A fake debate on local newspapers

I’ve written before about the misguided striving for “balance”:

the “he said, she said” kind of reporting where getting a quote from “each side” (as if there were only two sides) is substituted for actually finding out what’s going on.

But if there’s one thing worse than artificially created “balance”, it’s an artificially created “debate”. Graham Linehan nailed it when he wrote about the Today programme’s

very specific, very artificial, very Today programme format of a presenter acting as referee between two people who have been chosen to represent the opposing sides of a manufactured argument.

The push towards manufactured argument is why I hardly ever listen to radio discussion programmes any more. I can’t bear the unnecessary aggression and I can’t bear the sheer waste of time – this is taking up expensive resources that could be used to have a genuinely productive discussion, or spent on quality investigative journalism.

The recent Radio 4 “debate” between Louise Mensch MP and John Elworthy on local newspapers is a great example. (It’s on iPlayer now - skip to 50 minutes in - but I think it will be deleted in the next few days.) The “debate” was triggered by the fact that five Johnston Press daily titles are to go weekly , which will involve cutting reporters’ jobs.

So what are the MP and the newspaper editor debating? They both think strong local news coverage is important. So what the devil do they have to argue about? Listening to the clip, I’m not sure they even know themselves. But they know they’re playing a role on this programme that involves raised voices, defensive comments and talking over each other.

She starts out by saying that quality journalism at a local level is important for democracy, that online-only platforms risk excluding poorer or less tech-savvy sections of the community, and that there may be a case for government subsidy of local news because it’s so important. If I was a local newspaper editor hearing that, I’d be delighted. But John Elworthy – perhaps because of the stupid “debate” format – takes it as a personal attack, even though she’s mainly thinking of the Johnston Press titles in Northamptonshire and he works for an Archant title in Cambridgeshire. He even takes the suggestion of public money as an affront.

It doesn’t get any better. The “debate” lurches on to sort-of-cover the general health of local media, the shift to different platforms, social media, whether online news platforms exclude elderly people, whether it’s patronising to talk about excluding elderly people, whether a weekly is better or worse than a daily. I say “debate”, but actually all these topics are brought up in rapid succession by Elworthy without Mensch getting a single word in edgeways.

The elephant in the room is money. Elworthy touches on it indirectly when he says he would like more resources to do his job, but then ploughs on with a completely separate point. Johnston is turning those daily papers into weeklies in order to save money. If it was really to create a bigger, better paper, as supporters of the move are claiming, they wouldn’t be cutting jobs.

We know the company announced plans last year to cut costs by about £5m. We also know that the company has delayed publishing its preliminary results and is currently working to restructure its debt. And, most importantly, we know that Johnston Press has shareholders, which means its aim above all things is to deliver returns for those shareholders. Not to hold local politicians to account, or to print lovely photos of schoolkids, or any of the other things Louise Mensch talks about in the discussion. Its aim is to make money.

To me, the real debate is: should the majority of the UK’s local newspapers be in the hands of big businesses who only care about satisfying their shareholders? Good journalism mainly happens despite, rather than because of, the behaviour of these companies. So if there is a public subsidy to be had for local journalism, shouldn’t it be going to non-profit organisations whose aim is actually to promote local journalism?

Louise Mensch doesn’t want to talk about that because current Conservative ideology will admit no problems with handing public money to private, profit-driven companies. John Elworth doesn’t want to talk about it either, but I’m not sure why. Because he thinks he’s on the programme to defend the companies who own our local papers? Because he thinks sticking up for journalism means you can’t criticise anything to do with it?

At one point in the discussion he whines that we need a bit of “context” and for a split-second I thought he was actually going to say something relevant, but then he went on to say that local papers are shutting down at a slower rate than local pubs, which makes everything magically OK.

The weirdest thing about it is the way both participants in the “debate” are happy to pretend this is a debate about whether local papers are good or bad, doing well or doing badly, but they both want to take the role of the person who’s defending them.

It’s a missed opportunity for a proper discussion about funding models, with no raised voices but plenty of ideas. This kind of thing is why almost every current affairs “debate” leaves me feeling as if I’ve wasted a few minutes of my life listening to others wasting time and resources.