Crisis, what crisis? says Johnston Press boss on the state of the newspaper industry

News Media Association Chairman and CEO of Johnston Press, Ashley Highfield can’t see what all the fuss is about when the NUJ talks about a crisis in the newspaper industry.

That was the message he delivered as keynote speaker at the Westminster Media Forum seminar on the UK local media sector on April 21st.

In fact,  newspapers are in fine fettle, says Ashley. “There’s currently 1,000 plus local newspapers and 1700 associated websites in the UK,” he pointed out. “Yes, a few titles, mostly free sheets, have closed, but nowhere near the grim numbers that were predicted a few years ago, thanks, in part, to publishers recognising the strength in industry collaboration.”

I think there are a fair amount of local communities which have seen their papers disappear – at least 97 in England since 2008 – or shrink from dailies to weeklies, or journalists who have seen their newsrooms shrink and colleagues disappear, who would take issue with that.

But Highfield was in optimistic mood. He continued: “I don’t believe the industry is in crisis, far from it, in fact our audiences have never been greater, around 40 million people now read local press in print or digital each week, but the migration to digital is a perilous journey and every day publishers are facing unnecessary distractions which are putting their businesses under even greater strain.”

The NMA’s discussions with the BBC was a key feature in his address most notably the bid to raid the BBC licence fee to fund the provision by the regional press to the BBC of a comprehensive public service reporting service which would primarily cover local authorities.

The National Union of Journalists, in it’s response to the government’s White Paper on the future of the BBC has challenged the top slicing of the licence fee to fund the activities of companies making huge profits whilst cutting its commitment to serve local communities.

Meanwhile, there were no doubt hyperlocal providers listening to Highfield, who would understandably be a little miffed that if public money is to be used in this way – and whether it should is questionable – the tone of the discussion seemed to point towards cutting out those hyperlocals which have shown the most commitment to their communities.

I jotted down a few thoughts on the subject, which was included in the seminar transcript, and at the forum I asked Highfield for some more detail on the deal and whether he thought hyperlocals were “tanks on his lawn”.

He said he didn’t want to go into details for fear of appearing to negotiate in in public and suggested I might get more out of David Holdsworth, controller of the BBC’s English Regions who also addressed the forum.

So I asked David whether hyperlocals could get anything out of the deal. He said: “I certainly don’t want to stand here and rule anybody out here, I am conscious that this is a bit of work that needs to be done by our sort of friends in both the legal and fair trading side. So I certainly would not rule anything out as I am standing here today, no definitely not.”

So that’s fairly emphatic. Nothing ruled out. I wonder why I’m still not convinced about a) the sincerity of a pledge to include “reputable hyperlocals” in these discussions and b) the case for using BBC licence money.

I’m all for public money funding community journalism, but I’m not convinced that it should be at the expense of BBC journalism. I’m still less convinced that it should go to the profit hungry Big Media companies who have ripped the guts out of a great many local newspapers.

In the case of a), maybe it’s because as a hyperlocal provider, but I have yet to receive my invitation to discuss this deal and I don’t know anyone who has.





If public money is to be used to fund journalism, hyperlocals and new start-ups must not be left out

Short article written for the Westminster Media Forum seminar on the UK local media sector

As discussions continue about a deal between news providers and the BBC to subsidise the reporting of local authorities and courts, many independent hyperlocal news operations will be left wondering what is in it for them.

More importantly perhaps, local communities which have seen a decline of coverage may well be grateful for any public sector support which keeps them informed and helps them keep local power held to account.

It was encouraging to hear the BBC’s controller of English Regions David Holdsworth say no-one would be ruled out of the scheme, which has so far been reported in the trade press as a discussion between the Corporation and regional publishers represented by the News Media Association.

Nevertheless, hyperlocal providers could be forgiven for being sceptical about such assurances, given the sentiment that “we can’t just let anyone in on this. There have to be rules.” It is of course understandable that the BBC, with its emphasis on high ethical standards and quality, will not want to forge partnerships with untrained journalists ignorant of the law.

