What the Daily Telegraph exposé has proved beyond doubt is that the public loves this stuff and wants this stuff. If you’re talking about circulation there’s nothing better than revealing that your MP has avoided paying tax or is claiming for mortgage payments where the mortgage has been paid off. But the Daily Telegraph got lucky – the details were handed over on a plate in return for a fat cheque. Most investigative journalists spend months and months trying to dig out such stories and if you’re paying by the hour or even the week, it’s very, very expensive. And that’s the last thing that the profit-driven, advertisement grovelling commercial local media wants to be doing.
So the local media ain’t looking for these stories. What it does do is report secondhand research by the likes of the Tax Payers Alliance et al, which is really just part of the current newspaper culture of re-printing press releases. Now, with massive job cuts for journalists all over the country, this culture is likely to grow even more. And, as profits get squeezed, the commercial media is even less likely to upset potential advertisers (including councils, developers, regen agencies etc) with investigative editorial. So what’s the alternative?
There’s been lots of stuff written over the last six months about the need for more independent local media. Head back to the so-called ‘golden age’ of community mags in the 1970s (they’re all in the Working Class Movement Library on The Crescent) where in the North West alone there was ‘alternative press’ in Tameside, Rochdale, Bury, Manchester…even Salford…And if you look where the funding was coming from it was small local independent shops – book shops, record shops, clothes shops etc – which also provided the outlets for the mags. Now you look around somewhere like Salford – and it’s a whole city with embarrassingly few independent shops. The advertising from small business just isn’t there to sustain alternative press or community mags.
I would argue that the demand is back for alternative local presses or proper community magazines but where is the funding coming from?
Today, most of these types of publication exist purely on the net, where there’s no print costs and dedicated journalists do it almost as a hobby. But that defeats the whole object of doing a ‘community’ magazine. A community magazine is there to bring people together, to get people to interact in their neighbourhoods and hopefully bring about some positive change. The Salford Star tried to do this until finances forced us to go online. We’re getting thousands of hits but rarely from people we’re trying to reach in the community. In Salford it’s estimated that only 30 percent of people have access to the net. I’m fed up of walking down the street and people asking what’s happened to the Star, only for them to shrug their shoulders when you tell them it’s online. Not the answer.
Which leaves a massive question as to where the money is coming from to fund independent local magazines and papers, staffed by skilled people who can actually make real change possible by investigating what is going on in the communities they serve, and involving people from those communities in the production.
There’s loads of public money out there held by quangos, regeneration companies, development agencies etc., which have got million pound budgets for publicity, and for throwing crumbs to the community. But these bastards aren’t going to open their wallets to anyone who might actually scrutinise their waste. They will only fund projects that spout what they want to hear. Someone should put a idiot tax on them but it’s not going to happen…
If I knew where the money could come from, the Salford Star would be hitting the streets tomorrow. I’m sick to death of continuously calling for an independent public fund to help media projects. Maybe we should campaign for all the public money (over £100,000 at the last count) that MPs are paying back to the Fees Office to kick it off.
It’s all very good to call for more independent local media but it’s a major political battle. It’s the political battle – freedom of the press, freedom of information, accountability, transparency, democracy…
There’s public money being chucked at banks and developers and all sorts of unsavoury stuff. But what they won’t chuck public money at is independent media that might just investigate where all that public money is going.