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
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In the row over public sector pay, don't forget that Theresa May is no longer in charge

Downing Street's view on public sector pay is just that – Conservative MPs pull the strings now.

One important detail of Theresa May’s deal with the Democratic Unionist Party went unnoticed – that it was not May, but the Conservatives’ Chief Whip, Gavin Williamson, who signed the accord, alongside his opposite number, the DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson.

That highlighted two things: firstly that the Conservative Party is already planning for life after May. The deal runs for two years and is bound to the party, not the leadership of Theresa May. The second is that while May is the Prime Minister, it is the Conservative Party that runs the show.

That’s an important thing to remember about today’s confusion about whether or not the government will end the freeze in public sector pay, where raises have been capped at one per cent since 2012 and have effectively been frozen in real terms since the financial crisis.

Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, signalled that the government could end the freeze, as did Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary. (For what it’s worth, Gavin Barwell, now Theresa May’s chief of staff, said before he took up the post that he thought anger at the freeze contributed to the election result.)

In terms of the government’s deficit target, it’s worth remembering that they can very easily meet Philip Hammond’s timetable and increase public sector pay in line with inflation. They have around £30bn worth of extra wriggle room in this year alone, and ending the pay cap would cost about £4.1bn.

So the Conservatives don’t even have to U-turn on their overall target if they want to scrap the pay freeze.

And yet Downing Street has said that the freeze remains in place for the present, while the Treasury is also unenthusiastic about the move. Which in the world before 8 June would have been the end of it.

But the important thing to remember about the government now is effectively the only minister who isn’t unsackable is the Prime Minister. What matters is the mood, firstly of the Cabinet and of the Conservative parliamentary party.

Among Conservative MPs, there are three big areas that, regardless of who is in charge, will have to change. The first is that they will never go into an election again in which teachers and parents are angry and worried about cuts to school funding – in other words, more money for schools. The second is that the relationship with doctors needs to be repaired and reset – in other words, more money for hospitals.

The government can just about do all of those things within Hammond’s more expansive target. And regardless of what Hammond stood up and said last year, what matters a lot more than any Downing Street statement or Treasury feeling is the mood of Conservative MPs. It is they, not May, that pulls the strings now.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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