CONSPIRACY theories, singular news narratives, Online giants wielding censorship and a BBC out of touch with nearly half of Britons taking a ‘London-centric’ approach. That appears to be the state of the media in the U.K. today according to the experts and the audiences.
In a week when social media giants Google shut down Talk Radio’s Youtube channel the future looks bleaker for plurality of news, debate and freedom of speech in the U.K. Add to that the recent report in the Times by Mathew Moore, which states that Nearly half of Britons think that the BBC no longer represents their values particularly outside London and you can see the picture unfolding.
It is a debate that is firing up Zoom meetings in the industry. A recent virtual Town Hall meeting hosted by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) discussed the state of the media industry in Wales. The conclusion was that it was albeit falling apart through lack of investment and penny pinching on behalf of those who hold the Monopoly on news.
The Public Interest News Foundation (PINF) has also held a series of Zoom meetings utilising leading lights in the news industry from across the globe. The story was much the same, a News driven by well educated white middle class males who focus on ‘churnalism’ avoiding anything controversial and failing dismally to represent those from backgrounds other that the white educated middle classes and above.
The NUJ’s virtual Town Hall meeting was attended by journalists, NUJ members and a panel including the actor Michael Sheen and politician Lee Waters MS.
Michael Sheen has become a passionate advocate of quality local journalism and he has been working in collaboration with journalists, media academics, Cardiff University and the Centre for Community Journalism to work out a way for local news to pay its way. It is a tough ask as advertising dries up in the current economic climate.
Speaking at the meeting Sheen said: “There are three things needed for a healthy democratic ecosphere: active and trustworthy newspapers; for the local community to feel its voice is represented; and for those in power to be held to account. When journalists are not embedded in their community, the voices you hear are those of high-status quoted from press releases.”
The NUJ’s general secretary Michelle Stanistreet told the meeting “the pandemic has reaffirmed the importance of quality, relevant journalism and also highlighted the Welsh media’s fragility, lack of diversity and pluralism.”
On the issue of plurality in news provision Emma Meese of the Independent Community News Network (ICNN), which represents hyperlocal news publishers across the UK said: “Plurality of voice is so, so important in moving forward. We need to ensure that we keep plurality of voices. Otherwise, if you are too heavily reliant on a few large players, all it takes is for one of those organisations to go under and withdraw from certain towns, communities or even countries and the impact on democracy does not even bear thinking about. For us to have good quality public interest journalism, we have to put the foundations in place to ensure that we can get more independents that offer more plurality of voice that give us a far more stable future for local news in the UK.”
Members of the Independent Community News Network (ICNN) have logged record levels of traffic to their sites. The combined reach of the independent news sector in the UK is vast with several hundred professional publications reaching more than 15m people online every month; and with a collective print run of half a million.
While hyperlocals and radio stations run by a diversity of people going through the same experiences as the people in the communities in which they live and work in are struggling to survive. The big players, many of whom don’t even publish their sales figures anymore as their audiences leave, continue to get a large slice of revenue from NHS and government advertising. The same fete of audiences turning away may befall the BBC if they continue on a trajectory of only informing, educating and entertaining the residents of well-off neighbourhoods over those from poorer and less diverse communities.
According to the Times report, in the past year a third of the public said that the values of the BBC had become less like theirs amid controversy over its coverage of Brexit and the pandemic. Only 33 per cent now believe that it represents their standpoint.
The report goes on to say that Government research in 2016 found that 62 per cent of the public had an overall favourable view of the BBC.
A BBC spokesman said: “Recent research shows that people still connect with our core mission to inform, educate and entertain, and our purposes remain relevant. However, the new director-general has made it very clear that the BBC must work hard to represent a very broad section of views.”
Google’s closing down of Talk Radio’s Youtube channel will be a huge blow to the company. It also signals a pervasive view that anyone and anything that deviates from the singular narrative of a large organisation with vested interests in selling that narrative is to be silenced. The channel had accumulated tens of millions of views and 250,000 subscribers. Rather than counter the perceived conspiracy theorists it adds fuel to their fire.
YouTube has simply said the account was “terminated for violating YouTube’s community guidelines.”