October 26, 2006

Trust me, you don't want your own Mayor.

Writing about web page http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,17129-2422044,00.html

When a book of ill-conceived ideas is written, Tony Blair’s notion of directly-elected mayors will probably be mentioned in the sleeve notes, if not on the front cover. What appears to be a great way of getting people more involved in local politics is actually a disaster waiting to happen, for the simple reason that the British local press won’t know what to do with themselves.

When a mayoral race takes place in a town or city with only one newspaper (or multiple newspapers all owned by the same group – unfortunately very common nowadays) the potential for the race to be rigged in favour of one candidate is extremely strong.

Newspapers differ from broadcast journalism because they can take any editorial line they like and favour one person over another without any recriminations. In general election, there’s nothing wrong with The Sun calling on people to vote for Labour, but if the BBC, ITV or Channel 4 did it, they’d find themselves without jobs or broadcast spectrum.

And it’s the lack of plurality in local newspapers which make directly-elected mayors such a worry. If there was only one national newspaper for the whole of Britain, wouldn’t you be worried if they could proclaim “Vote Smith” on their front page?

Well locally, where there is often a monopoly in newspapers, this is the exact same situation, writ small. In Cardiff, for instance, a town of 300,000 people, there is one truly local newspaper and one Wales-wide paper. They’re both owned by the same company and work from the same offices. If they decided to agree one editorial line (and I’m not suggesting they necessarily would), they could very easily swing an election.

It’s true that blogs, the BBC’s experiments in Local TV and the rise of citizen journalism might make this less of an issue in the future. But while these are in their infancy and local newspapers are the dominant source of local information, Blair’s idea of directly-elected mayors aids only those who want to see the total dominance of machine politics in Britain.

- 4 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Nightowl

    In Sunderland, our (just about) only local newspaper, during elections doesn’t take a particular line, in fact they pretty much stop anything remotely with political bias until the election is over. They still report on the campaigning, but they suspend the letters page and don’t give advertising space to political parties. I’m not sure if this is how electoral journalism should be, particularly for the letters page. I think during elections debate should take place, and newspapers should encourage it, but as you said, they shouldn’t push you to vote for a particular party, they should scrutinise all parties equally. Should.

    26 Oct 2006, 18:00

  2. Martin

    Oh, I don’t know Chris. IMHO, Bristol City Council must be the worst local authority in the country. Nothing could make them worse. They do nothing for the people of the city and charge us royally for the privilege. If there were an election for mayor, Tony Robinson would win and even a Baldrick-level cunning plan would be better than the hopeless imbeciles who’ve run the city in my living memory.

    28 Oct 2006, 17:40

  3. Assuming your local complete monopoly assumption is correct (which, I must note, is quite unrealistic in the big towns- my hometown of Reading for example has a population of 150,000, but has 3 town wide newspapers and during election time leaflets from local neighbourhood councillors isn’t uncommon-, plus local papers and local websites will probably evolve to counter any cases of monopoly rule, plus you are underestimating the importance of people just talking among each other, like in schools, churches or clubs), I think you are still wrong because you are underestimating professional integrity. Journalists will want to write a good newspaper, and so they would regulate themselves (from my experience at least, but you’re the journalist so I may be mistaken).

    29 Oct 2006, 02:51

  4. Sean, Journalists do want to write a good newspaper, but then you still see plenty of drivel being written in the national press day-in, day-out, and not a lot of complaint from the people who write it.

    With so many jobs being cut in regional newspapers at the moment I’m not sure local newspaper journalists are in a strong enough position from which to regulate the industry.

    30 Oct 2006, 14:56

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