Community news and investigative journalism for Wapping E1W and Tower Hamlets London

Response to BBC Local Democracy Reporters Scheme (LDRS)

By on February 22, 2017 in Comment

The BBC Local Democracy Reporters Scheme (LDRS) is a proposal for the BBC to fund the employment by qualifying local news organisations of 150 local democracy reporters across the UK who will focus solely on local authorities and councils.  In addition to this the plans also include the creation of a News Bank- including audio and video – and a Data Journalism Hub based at BBC Birmingham. There will be a phased implementation of reporters, region by region, starting this summer and completing in 2018.

Love Wapping, in addition to all other hyperlocal publications in the country, has been asked to provide its formal response to the LDRS. This is reproduced below.

Date: 22 February 2017

To:
Matthew Barraclough BBC News Partnerships
Matt Abbott Centre for Community Journalism, Cardiff University

Response to BBC Local Democracy Reporters Scheme

As currently proposed the BBC Local Democracy Reporters Scheme (LDRS) fails in its primary objective of providing better transparency and accountability of local authorities across the UK.

It also fails to provide any assistance to the burgeoning UK hyperlocal sector and so misses a historical opportunity to improve the current deficiencies in local media. At a time when ‘fake news’ threatens basic truths this is potentially catastrophic.

Perversely the LDRS does manage to use BBC license fee-payer’s money to subsidise ailing local papers and allow them to continue their pretence of effectively holding truth to power – when the opposite is true.

Thanks but no thanks

For these reasons Love Wapping will not be taking part in, or using any content generated by, the LDRS. We were once hopeful of it, now it is an irrelevance.

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Judged to be corruptly elected, Lutfur Rahman was banned from office for five years.

Recent political events in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, the east end of London where Love Wapping operates, show what happens when elected politicians can operate free from any meaningful scrutiny by an effective free press.

Lutfur Rahman, the previous directly-elected Executive Mayor of Tower Hamlets and leader of the Tower Hamlets First party was judged to have been elected corruptly and banned from office for five years in 2015.

Rahman’s subversion of the electoral and democratic process was described by Giles Broadbent, editor of The Wharf newspaper* as “an egregious assault on democracy involving corruption and illegality.

With the noticeable exception of Trial by Jeory no local media outlets repeatedly and consistently challenged Rahman’s methods when he was in power. Both Andrew Gilligan of The Daily Telegraph and John  Ware of BBC Panorama did undertake investigative work into Rahman but this was, originally, a local story that needed local scrutiny every day of the week. This did not happen.

Despite being banned from office Rahman is now attempting to re-enter local politics with a new party, ‘Tower Hamlets Together’. The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) only became aware of this development because of a news story that Love Wapping published.

This fact alone illustrates the deficiencies of local media in reporting local government issues.

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Metropolitan Police – why no criminal charges against Rahman or his Youth Services?

Light is now starting to be shone on the exact reasons why the Metropolitan Police Service failed to bring criminal charges against Rahman after the electoral petition judgement and why there have been no criminal charges brought against any members of his Youth Services team.

And so it continues. ‘Storyville’ as Ted Jeory calls it.

The central concept of the LDRS approach is that if local media organisations have a subsidised reporter dedicated to covering local authority issues democracy will be protected and enhanced.

This is a false assumption.

It is true that many local government stories go untold because council cabinet and committee meetings are not reported. Love Wapping rarely covers these diary events simply because we do not have the time and resources to do so.

Working the streets, not the corridors of power

Love Wapping does manage to provide analysis and commentary on certain aspects of local politics in Tower Hamlets because we work hard investigating issues that some wish to be kept from the gaze of the public. Being a member of the LDRS might help this work but it is not essential to it.

More information is to be found on the streets of our borough than in the meeting rooms of the town hall.

Love Wapping provides a service to our community both at a hyperlocal in Wapping and locally across Tower Hamlets because we live and work in our community, not in a remote satellite office. We work the streets, we talk to everyone we meet and ask them their views and what they know.

Residents know us and we know them. Residents directly support Love Wapping and we hope we repay them in some small way by the work we do.

Opposite ends of the media spectrum

Each hyperlocal publication is different. Love Wapping is very different in tone from its illustrious predecessor What’s in Wapping despite London E1W having a population of only around 15,000.

The BBC LDRS fails because it is constrained by the public service role of the BBC and its charter. Love Wapping is and will continue to be an ardent supporter of the BBC and few things would give us more professional satisfaction and personal proud to be formally associated with it.

Problem is that a one-person hyperlocal and a global media organisation such as the BBC are at opposite ends of the media spectrum and have little in common apart from our core mission of public service – to inform and educate and on occasion entertain.

It should therefore not be a surprise that the BBC is not capable of effectively engaging with hyperlocals despite numerous consultation events and the tireless efforts of the Centre for Community Journalism at Cardiff University.

It’s a bit like trying to get a giraffe to understand the perspective of a sand fly. They may both inhabit the same landscape but that is where the similarities end.

If the LDRS only succeeds in extending the lifespan of the zombie press then an opportunity has been missed and significant threats to democracy such as the corrupt activities of Tower Hamlets First will go unreported in addition to the usual more mundane council stories of dodgy planning applications, community triumphs and erring public servants.

Fund hyperlocals only when they have proved their worth

A final thought as to how a central body (not necessarily the BBC) could help the hyperlocal sector.

There should be no initial funding or other start-up assistance for hyperlocals from the BBC or other central body. If citizens want to do the hyperlocal thing then they will get out of their armchairs and do it. If their work is valued their publication will continue, if not it will fail. Harsh? Yes. It’s called business.

Love Wapping would like to propose that after a hyperlocal publication has been in existence for reasonable period – say three years – then and only then it could become eligible for central funding. No idea how much or even how but from our perspective this would make sense.

Hyperlocals are already co-operating with each other across their defined hyper-geographic boundaries and a new media model will emerge from this. Investigative journalism projects across the entire UK could be delivered in this way.

Whatever future support of the hyperlocal sector takes it needs to reflect the individual nature of each publication, as each publication is as individual as the people that create them and the communities they serve.

*Part of the Mirror Group

In the spirit of transparency and open dialogue this letter will be published on Love Wapping (www.lovewapping.org)

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