As I’ve recently suggested in our idea article on the subject, it is high time for some form of English devolution. While a flexible, democratic and accountable system would be best for our regional economies and democracies, the current government’s “city regions” idea may be a good (if somewhat undemocratic) start.
However with the growth of new public offices, what is vital is that these offices are held to account by a vibrant regional and local press. Current local journalism is woefully inadequate in this regard —it is very rare to find a mention of local town and county council officials behaving inappropriately, and even rarer to find a mention of a council making a decision which went against the interests of the people living in the area. It could be that all local councils are fantastic and all of their members never do anything untoward — though the fact Private Eye can always find enough stories to fill their “Rotten Boroughs” section every week suggests that they’re looking in places that local journalists are not. Local newspapers have next to no coverage of local politics; the regional TV news is bland; only BBC local radio could be said to have any substantial local political news, and even they could do better. With local councils being given more responsibilities (under the guise of “combined authorities” in the cities) it is even more important that local journalists throughout England actually hold these elected representatives to account.
Another reason we need greater regional and local journalism is because the English political debate is overwhelmingly London-centric. The needs of the people outside of London are often misrepresented by national journalists and comment writers because all they have ever really known of England is the capital. With Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle and other cities moving towards regional devolution, it would be fantastic to see the growth of national newspapers with their headquarters in these great English cities, with the temperament of their journalists and columnists shaped by the experiences of living in the city. The possibilities of what the English political debate can become are shown in Scotland: the Edinburgh-based Scotsman and the Glasgow-based Herald (along with many other home-grown newspapers) have together helped craft a separate political identity for Scotland which is far removed from the other London-based newspapers.
Unfortunately it is unlikely that new regional identities will be generated from the current crop of English local newspapers, as most are owned by large, national, London-based corporations (The Daily Mail, for example, owns many local newspapers). Having said that, I am slightly optimistic about the news website Buzzfeed’s recent move into local news — in recent months they have had some brilliant investigatory London-based articles, and I am intrigued to see what they can do at the local level. Indeed, the growth of Buzzfeed and particularly social media should make local journalists’ lives easier — without the need for a newspaper to publish their work, there should be greater scope to get local stories and perspectives out there into the wider public debate.
The growth of political institutions in the city regions demands greater scrutiny from local news media. With greater powers being handed down to local authorities without any real democratic mandate to do so, the UK government is creating a substantial accountability gap at regional level. The ability to scrutinise politicians and hold them to account is very much part of the raison d’etre of journalists — local news media owe it to the people of their towns and cities to act seriously on the issue. Hopefully, the by-product of this will be the blooming of a vibrant, energetic local and regional news which will shift the political debate away from London. The regions are getting a bad form of devolution — let’s make sure they don’t continue to get a bad form of journalism too.