Rusbridger: Corruption in public bodies could prosper without scrutiny of local media

Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, reiterated his call for public funding in regional media last night, throwing his weight behind a Press Association plan to replace dwindling local coverage of public bodies and courts with a dedicated reporting service.

The infrastructure of the local and regional press was facing collapse through a “deadly combination” of recession, new technology, and steep revenue decline, he said.

Speaking at the Media Standards Trust’s Why Journalism Matters event, in London, Rusbridger said the industry would have to accept the need for publicly subsidised news reporting.

Rusbridger welcomed moves by PA to introduce a pilot scheme later in the year to provide coverage of public institutions for free.

Despite a number of non-news websites beginning to fulfil some journalistic functions, Rusbridger told guests at the Royal Academy of his concerns about the disappearance of local reporting, that corruption would prosper without the scrutiny of powerful media organisations.

Rusbridger said: ‘This bit of journalism is going to have to be done by someone, bloggers can’t do it, they have other jobs to do…it makes me worry about courts and public authorities that in future could operate without any systematic public scrutiny.

‘I don’t think our legislators have begun to wake up to this imminent problem as we face the collapse of the infrastructure of local news.”

Rusbridger said local newspapers were a public utility ‘as integral’as others and the industry needed to face the fact there was an urgent need for a subsidy to fund some form of public service reporting.

He said: “The question that everybody is beginning to grapple with is that if the market place in this country can’t provide these public goods, what form of funding could be considered in order to provide them.”

While some figures in the media shirked at any mention of public subsidy, he added, the ‘wolf was getting nearer the door”.

He dismissed the idea the BBC could fill this role as a “non-starter” because of the ‘monopolisation’backlash, saying in return for a subsidy PA, which is owned by a consortia of UK media businesses including Guardian Media Group, could be contracted to report on local public bodies.

Content could then be provided to news providers allowing them to remain independent to campaign and challenge local MPs and other public figures.

PA’s managing director, Tony Watson, told a committee of MPs looking into the future of the regional press earlier this month the agency was establishing a ‘public service reporting’pilot project in North West England where a team of six journalists would provide stories that would then be given away free to local media outlets.

Rusbridger said: ‘The advantage of PA doing it is that it takes away the monopoly of the BBC. The need is there. The question is, is the will or the sense of urgency.”

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