In praise of regional journalism

Will we miss it when its gone? I think we will.

I've been accused of being a little unfair towards journalists in the past, which is somewhat ironic given that I laughably call myself one -- but let me put it right anyway.

Most journalists I've met, and worked with, and known, are hardworking, diligent, decent folk. They mostly come from good families, and god knows their parents tried -- but for some tragic reason, their offspring at one time or another came to the sad conclusion that they'd be better off writing or broadcasting things for a living.

It's not their fault. You don't choose journalism as a career: it finds you, whether you want it to or not.

You don't really want to be doing what you're doing for a living, but sooner or later, you just seem to have ended up doing it -- and by then, it's too late. You're doomed. It's somewhere warm to go during the day, and people don't bother you too much -- except for when those rude folk from the general public dare to use the telephone to try and contact you -- so it makes for an acceptable lifestyle.

Better than sitting around the park with a three litre bottle of cider, anyway, or whatever it is that we'd be up to otherwise. It could be worse, couldn't it.

I have spent most of my career working in the regional press, which is a curious thing, a world of residents up in arms, old ladies complaining about their boilers and old Jaff from down the dominoes club wondering when his bloody league tables are going to go in the paper.

It's a world where, when they get a letter from the PCC, editors are actually dismayed and worried about the consequences, rather than shrugging it off as a gnat-bite inconvenience. It's a world where, more often than not, people really care about what they write, because they can see the consequences.

You're actually working right next door to the people you're writing about. There isn't that level of detachment; you know that what you say and write can really upset someone, and they're often within walking distance of your office - even if, as is often the case nowadays, your newspaper has been relocated to some faceless industrial estate in the middle of nowhere rather than the middle of town. You can't hide when people come calling with complaints -- and if they're legitimate, you're left feeling ruined about what you've done to them.

I say all this for few reasons.

Firstly, as I say it's to right a perceived wrong, in that I may appear to have seemed to be anti-journalist or anti-newspaper in the things I've said and written, whereas the reality couldn't be further from that. Secondly, these hardworking, underpaid, undervalued hacks at local rags -- and "local rag" really is a term of affection among readers, no matter what wafer-thin-skinned editors might tell you otherwise - are dwindling in their numbers, not because they're actually no longer needed, but to prop up the profits of their huge parent corporations.

Just this week, more job losses appear to be on the way, at Johnston Press in Yorkshire. Other newspaper groups are doing the same -- or will be soon. Journos at the place where I learnt my craft, the South London Guardian, has been out on strike this week, complaining about an entire sports and leisure department being told they're at risk of redundancy.

And even as I was writing this, news came through of more jobs under threat, this time in Newcastle.

Wherever you live, the people who are writing about your local city, town or village are becoming fewer and fewer in number, and the decline is, if anything, accelerating.

Yes yes, blogs and hyperlocal sites will fill some of the void, but not all of it. Now is the time to value those local journalists more than ever, perhaps unfairly bundled in along with the worst extremes of the red-tops.

Will we miss them when we're gone? I think we will. People trust regional papers more than other news sources; they don't approach the local rag with the same jaded cynicism they might reserve for a national. But, whether they think that or not, the memos about "difficult trading conditions" and "tough choices" will be sent out in more and more newsrooms in the coming weeks and months.

Something has been started that isn't going to be stopped, I am afraid. And the impact it has on what news we get about where we live is only just beginning.

The readers aren't stupid; they've noticed the difference already. And it's only going to get worse as time goes on.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty Images
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When will the government take action to tackle the plight of circus animals?

Britain is lagging behind the rest of the world - and innocent animals are paying the price. 

It has been more than a year since the Prime Minister reiterated his commitment to passing legislation to impose a ban on the suffering of circus animals in England and Wales. How long does it take to get something done in Parliament?

I was an MP for more than two decades, so that’s a rhetorical question. I’m well aware that important issues like this one can drag on, but the continued lack of action to help stop the suffering of animals in circuses is indefensible.

Although the vast majority of the British public doesn’t want wild animals used in circuses (a public consultation on the issue found that more than 94 per cent of the public wanted to see a ban implemented and the Prime Minister promised to prohibit the practice by January 2015, no government bill on this issue was introduced during the last parliament.

A private member’s bill, introduced in 2013, was repeatedly blocked in the House of Commons by three MPs, so it needs a government bill to be laid if we are to have any hope of seeing this practice banned.

This colossal waste of time shames Britain, while all around the world, governments have been taking decisive action to stop the abuse of wild animals in circuses. Just last month, Catalonia’s Parliament overwhelmingly voted to ban it. While our own lawmakers dragged their feet, the Netherlands approved a ban that comes into effect later this year, as did Malta and Mexico. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, North America’s longest-running circus, has pledged to retire all the elephants it uses by 2018. Even in Iran, a country with precious few animal-welfare laws, 14 states have banned this archaic form of entertainment. Are we really lagging behind Iran?

The writing has long been on the wall. Only two English circuses are still clinging to this antiquated tradition of using wild animals, so implementing a ban would have very little bearing on businesses operating in England and Wales. But it would have a very positive impact on the animals still being exploited.

Every day that this legislation is delayed is another one of misery for the large wild animals, including tigers, being hauled around the country in circus wagons. Existing in cramped cages and denied everything that gives their lives meaning, animals become lethargic and depressed. Their spirits broken, many develop neurotic and abnormal behaviour, such as biting the bars of their cages and constantly pacing. It’s little wonder that such tormented creatures die far short of their natural life spans.

Watching a tiger jump through a fiery hoop may be entertaining to some, but we should all be aware of what it entails for the animal. UK laws require that animals be provided with a good quality of life, but the cruelty inherent in confining big, wild animals, who would roam miles in the wild, to small, cramped spaces and forcing them to engage in unnatural and confusing spectacles makes that impossible in circuses.

Those who agree with me can join PETA’s campaign to urge government to listen to the public and give such animals a chance to live as nature intended.


The Right Honourable Ann Widdecombe was an MP for 23 years and served as Shadow Home Secretary. She is a novelist, documentary maker and newspaper columnist.