However, it would be wrong to assume that independent news providers always fall below the quality threshold or that established regional news publications necessarily always meet it. As a tutor in media law, I know there are plenty of examples of newspapers and websites getting it wrong, and there is work being done, particularly by the Centre for Community Journalism in Cardiff, to ensure hyperlocal journalists are equipped with the tools needed to do their work to high standards.

It is difficult to argue that there shouldn’t be a quality threshold in determining which organisations should be supported by public money, but why not have a public interest or community commitment threshold as well? Many of the former regional news journalists and community activists who have shown a commitment to their communities by establishing news sites simply because they want to plug a news black hole left by newspapers closures, or coverage decline because of cuts in staff, may not take kindly to the larger publishers getting their hands on BBC resources while enjoying profits in excess of 20 per cent.

There is an argument for saying there should be no top-slicing of the licence fee at all to fund any external news provider, but if public money is to be used, is it right to direct it at companies which closed 97 titles in England between 2008 and 2015, and have, according to the National Union of Journalists, cut more than 5,000 jobs in the last decade?

If the democratic deficit is to be fully addressed perhaps consideration should also be given to directing support from public funds to areas of social deprivation that have suffered newspaper closures and have so far not had a hyperlocal site established to fill the gap.

The preliminary findings of research currently underway in Manchester and Cheshire has found some correlation between cuts in news provision by large for-profit publishers and social deprivation and raises questions about whether independent sites can fill the gap in these communities without external help.

The research appears to support findings in the USA which suggests the existence of a digital production gap based on social class (Schradie 2013) and that social deprivation is a factor in the evidence of engagement with hyperlocal news. A study of coverage of the 2015 General Election in North East Manchester, encompassing some of the most deprived areas in the UK, within the constituency of Blackley and Broughton and Wilmslow in the constituency of Tatton, containing some of the least deprived, shows a stark difference in coverage.

Hyperlocal news sites, which have already shown commitment to the areas they serve, must be allowed a fair share of whatever public money is made available to support community journalism. In addition to that, a resource stimulus is also desperately needed in areas of social deprivation to create new news enterprises, if areas like North East Manchester are to avoid being sucked permanently into news black holes.
Dave Toomer


Stand up for NUJ activist Phil Turner – it’s payback time!

Anyone who has been victimised at work will have had the backing of Phil Turner – he’s that kind of guy.

Like many trades unionists I was victimised at work and singled out for redundancy  when I was FOC at the Bolton Evening News. It was part of Newsquest’s attempt to stop the fight for trade union recognition.

One of the first people to offer support and solidarity to me and my chapel was Phil Turner. He has been a rock not only at his own chapel at the Rotherham Advertiser, leading successful battles on pay and conditions,  but in every struggle for workers’ rights and justice.

Now Phil and his chapel need our help and it is vital that we repay the support he has provided. Phil has been singled out for redundancy in what is clearly an attack on the National Union of Journalists.

His chapel members are not going to take this and will strike on June 11th. Back the strike and send your messages of support to the NUJ chapel .

You can also help by sending messages to the Rotherham’s Advertiser’s chief executive Nick Alexander and copy in the editor Andrew Mosley and HR officer Debbie Commander.   

And support the demonstration for Phil’s reinstatement on Saturday June 6 in All Saints Square, Rotherham. This will be one of many battles we will have to fight. It is important we win and show our solidarity with an outstanding trade unionist.

As the Met police threaten one of the fundamental freedoms of the press do we need to go back to the old school to protect confidential sources?

There was a time – when the internet was just a bunch of computers in a hippy paradise in the US – that when a decent copper or a conscientious public official thought the public should know about something dodgy going on, they would stick a document in brown envelope and send it to a trusted journalist.

Or they would meet in the bowels of a multi-storey carpark or exchange coded messages via public phones. Much sexier and more romantic than pressing the send button.

