Yesterday, Prime Minister Theresa May was in Manchester heralding the hundredth anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which gave some women the vote.
The PM spoke of the importance of participation in democracy, arguing that "Changes in technology are also having a profound impact on one of the cornerstones of our public debate – our free press.
"Good quality journalism provides us with the information and analysis we need to inform our viewpoints and conduct a genuine discussion" she added "It is a huge force for good. But in recent years, especially in local journalism, we have seen falling circulations, a hollowing-out of local newsrooms and fears for the future sustainability of high-quality journalism."
May then went onto weep for the two hundred local papers that have closed since 2005... "Here in Greater Manchester, several local newspapers have closed, including the Salford Advertiser, the Trafford Advertiser and the Wilmslow Express" she said "This is dangerous for our democracy.
"When trusted and credible news sources decline, we can become vulnerable to news which is untrustworthy" she explained "So to address this challenge to our public debate, we will launch a review to examine the sustainability of our national and local press. It will look at the different business models for high-quality journalism... A free press is one of the foundations on which our democracy is built and it must be preserved..."
First of all, haven't we heard all this before under a previous Labour Government, when Salford MP Hazel Blears, then Secretary of State for Communities, brought out a white paper, Real People, Real Power, stating that "a strong independent media is a vital part of any democracy"? Nothing happened, of course.
Secondly, the closure of the Salford Advertiser might well have been 'dangerous for democracy' but the decision was a commercial one made by the Manchester Evening News, now owned by Trinity Mirror; and, similarly, what Theresa May called the 'hollowing out of local newsrooms' was also a commercial decision.
The Manchester Evening News now probably has more journalists covering Manchester United and Manchester City, and celebrities, than local councils because the perception is that football and celebs brings more clicks and revenue than 'scrutiny'. None of this is the overworked journalists' fault; it's a profit driven decision by a profit driven company...
...In December, the BBC, an arm of the state, controversially announced that it was handing public money to Manchester Evening News publisher, Trinity Mirror, for six 'local democracy reporters' in a sham of a process that saw £8million mostly go to mainstream national media companies, with small local independent outlets almost excluded from the process (see previous Salford Star article – click here).
While the Prime Minister "fears for the future sustainability of high-quality
journalism", she should realise that corporations to which the state has thrown public
money have been central to undermining that 'high quality journalism'. The
mainstream local press has made a choice to scale down its 'scrutiny' role and to
write little that might upset its advertisers...which includes property developers and
While that debate rages, of more fundamental importance to the "danger to democracy" is the role of public and state bodies themselves and their growing lack of transparency and accountability.
Back in 2008, when the Advertiser was still (barely) alive, the Salford Star interviewed the then Salford Council Leader, John Merry, about allegations that the Council and the Labour Party were trying to control the paper...
"I think they were saying that the Advertiser is perceived by sections as being very negative and misleading in some coverage" he replied "People were saying that we need to influence how the Advertiser was portraying Salford…" (see here)
The Council ploughed £175,000 into its own propaganda magazine, LIFE, which prompted the then Culture Minister, Andy Burnham, to say "The issue of council newspapers is top of my in-tray at the moment. There has to be a balance and councils are overstepping that."
Now Mayor of Greater Manchester, Burnham's Greater Manchester Combined Authority has provided a large chunk of £300,000 to Salford City Council to produce My City Salford websites, another, online, media arm that aims to control the flow of information to residents (see previous Salford Star article – click here).
Meanwhile, with the Advertiser gone, that Labour Party/Salford Council line about the local paper being 'negative and misleading' has been transferred to the Salford Star – the only Salford-based media left in the so-called 'Media City'.
Salford City Council and 'Cobynista' Mayor, Paul Dennett, haven't responded to Salford Star requests for comments or interviews for over five years. How the hell can you properly hold a public body to account when it won't respond, Mrs May? When public bodies appear to be hand picking friendly journalists and publications to release their information - who don't challenge anything and almost just print their press releases?
In December, the Salford Star uncovered, after a six month Freedom of Information battle, that Salford Council had an "agreement" with housing company Pendleton Together "not to respond to the Salford Star" (see previous Salford Star article – click here).
The Star believes that this 'agreement' has been mirrored with many other public bodies and organisations to which the Council has a connection, including the Government's own Homes and Communities Agency, a partner in the English Cities Fund (ECf) which is currently building unaffordable homes in New Bailey and Chapel Street – the secrecy and lack of accountability within ECf is staggering (see here).
Similarly, Salford Council committee minutes report almost nothing that was said, and reports on financial information are kept secret in 'Part 2' of meetings...Today, for instance, Salford Council's Overview and Scrutiny Board is discussing the revenue budget for next year, and it's all being kept away from the public and press. This is a 'scrutiny board'!
Even the House of Commons cross party Communities and Local Government Committee noted re scrutiny boards that councils should 'welcome constructive challenge and democratic accountability'...In one-party state Salford? In your dreams! (see here).
Prime Minister, it's not just about 'hollowed-out news rooms' being a 'danger for democracy', it's about the public bodies themselves stifling the flow of information and accountability, including your own Government departments.
On one hand you have media proprietors themselves reducing journalistic scrutiny of public bodies, and on the other you have public bodies doing everything they can to avoid public scrutiny, accountability and transparency.
So what's left? The independent underfunded local magazines and online publications trying to fill the gaps. And fighting an information battle with catapults against political goliaths.
Theresa May said that her review will "examine the sustainability of our national and local press. It will look at the different business models for high-quality journalism. It will consider whether the creators of content are getting their fair share of advertisement revenue. And it will recommend whether industry or Government-led solutions can help improve the sustainability of the sector for the future..."
'Industry and Government-led solutions'? You can bet your suffering gets that this 'review' will ignore small independent media, which, back in the day, would have been constantly covering the principled protests of Mrs Pankhurst and her followers.
As the Star pointed out after the BBC 'democracy reporter' debacle, 'If the community wants a proper media, as always, we're going to have to continue trying to do it ourselves'...Your crocodile tears about democracy and press freedom are no use to publications like the Salford Star and other independent media around the country. You're talking out of your backside, Prime Minister...
See also: Written evidence submitted by Salford Star magazine to the Future for local and regional media - Culture, Media and Sport Committee in 2009 - click here.
See also previous Salford Star articles:
Under Freedom of Information, Salford Council Releases Housing Viability Assessment - with almost everything redacted - click here
A Tour Through Salford Council Affordable Housing Spin - click here