David Simon in the Guardian is arguing that newspapers – and particularly local newspapers – are the last best hope of preventing the cancer of political corruption.
“Oh, to be a state or local official in America over the next 10 to 15 years, before somebody figures out the business model,” says Simon, a former crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun. “To gambol freely across the wastelands of an American city, as a local politician! It’s got to be one of the great dreams in the history of American corruption.”
Couple of thoughts on that. In South London, our local paper is the South London Press, and to be honest the ratio of stories about local government to stories about crime, depravity, awfulness and local entertainment listings is not one which lends hope that they’re going to ape the Baltimore Sun. Maybe there’s something about different traditions of local journalism here – it’s perhaps instructive that London, a city many times bigger than Baltimore, has no publication with the same news values as the Baltimore Sun, and is rather served by a right-wing rag aimed at the suburbs and three freesheets with the emphasis on gossip and entertainment. Local professional journalism could die in London and, you know what? No-one would notice. Literally no-one.
And the flipside to that is that local bloggers and writers are increasingly holding people to account. Check out Brockley Central for a test case in how a group of committed local people can start to catalyse change and deal with corruption at street-level, not on a “us versus them” level which sanctifies professional journalists at the expense of narratives that actually matter to people. Or look at what Dave Hill’s been doing, initially on his own but now within the auspices of the Guardian (and am I the only one who thinks his stuff was rather crunchier when it was on his own Typepad site?).
And, irony of ironies, look at the most successful holding-to-account of recent weeks: the blog campaign, exemplified by Graham Linehan and Tim Ireland, against the poisonous, depraved and vicious actions of “professional news organisation” the Express. Yes, sometimes you do need hard-skinned newshounds to sniff out stories of local corruption. But when there’s so few of them actually doing it, what exactly are we trying to protect?
(Yes, I know it’s different in some cities. Yes, I know there are fine traditions of local journalism in Manchester, Yorkshire and Birmingham. Yes, I know all of these are under threat. But London hasn’t had serious local journalism in, what, over a decade? Or even longer?)