When my good friend and former crime reporter, Steve Panter, exposed the fact that Greater Manchester Police had identified a prime suspect for the 1996 IRA bombing in Manchester but had not attempted to arrest him, the information came via such a brown envelope.

Satisfied the information was genuine, Steve, backed by his paper, the Manchester Evening News published the story in 1999, naming the suspect and asking why there had been no arrest.

Greater Manchester Police responded by investigating with great vigour to determine who had leaked Steve the information.  They arrested a senior officer – Det Ch Insp Gordon Mutch who was charged with misconduct in a public office. Steve was a witness in the trial and maintained Mutch was not the source. When facing a charge of contempt of court  and asked to reveal the source he steadfastly defended one of the basic principles of journalism. It was a principle for which Steve was willing to go to prison and following a national campaign all charges against him were dropped.

The police went to great lengths to extract information from Steve, obtaining a court order to examine his telephone calls and credit card transactions. But the only evidence GMP could produce was an encounter in a hotel in Skipton, arranged to discuss a potential book about the Moors Murders. Mutch was cleared and the identity of Steve’s real source remained safe.

The protection of sources  principle isn’t there to turn journalists into heroes or boost their egos. There is a fundamental public interest in journalists being able to protect sources – recognised by the European Convention on Human Rights – so that whistblowers can feel safe in exposing wrong-doing. Without these protections, public interest stories would dry up and there would be even more cover-ups.

Now, these fundamental principles are under threat, as police wield their powers like a big stick to sieze information and spy on journalists using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. Had the Manchester bombing story appeared a decade later the outcome may have been very different. Under RIPA police don’t need to go to court to seize information from telecoms providers and smartphone data can reveal information which present challenges for journalists trying to protect the identity of sources.

The latest example of this is the “plebgate” affair in which a Sun journalist had his mobile phone records seized by the Metropolitan Police, without his knowledge, to out police officers who had leaked information about the exchange between police and government minister, Andrew Mitchell at the gates of Downing Street. No legal action was taken against the officers identified but as far as safeguarding whistleblowers is concerned, the damage has been done.

Apparently, the police have acted within their powers and have been condemned by the National Union of Journalists, Index on Censorship, Liberty and the Society of Editors.

Anyone who cares about media freedom should be campaigning to curb what is clearly an abuse of power. Meanwhile. maybe journalists should be thinking again about how to ensure sources remain confidential to maintain confidence in public interest journalism so whistleblowers can feel safe in approaching journalists with important stories to tell.

Going back to the old school, means an aversion to email, the internet, smartphones and computers. Once initial contact is made by the whistleblower, by phone email or text, it is probably safest for subsequent contact to be made via more archaic media ie. a meet-up, public telephone or using that good old brown envelope. There are also steps that can be taken to minimise the risk of detection in electronic communication, outlined recently in Guardian reporter James Ball in a presentation to Hacks/Hackers London.

Of course, no method of communication can be 100 per cent safe, but journalists need to be much more mindful today of the dangers to their sources if they are to defend that central principle of public interest journalism. Suffice to say Steve Panter’s source remains a secret.


Pay the best tribute to Tony Benn – make a pledge to build a better world

BennThe British Labour movement has lost one of its most important figures. Tony Benn’s unflinching commitment to socialism and the daily fight of working people was an inspiration to generations of activists.

And most importantly, Tony’s influence will live on for generations to come. When I woke up to hear the news, my first thought was “how are we going to break it to our kids?” They have been brought up on a diet of Tony Benn, and having seen him speak every year at Tolpuddle Martyr festivals, his death is like losing a member of the family.

Like a lot of NUJ activists I had the pleasure of meeting Tony on a number of occasions. Often when you meet your heroes they turn out to be a massive disappointment. This was not the case with Tony – a political giant and generous in spirit – he was everything you would expect him to be.

His life and work is a priceless resource for the Labour movement. Any thought that Tony’s death is the “end of and era” or that “something has ended” must be banished, if we are to pay the ultimate tribute to the socialist veteran.

