South West News Service has won significant political support in its campaign to ensure the BBC commit to a quota system in a bid to reinvigorate and expand the quality and reach of local news coverage .
The idea, which SWNS championed to be included in the current charter review of the BBC, was recently endorsed by the influential Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.
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SWNS is committed to ensuring the core responsibility of all journalists is not compromised. It has expanded into areas nationwide where traditional national and local media, including ITV have scaled back, offering limited news coverage.
We believe it is essential the public continue to be informed, that justice is seen to be done and those in power are held to account. To this end, SWNS continues to invest in growth, staff and perhaps most importantly, training the journalists of the future.
Our 'self-imposed' remit is to ensure, where possible, that local democratic institutions – courts, councils, inquests and public inquiries – are covered, defending the public's right to know what is going on in their community.
Speaking in a recent debate on local newspapers the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee chairman, John Whittingdale, MP, described the idea as an "excellent submission".
With the Royal Charter currently under review, it presents the perfect opportunity to reimagine the BBC newsroom – an institution we have the utmost respect for.
Independent local news has been a source the BBC has drawn from for a number of years, often uncredited, and we firmly believe that the redrawing of the Royal Charter needs to address this problem.
Our solution, of the BBC outsourcing local news coverage where there is an ongoing requirement for such content, suits all – it places the BBC at the very heart of relevant local stories, addresses inefficiencies and issues around quality control in BBC newsrooms and provides independent suppliers with the level of exposure their consistently strong output deserves.
The concept also has the backing of regional media giant Local World.
LW chief executive David Montgomery, in a recent letter to the Times, said: "For the BBC to allocate a small portion of its handsome news and current affairs budget for professional reporting of courts and local government — perhaps through outside suppliers just as it does for entertainment programmes — and make it available to newspapers, is an imaginative step."
SWNS has entered the Royal Charter review debate, due to be concluded at the end of 2016, by stating that a competitive commissioning of local news to independent suppliers by the BBC would lead to greater editorial relevance, higher journalistic standards, better value for the British taxpayer and a fairer deal for local newspapers.
The debate was prompted by a hard-hitting report delivered in February by the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, which concluded that there are major questions to be answered about what justifies the close to £4 billion of public money spent on the BBC.
Concerning the provision of local news, the report stated explicitly that the BBC should seek to build more partnerships with suppliers and “support local media through extending the indie quota to include local news".
In a letter to John Whittingdale MP, dated 24 March, Sajid Javid MP, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, also recognised the need to have journalists at the heart of the communities they serve, and furthered his support by reiterating George Osborne’s commitment to “consult on whether to introduce a business rates relief for local newspapers” at Budget.
As the Government looks more closely at devolving further powers to the regions – such as the NHS to Manchester – it’s imperative that local decision making and the spending of public funds is ever more transparent and subject to rigorous scrutiny.
This mission to revive local reporting and holding those who exercise power in communities to account, also extends to the coverage of courts and inquests where the role of the local journalist has always been paramount in ensuring justice is not only done but is seen to be done.
The public's right to know, which has been diminished by the financial distress of the regional press, is sure to be restored if the BBC outsources to journalists connected to their communities, and the government supports local newspapers with appropriate tax relief measures.
Paul Walters is MD and co-owner SWNS