By Emma Ireland
The Local Democracy Reporting Service was launched in 2018, as a network of reporters funded by the BBC to cover local news across the country.
In theory, it is a fantastic initiative. After all, for years profit-hungry publishers have been closing local titles; cutting journalists’ jobs and reducing the public’s access to local news as a result. In their place, dozens of new independent newspapers have been set up to serve local communities. Many of these independent titles are also independently regulated, unlike the big corporate publishers, but many of them are hard-up. What better way to support local, trusted publishers with strong ethical standards than the provision of reporters paid for by the BBC?
Regrettably the figures suggest a different story: of a system designed to meet the interests of the corporate press; to subsidise their profits with licence fee payer cash, and to put public money into the hands of unregulated newspapers.
9 in 10 reporters placed with multi-millionaire corporate publishers
In August the BBC announced which publishers had benefited from the latest round of contracts and reporter placements. It reported that while the 165 reporters available would be placed with a total of 17 different media companies,145 of them would go to just five publishers; each with an annual turnover in excess of £30million. This suggests that of the £8million licence fee payer-funded budget for the scheme, as much as £6m could be going to the five companies that need the least help – while their independent competitors struggle.
Subsidising journalist job cuts?
The larger publishers with interests in the local press have a track record of cutting journalists’ jobs to protect profit margins. This unethical practice risks being propped up by licence fee payer cash through the way the LDRS is being run, as companies cut the salaries and jobs of their own staff with one hand, while bringing LDRS reporters in – courtesy of the licence fee payer – with the other. For example, JPI Media cut salaries between £18,000 to £40,000 by 10% while benefiting from the Service, meaning that some staff may now be earning less than the local democracy reporters. The NUJ criticised Newsquest in July 2020 for cutting dozens of jobs, but the publisher is now responsible for 28.5 LDRs. Press Gazette also reported their plans to fire 13 more staff members and only rehire them if they agreed to worse terms and conditions. Another company with LDRS contacts, Reach, also cut 12% of its work force and fired 550 members of staff and yet they hold 75 of the reporters.
Funding for standards-free journalism
The picture is even worse when it comes to the standards of these publishers, with the vast majority of reporters being sent to unregulated publishers. Only 2 contracts were given to titles regulated by the independent regulator, IMPRESS, and only 2.5 reporters out of the 165. That leaves 98.5% of reporters – funded by the licence fee payer – going to publishers which are effectively unregulated; either members of IPSO or other industry-controlled systems. It is totally inappropriate for licence fee payers to be asked to fund employees for unregulated newspaper titles, which are not bound by any independently enforced ethical standards.
The hand of the NMA
The News Media Association (NMA) is a lobbying organisation representing the part of the newspaper industry which is opposed to independent accountability for newspapers. While claiming it supports press freedom, it has actively lobbied against provisions to preserve and enhance press freedom where they would benefit regulated titles.
It is also close to politicians and others in power.
It is no surprise, then, to see 151 LDRS reporters (92%) going to NMA-member publishers, while independent titles are – as is so often the case when it comes to state funding support – underrepresented.
The LDR Service is a good initiative in principle. As a spokesperson for the BBC pointed out, the content produced by reporters is shared across a network which may benefit regulated titles:
“All content generated by the Local News Partnership [including Local Democracy Reporters] – and access to other benefits such as training – is shared across a network of more than 1,000 local news brands across the UK.”
But it cannot be right that the contracts and journalists themselves are ending up in the hands of wealthy and unregulated newspaper titles.