Tony’s spirit lives on. In the words of John Steinbeck, he is “part of the one big soul that belongs to everyone”. Where ever there is a fight against injustice, where every there is a fight against hunger, where ever there is a fight against poverty, where ever there is a fight against racism and fascism, he will be there.

We must never lose sight of that, and if we are to preserve Tony’s legacy all socialists must make a pledge today that his fight for a better world will continue.

North West NUJ members – Vote Wright / Toomer and Stand Up for Journalism!

I am delighted to be standing alongside NUJ activist Jade Wright to represent the North West on the National Executive Council of the National Union of Journalists

We are standing as a jobshare  to represent the region in this crucial period for journalism and the NUJ.

I have been a member of this union for 28 years and my passion and energy is as strong now as it was when I joined as student in 1986. As some-one who was sacked by Newsquest for trade union activity, I know what it’s like to fight against the odds so I am ready to take on the current challenges facing our union and any new ones that are thrown at us.

I have represented the union at every level and have worked in most sectors of the industry, including newspapers – as both a staffer and freelancer, new media, public relations, magazines and broadcasting so I understand the issues facing our members.

I relish the prospect of working alongside Jade to represent our members and contribute to developing a strategy that will ensure that the union continues to defend journalism effectively.

My colleague, Jade, says: “Journalism is changing on a daily basis, and the way we work is changing with it. As a full time journalist working in a busy newsroom, I understand the challenges members face every day.During my time as Mother of the Chapel at the Liverpool ECHO and Post we have successfully campaigned to make sure that no compulsory redundancies have been made – with two strong ballots.

“We are strongest when we stand up together in the face of attempts to undermine our strength. I believe in negotiation and finding solutions, but not in giving in when it comes to people’s jobs. Our chapel has proved it will take action to protect our members, and jobs remain as a result. I believe that the union’s best asset is its members, and my focus would be on making sure members’ voices are heard. “I believe in the union and I have the experience, the passion and the loyalty to make sure that we become bigger, bolder, louder and stronger. I hope you will put your faith and trust in me to help us make this happen.”

What we stand for:

Fighting cuts in in local newspapers and radio. In the past decade, 20 per cent of the UK’s local newspapers have closed. An estimated 40 per cent of jobs in the UK regional press have gone during the last seven years.

A campaign to save local radio saw the BBC back down on £15 million of cuts and plans to share output in afternoon programming. But we were still left with £8 million worth of cuts and the introduction of programme sharing in the evening with “Radio England”. The cuts have been met with protests from listeners.

We will work with chapels and branches to protect jobs and these vital services. The union has done some good work lobbying ministers on these issues but we need our branches and chapels to take the campaign into our local communities working with councillors, campaign groups and other unions.

Standing up for freelancers – We have both worked as freelancers as well as staff journalists, so we understand the needs of members who work independently and know the issues non-staffers face. We would therefore make sure each and every member, no matter what their circumstances, gets the very best support.

Recruitment is our future – Our union faces many challenges as the media mix changes. Not least of these challenges is the financial pressure on our union. We believe the key to facing these challenges is recruitment. It means supporting existing branches and launching new ones. The change in the media landscape brings with it a wealth of untapped opportunities for bringing media workers into our fold and building the foundations for a long term future for the union. We pledge to do that work in the North West.

For an accountable leadership supporting every member – We pledge to support every member who needs us. We both have strong track records in representing members individually and collectively and we want to do that as NEC members. We will keep branches informed of what the NEC is doing on behalf of its members and are committed to transparency. Our combined experience and energy will ensure we can respond to the needs and concerns of our members in the region. As a jobshare our effectiveness is doubled and we pledge to be there for every member as well as every branch and chapel.

Defending media freedom – We will continue to campaign to protect journalists in carrying out their work unimpeded. We have campaigned for the protection of sources and journalistic material and the integrity of the press card. We stand for a regulatory system which is independent of both the vested interests of media owners and politicians. We are therefore opposed to a  Royal Charter system which can be altered by MPs.