Thursday, March 26, 2009

Standing room, really.

It's an old trick of campaigners to say there was standing room only to give an indication of just how popular the meeting you organised was. But this time it really was as we lobbied the UK Parliament over the future of local media.

pic: (c) Pete Jenkins

The debate over how to tackle job cuts and build a sustainable local media has been hotting up over recent months - in the past week it has been a very hot topic.

First the Newspaper Society, Society of Editors lobbied Andy Burnham. Then we did. Then he agreed to an industry-wide conference which we had urged him to do. Then we all trundled off to the Office of Fair Trading to give evidence on media mergers. The following day Parliament debated the cuts in local journalism. Then the NS and SoE rushed out their plan to save the media. We staged our lobby and have now secured the support of 94 MPs for our Early Day Motion.

Today the Tories have launched their media plans and on Monday our Commission on Local Media meets - with Roy Greenslade, John Lloyd, Barbara Gunnell, the Community Media Association, Keith Sutton, Nick Davies and others coming together to discuss the future of local media. That work will feed in to the union's own submission to government on how to build a plural, accountable and sustainable local media.

Some key issues are emerging - consolidation or deregulation is not the answer. More of the same failed policies does not address the problem.

Levies on the parasitic companies who aggregate news but don't produce any original content themselves (hello, Google - are you listening?) could secure widespread support amongst media workers and companies.

A debate will rage about whether councils produce 'newspapers' because of the failure of local newspapers to cover their patch or the failure of local newspapers to be able to cover their patch is down to local council papers. The Local Government Association should be brought in to the discussion.

Better use of government advertising to support local media is supported by most - the real question is how do you ensure that the revenues are used to bolster local journalism not just carry on rewarding shareholders.

But any look at local media shouldn't just look at how to protect existing companies but how to help journalists, local communities and businesses develop alternatives that may be specialist, small-scale, may be trusts, co-operatively run or simply locally-owned companies. They may be in print, online or broadcasters. Are there ways subsidised newsprint or grants for technology, training or business advice can be provided.

Whilst not much is clear in the debate at this stage, it is clear there is a strong support for quality journalism across the political spectrum and in local communities. And no-one must forget that quality journalism can only be delivered if you have enough journalists and editorial resources.

Apart from the lobby I have been pursuing discussions with the BBC over outstanding threats of compulsory redundancy at BBC World Service South Asia Service, meeting with all the union's officials for our 6-monthly strategy discussion, meeting our staff union reps, writing my column for Tribune on the abuse of work experience and meeting with reps from the BBC. I also did 4 radio interviews around the lobby.

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