Tony Watson: 'Legislators must wake up to public service journalism threat'

PA managing director Tony Watson has questioned why Ofcom and the government is proposing to spend millions on subsidising public service broadcasting, but has not ‘woken up’ to the threat to council and court reporting.

PA is current proposing to launch two local authority reporting pilot schemes next year, with a view to rolling out the system further, if funding can be found.

He told the Society of Editors conference today:”The scale of the challenge facing local newspapers and the consequences of market failure are of a completely different order to those of preserving 30 minutes of regional television news at 6pm.

“You wouldn’t neccessarily deduce that from the contrasting way policymakers have responded to the problems of each sector.

“After 18 months of deliberation government and the regulator have proposed spending millions in public subsidy to preserve plurality in public service broadcasting even though the regional TV news model is widely acknowledged as lacking relevance to audiences.

“But when it comes to the regional press facing the worst crisis in its history politicians have barely woken up to the consquences of market failure.

“This issue goes beyond the mere survival of local newspapers, it’s about a threat to the kind of local journalism that has underpinned democratic accountability and open justice – not to mention providing an essential source of stories for the wider media.”

Watson cited PA’s own research which found that 64 per cent of local newspaper editors believe their coverage of local authorities has declined due to lack of resources. PA research has also found that nearly 80 per cent of senior justices’ clerks said court coverage had declined in recent years and 64 per cent said they rarely saw a reporter in court.

Watson said the public service reporting pilot schemes should take place next year – with the aim of making content available as widely as possible.

He said: “PA has no intention of being a permanent provider of any future service. We could have an arms length funding body awarding contracts to a series of franchises for the provision of public service contracts.

“Local newspapers would be the obvious providers and could receive a revenue stream in exchange for continuing to cover public bodies.”

He added that news agencies, freelances or new start-ups could also look into taking on public service reporting franchises.

Urging editors to take action to save public service reporting, he said the scale of the crisis facing the local press over-rides the concerns many have about independent news organisations taking public money.

“I don’t think our legislators have begun to wake up to this problem. I think we should all be worried about this and determined to use this conference and our collective power as an industry to make sure the legislators do wake up before it’s too late…

“We are in absolutely extraordinary circumstances. The whole notion of public service broadcasting is a pretty strange concept in a converged world, how can you have public funding for content on one distribution channel. It just doesn’t make sense.

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