What going back to football reporting has taught me about the state of the UK’s local news media and what it means for local democracy

The Cairncross Review was set up by the UK Government to consider ‘how to sustain the production and distribution of high-quality journalism in a changing market’. They invited those interested to submit evidence, so I did .This is my evidence:

I was a BBC News Trainee, an ITN producer who became the Editor and Chief Executive, a senior Ofcom executive who oversaw a review of the UK’s local media, a Professor of Journalism at City University who wrote a book on ethics and an adviser to the DCMS on the BBC Charter Review. I am currently a Non-Executive Director of Channel Four, an author and a football reporter for the Brentford Supporters Trust known as ‘Bees United’. I am submitting a short case study on my experiences at Brentford Football Club together with my thoughts on the wider implications, informed by my earlier career.

Brentford Football Club is in the top ten of the English Football League (EFL), the third biggest league in Europe as measured by attendance. The club is widely admired for its innovative approach and this season is considered a candidate for promotion to the Premier League. A new stadium is being built to help attract further support across the club’s catchment area which is the half a million people who live in the London Boroughs of Hounslow and Ealing. Yet when the club plays matches and holds its weekly press conference sometimes nobody from the local media turns up to report them. Together with two other season-ticket holders who are also former journalists, we decided that if the country’s big local media groups couldn’t be relied on to cover the Brentford story, then we would. As three unpaid volunteers we have now covered every match and media event so far this season posting text, stills, audio and video and building up our own following online and in social media.

This situation came about in the spring of 2018 when what was then called Trinity Mirror announced a series of redundancies and one of them was the reporter who covered every Brentford match and press conference for the Hounslow Chronicle and the GetWestLondon website. Instead another reporter was tasked with covering a number of clubs in West and East London, many of whom, of course, play at the same time on a Saturday. During the pre-season it became clear that the presence of Trinity Mirror (by now renamed Reach) was unpredictable, sometimes they would be present in some form but often not. If no local reporter turned up to question the club’s Head Coach a member of the in-house communications team would do it instead.

After the first Championship match of the season at Brentford, a former Fleet Street news editor wrote an article ‘Brentford’s local press coverage has become yesterday’s news’ on a fan website.https://beesotted.com/brentfords-local-press-coverage-has-become-yesterdays-news/ . Jim Levack wrote:  ‘For the first time in the club’s professional league existence there was no local media representation at the game…It’s a damning indictment of the lack of investment in local and regional media, but also a tragedy for the club and its fans at a time when the side’s potential has never been greater.”

Reach decided to reply to the criticism https://www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk/2018/news/publisher-defends-coverage-of-football-club-despite-claim-no-reporter-at-game/ It said it had provided four separate pieces of coverage on the match via its football news website http://www.football.london

What is significant is what Reach did not say, they did not say they had been present at the game. The industry website ‘Hold the Front Page’ reported that it had ‘asked for further clarification on whether a reporter was physically present at Griffin Park but Reach has yet to respond’. Perhaps reacting to this criticism, Reach has since been represented at some events in some form but rarely the same person from the same part of Reach, which now publishes  everything from local media in West London to the Daily Mirror and Daily Express.

It is technically possible for anybody to provide coverage of Brentford FC’s press conferences without ever attending by viewing the videos which the club posts on its website. It is technically possible to cover a match without attending by monitoring websites, social media or audio services. In many ways the digital world creates opportunities for accessing content without attending events. But from a reporter’s point of view it is absolutely not the same as being there.

We in the Bees United reporting team know that to be true because by attending we get to ask our own questions, some of which the club’s representatives have chosen not to ask, we get our own stories, we talk to our own sources and witness events for ourselves. And of course some of what we ask and report gets picked up and repeated by Reach on their website http://www.football.london

So, one might ask, if a group of volunteers step in and fill a gap left by traditional local media surely that is a success for ‘a new model’? In truth it is a fragile model, that depends on the commitment of volunteers, their availability and their ability to fund themselves.

Apply the lessons of this case study to coverage of local events which may be of less interest to the local public but of more truly public interest. Imagine a local council press conference where only the in-house communications team turn up with, at best, a local blogger alongside them.

Brentford Football Club have wondered whether it is worth putting their Head Coach up for questions if nobody from the local media turns up. The read across from this to local councils is why would the leader of a council put aside time to be available to an audience of potentially nobody when an easier alternative is to work out their own questions and answers with their own in-house communications team.

A physical presence at an event is not just a ‘nice to have’. It is an essential part of our local democracy. That is why when I was one of the advisers to DCMS on the BBC Charter Renewal I supported the principle of a publicly funded intervention to increase the number of reporters covering public bodies, which eventually became the BBC Local Partnership. However I have some doubts about the execution of this scheme.

These are:

  1. The funding has overwhelmingly gone to legacy players in the local media e.g Reach, Johnston Press and Newsquest with little support going to innovative new models in news-gathering.
  2. The legacy players have an incentive to use that funding to subsidise existing staff rather than appoint new staff.They also have an incentive to prevent funding going to new players who they see as competitors.
  3. There appears to be no outside scrutiny of how the BBC and the NMA operate the scheme using licence-fee money.
  4. Access to the content created under the scheme seems unreasonably limited to legacy media.

I therefore suggest:

1.The BBC should commission a thorough review and audit of the scheme by an outside body which should be published. In particular there should be detailed scrutiny of whether the 150 reporters are truly additional to the staffing of the news organisations within which they work or has the licence fee money been used to pay people those organisations already employed.

2. After that review is published, DCMS should ask Ofcom, the regulator of the BBC , to take specific oversight of the partnership scheme and to publish its own findings each year.

3. Given that companies such as Facebook have privately inquired (see Alan Rusbridger’s recent book) as to whether they can help provide funding to schemes which offset some of the impact of their success, thought needs to be given to how such private or philanthropic funding can be fed into public interventions such as the BBC Local Partnership scheme.

4.Once the review of the existing scheme has taken place, the oversight by Ofcom has been established and a mechanism for adding non licence-fee money has been found, this scheme has the potential to increase further the number of reporters on the ground asking the right questions on behalf of citizens and  sharing the content they create as widely as possible. Extra funding could be converted into extra coverage, extending the scheme to provide greater public access to reports of courts and inquests.

1 thought on “What going back to football reporting has taught me about the state of the UK’s local news media and what it means for local democracy

  1. Dear Professor Purvis, again 100 per cent spot on. Quite recently a Sheffield Star reporter was questioned about why she had attended a council meeting by a `hostile’ council officer, reported in Hold the Front Page. When I started my journalistic career, approx a million years ago, it would have been inconceivable for anything like this to happen. Whether it is a football match, or a council meeting, it is truly worrying that members of the press are absent from reporting events and questioning decisions on behalf of their readers. Time for change? I should say so.

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