Auntie Beeb reaches out to the old man of the Press

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Quick, get Arnie... the news bots are coming!
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July 17, 2018

Unlike a lot of former print journalists, I’ve always had a soft spot for the BBC.

Most newspaper journos will tell you tales of BBC hacks pinching their stories, or a microphone-wielding reporter pushing past them at a job crying “let me through, I’m from the BBC!”… but I’ve always loved Auntie Beeb.

In fact, I owe my career to her. After leaving school my first job was as a post boy at BBC Pebble Mill, wheeling a daily trolley of mail to the offices of Top Gear, Telly Addicts, the Archers and the rest.

Somewhere in the BBC archive there’s even a clip of me, a spotty and awkward teenager, ‘modelling’ a stripy shirt on Pebble Mill at One. Don’t ask.

But most of all I loved delivering post to the Midlands Today newsroom and would eavesdrop on the journalists’ conversations.

One kindly producer even gave me a tiny piece of the Berlin Wall, that she had brought back from an assignment. It’s what prompted me to get into journalism, the media and ultimately PR.

But throughout most of my time on newspapers, there seemed to be a simmering distrust between print reporters and their Beeb counterparts.

Now things have changed.

For the last few years, collaboration has been the name of the game. Auntie Beeb has reached out to the old man of the press, and they’ve had a bit of a cuddle.

For a while, BBC websites tried using their local platforms to plug local newspapers’ online stories.

NCTJ courses linked up with the BBC academy. BBC bosses like David Jennings, head of regional and local programmes in the West Midlands, regularly asked local editors for input.

But the biggest change has come in local newsrooms.

With the local news sector shrinking, there has been much hand-wringing about ‘democratic deficit’ – as local editors struggled to find the resources to cover local councils in the ways the fourth estate always used to.

Politicians were not being scrutinised to the level they should be. Authority was not being held to account.

So, when the BBC’s charter came up for renewal a deal was struck – the BBC would help fund a new service that would cover councils and make the content available to the local press and hyperlocal news services and sites.

The result? There is now a small but growing regiment of ‘Local Democracy Reporters’ working alongside local journalists at your local newspaper, who are funded by the BBC.

It may have started off as a bit of a cuddle, but now the saucy old fruits are cohabiting.

The Beeb has made a ten-year commitment to the project, but intends to regularly check that it is providing value to licence payers. So far, it seems to be working.

Personally, I think this has been a great success. It has produced good copy, provided jobs for experienced and talented reporters, built a link between our national broadcaster and the regional press and, crucially, ensured that politicians are held to account.

But why stop there? There’s another area where the contractions in news coverage have left a gaping hole – local justice.

There was a time when it was part of a reporter’s training to spend a day each week sitting in the local magistrates’ court, reporting on cases and making sure justice was seen to be done locally.

But smaller newsrooms and court closures mean it is impossible for newspapers and their websites to provide anywhere near the coverage that the public would like to see.

After all, it’s a central pillar of the legal system that the people get to see what goes on in our courts. That’s why they have public galleries.

But when the nearest court to you is 25 miles away, you’re not likely to hop on a bus and pop along to see how the local judiciary are performing. There is a judicial deficit.

 

 

So, here’s my suggestion. Once the Local Democracy Reporter scheme is rubber stamped, how about a phase two – BBC-funded Local Justice Reporters?

It would surely fulfil the BBC’s public service brief and further cement the growing partnership between Auntie and the press. The BBC could make a real contribution to ensuring justice is still seen to be done.

Unlike Jeremy Corbin, I see no need to fundamentally change the way the Beeb is funded to make this happen.

The only sticking point could be the trouble the press have had recruiting senior journalists to fill the democracy roles, which has been much harder than expected.

However, while the rest of the local media is being squeezed by commercial pressures, the Beeb has the dosh to fill the justice deficit and, I believe, is still public-minded enough to make it happen.

For that, I applaud them. Even if they did make me wear that stripy shirt on daytime TV.