BBC’s Local Democracy Foundation to ride to the rescue of UK hyperlocals? Maybe.

The BBC is to launch a new charity to fund local and community journalism throughout the UK. The Local Democracy Foundation will be independent of government and will be partly funded by tech companies such as Google and Facebook as well as donations by other businesses and institutions who realise the importance of local news.

It is not currently clear as to the extent the new scheme will give to community journalists and hyperlocals such as What’s in Wapping, the Bristol Cable, Brixton Buzz, B31 in Birmingham and several hundred others. Oh and us!

‘A sea change in local journalism’

“So councillor, how long have you been on the fiddle?”

Numerous media outlets are quoting from a speech the BBC Director General Tony Hall will give in the House of Lords later today (Wednesday) as saying that ‘The flow of information we all need to participate in democracy where we live has been drying up’ and that ‘together we can do all we can [to] reverse the damage that has been done to local democracy in recent years and bring about a sea change in local public interest journalism’.

The proposed Local Democracy Foundation will take over responsibility for the BBC Local Democracy Reporters Scheme (LDRS) which employs journalists in regional newsrooms to cover local government issues.

Unfortunately, 134 of the 144 LDRS reporters have been placed with local newspapers owned by just three major newspaper groups and so effectively provides a subsidy to already established traditional media outlets.

Fighting fake news

The latest BBC idea comes hot on the heels of the Cairncross review on the future of newspapers which suggested direct state financial report for local news sources through an ‘arms-length’ institute of public interest news.

Mr Hall also states that a key goal of the new organisation will be to fight the spread of so-called ‘fake news’.

LW contacted the Cardiff University’s Centre for Community Journalism (C4CJ) for comment but that was the first they had heard of the BBC’s Local Democracy Foundation.

ICNN not consulted?

It would seem that neither C4CJ or the Independent Community News Networks (ICNN), the official representative body for the independent community and hyperlocal news sector, have been consulted. Oops.

LW Comment

ICNN logo

This all sounds very good indeed. But then we would say that, wouldn’t we? We said something similar when we first heard about the BBC Local Democracy Reporters Scheme which turned out to be a complete turkey in practise.

If the Local Democracy Foundation should not provide sufficient support for community journalism then all hyperlocals need to get active and get angry.

The problem with Local Democracy Reporters Scheme was that it was essentially part of the BBC which meant that it had to work in the same way – very slowly and obeying all the existing BBC rules.

But the thought was nice. Bless.

It does mean that in our part of London Rachael Burford is the dedicated reporter who covers Tower Hamlets and Newham councils and a very good job she does.

Tip of a murky iceberg

In Tower Hamlets, as with other local authorities, decisions made – or completely and utterly screwed up – in the town hall directly affect our communities and that is when the reporting deficit kicks in. What goes on in the council chamber is just the tip of a very murky iceberg. Often the real stories are out on the streets.

If the BBC’s Local Democracy Foundation plan works – and it is a big if – and effective local reporting returns to our borough that should mean that sagas like that of Lutfur Rahman should not be able to happen because they will be challenged properly by independent reports.

A current issue which has its genesis in the failure of local government is that of how nine schoolgirls from Bethnal Green Academy were radicalised and four of them ended up joining ISIS in Syria.

Good local journalism might have been able to expose that happening at the time. Or at least reveal how it was possible shortly after the fact. Only now are we as a community beginning to address how schoolgirls became ISIS converts. Too little and way too late.

Getting away with ethically dubious behaviour

Proper local news reporting holds those in power to account. It is reasonable to argue that the numerous recent incidents of current Labour councillors getting up to all sorts of ethically dubious behaviour happen because those who seek public office in our borough think they can get away it.

And they think that because there are not enough journalists scrutinising them before they get elected. (Just a theory.)

“In the Love Wapping editorial office, the reporters were delighted that they could finally afford phones.”

Facebook’s local news fail

It is ironic that a recent effort by Facebook to promote local news project in the USA. ’Today In’, failed because there was not enough original local news and information for Facebook to promote.

“Are you sure I can’t use my iPhone for breaking news photos?”

Facebook found that 40% of Americans lived in places where there were simply not enough news stories for it to use.

One reason for this is because Facebook and Google and the other tech companies have inadvertently destroyed local news organisations by sucking up all their advertising revenue for themselves so leaving no pennies for anyone else.

For the same reason, this lack of original local news is apparent in Tower Hamlets. For some time the entire LW editorial team would check Google News every morning for relevant local stories, but without much success. Local stories on Google’s news aggregator would be either not local, not recent, not news or all of the above. Or ones LW had written.

It took some while for the penny to drop. The reason that the planet’s biggest tech company could not find any local news stories in Tower Hamlets was because there were not any news stories to find.

Stories that should be told but are not told

In reality there are lots of things happening in our borough every day which you need to know about. But there is nobody out there reporting them.

We have stated before that LW alone could easily keep three reporters and an editor busy every day of the week.

Here is just some of what we do not cover.

  • LW rarely gives proper attention to the planning crisis that blights the Isle of Dogs. Everyone wants to build a skyscraper there (good) but there is not sufficient infrastructure to support them (bad).
  • Knife crime is rampant on our streets but we only cover that when there is another body to be buried and another mother grieves.
  • Our NHS, despite the heroic efforts of its staff, creaks along at maximum capacity and has jewels such as the Royal London Trauma Centre. What are the issues they face? Residents are patients and they need to know.
  • Our police force has had its numbers savagely reduced in the name of austerity. What does this mean in terms of crime levels and the personal safety of residents? Is the 101 system fit for purpose? Is local policing even a thing anymore? LW does not cover any of this.
  • And for every bad news story a hundred good news stories exist. We need to remind each other that people are essentially good.

We would also like to publish a print edition – not everyone in the borough is on the interwebs you know.

Can we get a bigger tent please?

LW once operated for a year while we were homeless. The reason our entire editorial team crammed themselves into a little tent in a Wapping park was that we were daft enough to think that we had a duty to report what happens in our borough.

If the BBC’s Local Democracy Foundation had been around then it is quite possible we could have afforded a bigger tent. Maybe.

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