Fringe Box



Opinion: Inadequate Local Journalism Affects Us All

Published on: 26 Jun, 2017
Updated on: 28 Jun, 2017

By Martin Giles

We are all mindful of the terrible events in Kensington. But if, heaven forbid, there was a tragedy in Guildford’s social housing tomorrow, how much would it be the fault of The Guildford Dragon NEWS, along with the rest of our local media?

This is the question posed in a Guardian article: “Grenfell reflects the accountability vacuum left by a crumbling local press,” pushed under my nose by one of our small team.

It is a good question. You as a reader, rely on us to bring you local news. You expect us to scrutinise council decisions and hold those in charge to account.

We try. But frankly, because we are insufficiently resourced, we do not do well enough.

It is not a lack of effort. To simply read the plethora of documents produced by a local authority these days would take a significantly sized team, let alone checking them and scrutinising them and reporting on them.

Local journalism is suffering in most of the Western world and the reasons are well rehearsed. Crucially local newspapers no longer hold a monopoly on local advertising so revenues are inexorably shrinking.

Many local titles have gone to the wall and those that are left have faced cuts that have emasculated their reporting capability: they are a shadow of their former selves.

One member of Guildford Borough Council’s Executive is reported to have said the council need not worry about the local media because the Surrey Advertiser’s circulation was insignificant and falling and nobody reads The Dragon.

It’s not true of course. The Dragon, for instance, gets 20,000 unique readers per month, but despite the lead councillor’s worrying ignorance it is true that local authorities can act knowing there will often be perfunctory or no coverage of their deliberations.

In The Guardian article it states: “There is decreasing correlation between high numbers and quality journalism.” That is true and council stories are often not dramatic or eye catching. They can demand some stamina from reporters to write and readers to read. Our modern style of communications and our culture mitigates against that.

I would stake my house on the fact that if a survey was conducted on Guildford High Street more respondents would recognise the name Kardashian than Spooner. Similarly more would be able to tell you about the latest happenings in Albert Square or Coronation Street than they could the main points of Guildford’s draft Local Plan.

This brings us to another element of the problem. All of us, as citizens, have a responsibility, a duty even, to make a judgement about those who govern us and the decisions they take.

Too often we shrug our shoulders and think that bad governance is simply inevitable and “not our problem”. But if we don’t bother to pay any attention we can hardly complain that things are not done the way we think they should be.

Of course, as the saying goes, “If things don’t change… they’ll stay as they are” and there is no sign that a resurgence of local journalism, let alone a cultural change, is just around the corner.

The Guardian article concludes: “As national and global news outlets in all their many forms continue to flood into the Grenfell story, they will I am sure, unearth and report on the root causes. But the stories which expose the causes of the fire, however they emerge, will not make up for the lack of the stories that might have stopped it in the first place.”

It is a good point and while a lack of sufficient local news coverage, of scrutiny and of public awareness will not, let us hope, lead to anything like such a tragedy here, as occurred in London, it might easily lead to changes in our borough that none of us want.

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Responses to Opinion: Inadequate Local Journalism Affects Us All

  1. Jim Allen Reply

    June 26, 2017 at 5:43 pm

    A well written assessment. For the past four days I have been trawling through the Reg 19 second attempt Local Plan consultation to understand that ‘mitigation’ means ‘excuse not to do’ and ‘consideration of the facts’ means ‘ignoring the obvious’. But ask me to write in the prose of a journalist – not much hope of that. We need the local press to keep reminding ourselves, “Apathy is a benign master – it lets us sleep and blame others for our inaction.”

    So stand up and be counted you 20,000 readers. Surely one among you can join The Dragon and breath some more fire into the other 19,999?

  2. Jules Cranwell Reply

    June 28, 2017 at 1:35 pm

    This is a masterful piece of journalism. On past record, I hold out little hope that the GBC executive will heed its message.

    I’m prepared to be proved wrong. All they need to do is to show us the secret formulae used to calculate the so-called ‘housing need’, on which the local plan is based. What do they have to hide?

  3. Colin Cross Reply

    June 28, 2017 at 6:57 pm

    The paper plethora malaise is rife at GBC, particularly in relation to its interface with its own councillors. Massive documents are posted to us routinely and they often run to
    500+ pages of impenetrable type with little or no summaries, indexes etc.

    The ultimate experience was at a Planning Committee meeting in 2016 when we were told we would be given the latest Local Plan paperwork to take home, by hand, car or whatever. Stacks of documents were left for each councillor by his/her seat and amounted to a five ream box, full of literally 2000+ pages of A3 and A4 sheaves of paper and weighing several kilos. Suffice to say, a number of councillors simply could not manage to handle this.

    The actual document itself was one of the worst written presentations I have ever seen. But then, to get back to the original point, perhaps that was exactly the intention?

    Colin Cross is the Lib Dem borough councillor for Lovelace.

    • John Perkins Reply

      June 30, 2017 at 12:20 pm

      It’s difficult to imagine how it could be anything other than intentional. Only the most determined reader is able to cope with such a volume of information.

      However, to be scrupulously fair, there is a more innocent explanation possible – “busy doin’ nuthin’”. Always a preferred way of working, in modern times computers allow the easy production of vast amounts of “fingerrhea” that nevertheless appears to be relevant. So much easier than actually working.

  4. John Perkins Reply

    June 29, 2017 at 10:17 am

    A free press is often regarded as a necessity for a strong democracy.

    Politicians who criticise journalists place themselves in bad company: Richard Nixon railed against The Washington Post for investigating his misdeeds.

    In this country the government has recently attempted to weaken press freedom in the name of a right to privacy. It should be resisted.

  5. Wayne Smith Reply

    June 29, 2017 at 1:00 pm

    While I agree with many of the points raised by Martin Giles, it’s not just local journalism that is letting us down. The national newspapers have also dumbed down over the last year or so, recycling articles found elsewhere on the internet (sometimes several days after they were first “news”) and filling their pages with “advertorials”. Factual reporting takes a back seat to opinion pieces both in newspapers and broadcast media. Give me the facts and I’ll form my own opinion, thank you.

    Online news sources rely on attracting advertising to pay their way and increasingly use dramatic headlines to describe the mundane in order to try and catch our attention. GetSurrey being a chief proponent of that tactic. Thankfully The Dragon doesn’t fall in to the camp of sensational headlines and ridiculous videos.

    However, despite limited resources I believe our local news could do a better job of reporting some of our local issues. A case in point being Surrey County Council’s latest proposed cut backs to recycling centres in Surrey, which I haven’t seen any mention of in The Dragon yet it will affect everyone in Surrey and particularly those of us in Guildford that are unfortunate enough to need to use the Slyfield tip.

    If you think it’s busy now, wait until it’s only open five days/week and vans and trailers from miles around are required to go there. SCC seeks our views by August 7 (2017).

    The survey can be found here:

    The cynic in me says that our views will be ignored anyway, but perhaps the 20,000 readers of The Dragon would like to give SCC and our local councilors something to think about and show them that they are not to be discounted.

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