‘Reporting the UK’is an important phrase for us journalism educators in the BBC.
There’s a good reason for that – the BBC collects the licence fee from all over the UK and that means making every effort to report on the whole of the UK to the whole of the UK.
Of course, BBC services in the nations and regions and, increasingly, localised news on the BBC News website are the main way that obligation is fulfilled.
But, as Professor Anthony King reported last month for the BBC Trust, the vocabulary, tone and agenda of UK national news produced in London newsrooms matters hugely to audiences outside the South East of England – and those audiences don’t always feel included in what they see and hear. Especially when it comes to devolution and who runs what.
Unsurprisingly, one of the answers to this is more learning. But devising that learning isn’t a straightforward task.
London-based journalists don’t make mistakes out of ignorance – at least, not justifiable ignorance. In the BBC – as in other national news organisations – there is any number of databases and style guides setting out, for example, the powers that are and aren’t devolved, or how to refer to members of the Scottish Executive or a Westminster health minister. The problem is much more habit and mindset.
If you’re the sort of journalist who’s capable of saying in a national broadcast (and somebody was, because this is a real example) ‘Inverness is over 500 miles away’– well, frankly, finding out that Inverness isn’t more than 500 miles from everywhere isn’t all you need.
But getting the habits, mindset and terminology right over devolution is only one part of reporting the UK. It was the thing that held Professor King’s attention – but the truth is there’s a much more critical failure in the way we journalists report the country we live in.
And that’s reporting local democracy and local government.
Journalists’ increasing ignorance of how taxpayers’ money is spent locally and how decisions are arrived at – let alone how to cover them – is nothing short of catastrophic for our democracy.
There was a time when you could take a journalist’s knowledge of local councils and their powers for granted. Almost all had sat through dozens of council meetings, gone glassy-eyed
poring over committee minutes, passenger transport executive accounts, or housing department reports.
But it’s all changed. Local government itself has been hollowed out – elected councillors have fewer or no powers over housing, transport, education, and in most localities, more of our pounds are spent by unelected quangos (with a bewildering variety of rights of access and accountability) than elected councils.
At the same time, much ‘local journalism’is anything but local. News is often bundled and papers printed in towns many miles from the communities they’re reporting on.
It’s hardly surprising that few journalists need to know or care about local government – it’s just not routinely on their or their editor’s radars.
It’s not good enough – which is why we at the BBC College of Journalism are developing new learning tools to help BBC journalists report the UK, which will focus as much on rebuilding a journalistic knowledge of local democracy as on the terms and terminology of devolution.
Assuming Westminster policies apply in Edinburgh or Cardiff is embarrassingly unacceptable. But what’s downright dangerous both to journalism and democracy is a generation of journalists who don’t know where to start with a planning call-in, or their rights at a health trust AGM. A danger we can – and must – begin to teach our way out of.