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The article below is reproduced with the kind permission of William Hague and The Times.


In much of Britain, regional news is hollowed out or close to extinction but it is vital in holding politicians to account.

When I was first elected to parliament, in a hard-fought  by-election in 1989, the most important media event of my week was the of the local paper, The Darlington and Stockton Times.

Selling tens of thousands of copies per week, its editorials and letters pages set the local agenda and kept candidates on their toes. If we debated the future of farming, the knowledge and policies of each candidate were analysed at great length.

If we made an error about local healthcare, that would be rapidly exposed. A strong local paper was the mainstay of debate and accountability, quite apart from ensuring that everyone knew whose sheep had won top prize at the show and what the WI had discussed in the village hall.

The Darlington and Stockton Times still exists, although it has lost its adverts from the front, gone tabloid and seen its print run fall to a fraction of what it was. It has hung on, but overall, the landscape of local papers is a scene of utter devastation, with most titles dead or dying.

When Britain holds a general election this year, few of the candidates will need to worry about an authoritative local paper holding them to account. Out of 380 local authority districts, 209 had a daily local paper in 2007, but only 142 still had one in 2019, and that figure will be much lower now. 

The arrival of social media has brought a sudden death syndrome for local news. Figures published last month by Press Gazette suggest the main publishers’ revenues fell by more than 80 per cent, when adjusted for inflation, in 15 years. The number of local journalists beavering away at the deeds and misdeeds of councils, MPs and civic leaders fell from around 13,000 to 4,000.

Many of those are now reduced to recycling police press releases and social media clickbait, trying to hit a target of several “stories” a day that are no longer the product of investigation and local knowledge. Their publications are often just a ghost of their robust former selves. 

Some people have turned instead to local forums on social media, but these are a poor substitute. Who is investigating the corrupt councillor? Or verifying that money was wasted on that failed town centre? Or just letting people know about parts of their community they don’t see for themselves?

Successive studies in the US, where similar “news deserts” have appeared all over the country, show that the closure of local papers is linked to increased polarisation, lower turnout in elections and increased waste as a result of diminished scrutiny of local decisions. 

Take a look at our major cities. Even a few years ago you would see, on the London Tube, a high proportion of people reading the Evening Standard, cheek by jowl sharing the commentary on the fortunes of the capital.

Today, they sit with headphones on in their fragmented worlds. In our second-largest city, the once-great Birmingham Post is now selling 844 copies a week to more than a million inhabitants. That’s not a misprint. Might this be the same Birmingham where a long sequence of staggeringly incompetent leadership has bankrupted the city council and now means massive cuts in local services? I’m afraid so.

News websites about the city are busy but there is no doubt that scrutiny, accountability and public debate of such developments is weaker than it would have been in the past. 

The intrepid local reporter who will go on to a career in the national media is now a rare sight. In most of Britain, local news is hollowed out and on the verge of extinction. Do we just have to shrug our shoulders? Is it just another case, like video rental stores or shops that develop your holiday photos, where new technology takes over? There is a big difference. Those businesses were replaced by new services, such as streaming and digital photos, which provide a superior product.

Local papers are not being replaced by anything remotely equal, let alone superior, and that is a market failure that needs correction. 

People are crying out for responsive local leadership and services. That’s why significant  powers are being transferred to regional mayors, even though they will face diminished media scrutiny. It’s also why political parties have moved heavily to choosing local candidates for parliament.

This is an understandable attempt to create a sense of local agency, although misguided when pursued everywhere because we will end up with a parliament that is Birmingham City Council on a bigger and still more disastrous scale. 

The answer is to ensure a fair chance for new ideas in local media. A small cause for hope can be seen in new ventures such as Manchester Mill, which provides well-researched and original reporting on local issues through a subscription website. 

Spin-offs are being launched in  other cities, and other attempts at investigative local news have started up in Bristol and Glasgow. Yet  these are all tiny at the moment and are up against the massive and generally destructive forces of the big tech companies. 

Worst of these is Meta, owner of Facebook, which first replaced many traditional papers with its own newsfeeds, then refused to pay for news it harvests from others and is now de-prioritising news altogether.

It is the great bottom-trawler of the media ocean, sucking up the advertising it needs while laying waste to everything around it, and then ensuring nothing can grow in its place. Challenged by Canada to pay news outlets for their work, it has simply removed its news links there. 

Such abuse of global dominance warrants some international solidarity — the UK could join with other countries to require links to local news, and payment for them, and levy serious fines for non-compliance.

Here at home, the new Digital Markets Bill must be used to require the social media firms to negotiate with local papers. 

Google, which has been more responsible, could be asked to prioritise local journalism in searches, rather than always ranking the BBC ahead of it.

The BBC itself should expand its vital Local Democracy Reporting Service but focus on underserved areas rather than compete directly with the few remaining quality local papers.

The constructive use of BBC resources, government advertising and payments from tech giants could  be used to support local media, new and old. Government could fund  an Institute for Local Interest News as the centre of excellence recommended by the CairncrossReview in 2019.

The expired Future News Pilot Fund could be relaunched and expanded to  support new ideas. 
There are many more ideas, such as extending charitable status to local news outlets, but all of them are becoming urgent.

Local newspapers have been virtually destroyed without adequate replacements.  It’s in all our interests to do something about it.



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