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October 26, 2006

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

Writing about web page,,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.

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