A small storm is brewing in the media world in Brighton, with a claim that the monopoly local paper, the Argus, has threatened the Brighton Green party with “consequences” after a Green Party member set up a Twitter account and website criticising and ridiculing its standards of journalism.
The full story can be found here. As this piece shows, the final straw was the Argus splashing a story about a prominent Green activist and Councillor, Ben Duncan, tweeting, at the height of the post-Budget furore, that he did not “give a fuck” about pasties. Like so many people, he recognised that this was a non-story – the real effects of a deeply regressive budget being hidden behind a pseudo-debate about hot pies.
The issue is not just the Argus’ obvious political bias – frequently its content appears to consist of little more than topped-and-tailed Tory press releases, and at times it’s not possible to get a cigarette paper between the Argus’ view of the world and the easy populism that it local Tory MPs’ stock in trade. For example, on the difficult and emotive issue of local travellers’ sites, the Argus appears happy to follow the local Tories’ inflammatory line, without reflecting the serious attempts being made by the Council and other agencies to produce a long-term solution; it reports a call by Tory Councillor Dawn Barnett for local people to stop paying their Council Tax – and hence to break the law – without a word of consideration of the implications.
A wider issue is the quality of the Argus’ journalism. It’s undeniable that local papers are under the cosh financially – it’s so much cheaper to do churnalism, happily recycling the material produced by others. The work of the police, ambulance and fire service press offices is of course particularly useful in this respect. Accuracy and detail are not things that one readily associates with the material that Argus journalists write – I remember one story (and I wish I could reference it) which described a large fire in a Sussex town, causing all sorts of chaos, which failed to name the town concerned. Elsewhere detail is often vague. Brighton is one of the most laid-back cities in Britain – but even minor events habitually lead to “fury” and “chaos”. A toxic combination of cost-cutting and political bias appears to have led to the abandonment of the most basic journalistic disciplines.
And, faced with criticism, the Argus is not slow to resort to threats and bluster. Not long ago, it threatened legal action after a Council officer described it as “the local rag” – which I would have thought was at the mild end of the range of appropriate epithets. I once had a run in with the Argus in which I sent them an email criticising their failure to report a community arts event in which primary schools from across the County had participated, and received no fewer than three angry emails back. Moreover, the Argus is no stranger to the attentions of the PCC.
So it’s not surprising that the Argus should react in the way it has to @EveningAnus. It’s often regarded as a third-rate product, hypersensitive to any form of criticism (and deeply secretive, it appears, about what are rumoured to be sliding circulation figures). But, if the report is accurate, threatening the collective punishment of a political party over the actions of one of its members is something of a new low. It is fascinating that commercial media seem so quick to resort to threats and moral blackmail in the face of an individual exercising his freedom of expression – the moral hypocrisy being exposed day after day at the Levenson inquiry seems to extend even into the stagnant backwaters of local churnalism.
But there’s a wider issue here – what is the point of local papers in a digital age? If I want to find out about, say, crime in Sussex, I just need to go to the Sussex Police website, or follow the informative and useful Sussex Police Twitter feed. Local papers do not report any more, it seems – reportage involves money, effort and journalistic craft, none of which appear to be things that the local media as a whole are willing to provide – they simply collate. Churnalism rules – so why not go back to the original sources. Local news is often accessible more easily through local blogging and Twitter, and without being filtered through the political bias of the local paper’s owners or editor.
Meanwhile, the apparent inability of the Argus to take a bit of criticism without resorting to bluster and apparent threat speaks volumes about its values. I’d have thought a confident, successful local paper would have reacted very differently.