Local newspapers should endorse election candidates to “give them more clout” with politicians on the campaign trail and avoid being “irrelevant”, Trinity Mirror’s digital publishing director has said.
David Higgerson said local journalism was “proud of its impartiality” in election coverage but was effectively made “irrelevant in the most important local conversation of all” by not choosing to back a side.
A Bureau Local investigation into how the Conservative and Labour leaders have interacted with local journalists ahead of Thursday’s election found both “restricted opportunities to be scrutinised by local reporters”.
The Prime Minister has faced accusations of heavily stage-managed encounters with the press, on one occasion offering only brief and bland responses to questions in a three-minute slot.
The investigation also found that on more than half the occasions a local reporter was sent to cover the Opposition leader they were unable to ask him any questions.
In a blog post, Higgerson said: “There’s no denying it’s becoming harder with each election that passes to get the national parties to take the local press seriously.
“The election of 2005, when I interviewed Tony Blair the day before the poll and was impressed by his apparent depth of knowledge about local issues, seems much longer ago than the 12 years which have passed. Cynics at the time said ‘he was just well briefed.’ These days, even that would be nice.
“So what do we do about it, and why is this the case? I suspect local interviews are seen as a potential banana skin to be avoided at all costs. Much better (for the campaign) to be seen in Huddersfield, in front of a hand-picked audience of factory workers, preaching about issues which match the surroundings than risk actually engaging in those local issues.
“Yet our journalists reach a greater audience than at any point in the last 30 years.”
He added: “Maybe we’d carry more clout at party HQs if we were more than just a vehicle for reporting the election, but actually stated who we thought would do the best job for our local area.
“Yes, I know editorial impartiality is something we treasure, but we also pride ourselves on fighting for our communities and informing our communities.”
The UK’s biggest-selling regional daily newspaper, the Express & Star, drew criticism last week when it seemed to endorse the Conservative Party in an editorial.
It said: “One thing has remained crystal clear – Theresa May will make a far superior Prime Minister than Jeremy Corbyn. Her gracious, statesmanlike manner befits the office of Prime Minister in a way that Mr Corbyn’s ‘old school commie’ persona can never do.”
Higgerson, who is set to become Trinity Mirror’s digital editorial strategy director, said: “In an age where everyone can have an opinion and amplify through social networks, it seems odd that the people most expert in determining what should be best for local people remain quiet.
“In some ways, journalism and democracy hug the same iceberg. The less people are engaged in democracy, the less likely they are to value our work. Taking a neutral standpoint might avoid tricky conversations with people who disagree, but at least we’d be playing a more active role in democracy – advising people based on our research, our knowledge and our passion for our local areas.”
He said changing the culture of the local press in this way would probably result in “flack”, “stick” and “abuse”, but added: “Journalism will only survive if it gets better at being part of an ongoing conversation…
“We aren’t going to shame political parties into talking to us. But the size of our engaged audience can be used to carry an informed message, and ensure a new level of political scrutiny and accountability.
“If that were to happen, I think it’s a safe bet May’s answers would be a little more interesting, and Corbyn’s diary would suddenly have more time for the local newsrooms which reach, and engage with, the very people they need to win over.”
Picture: Reuters/Francois Lenoir