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3 September 2014

How can we reinvigorate local papers to ensure scrutiny of failing public agencies?

In light of the failing public agencies in cases such as Rotherham and Mid-Staffordshire hospital, we need a plan to enhance proper local scrutiny.

By Kevin Meagher

It’s perhaps no surprise that the child sexual exploitation scandal in Rotherham was revealed by a national investigative journalist, the Times’ excellent Andrew Norfolk. The chances of all but the most dedicated local reporter finding the time to wade through reams of documents to unearth municipal malfeasance, amid the demands to churn out copy, are remote. That’s assuming they have the interest and expertise to do so in the first place.

Yet for our democracy to function properly, we need to be able to hold decision-makers to account. And to do that, we need proper scrutiny of what they do in our names. It is clear that the conventional arrangement, where strong local newspapers fulfil this function, is on its last legs.

The past decade has seen the precipitous decline of local and regional media titles and the hollowing-out of careers on local newspapers. And hard commercial imperatives for struggling media groups means they are never going to devote the labour-intensive resources necessary to hold local public agencies to account in the future.

So how can we support a local independent media, preserve public interest journalism and repair the market in local political scrutiny? The answer is to make public bodies pay for the privilege of being held to account. A local scrutiny tax, levied on councils, various arms of the NHS, universities, FE colleges, schools, the police, transport bodies, and perhaps even utility companies, would generate a pot of money to finance public interest journalism in each town and city. The amount paid could simply reflect the size of the organisation.

A new accreditation for public interest journalists would ensure quality control and those working for commercial players, would see their workloads ring-fenced. “PIJs” could bid for money from the local pot, depending on their expertise, the reach of their writing and the amount of time they will guarantee to set aside to report on and investigate public bodies.

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This would mean the decisions they take receive proper scrutiny from independent journalists, increasing the likelihood that incompetence, waste and anything darker, will receive proper journalistic inquiry. But the upside for them is that there would be more media coverage of their work, allowing them to showcase their successes, improve engagement and build trust with their local communities.

The BBC shows that we can, and do, subsidise public interest journalism, so this is no great departure in terms of changing the relationship between the scrutineers and the scrutinised. (Indeed, many local newspapers are reliant on the income from the statutory notices that local authorities are obliged to publish). But a local scrutiny tax could also help make dedicated local bloggers commercially viable too.

The point about the scandals in Rotherham, or at Mid-Staffordshire Hospital, is that bodies that serve the public sometimes make a bad job of it. Without a vibrant independent local media bringing these matters to light, how will we know?

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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