces technology and welcomes media and the public into court proceedings, Sir Bob Neill tells Catherine McKinnell.  

“Openness of justice is a fundamental part of the rule of law. There's the old adage, isn't there? That justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done,” he says. “Public confidence in the way in which justice is administered is critical. And of course, you've got to have transparency and awareness of what's happening to sustain that confidence.” 

Together, the Members of Parliament consider what can be done to ensure there are trusted news sources for constituents. 

I think it is important that we maintain properly funded public broadcasting for a start, I think that's critical. And I think we need to look quite carefully about what the regulatory arrangements are for some of the organisations that try to pass themselves off as news organisations which really aren't,” said Sir Bob Neill. 

“All of the issues we've had around the Online Harms Bill… show there's a real challenge around this. And I don't think any of us will pretend that we've got easy answers, but what we can do is support the established and reputable media that includes things like local radio, for example.” 

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