Saturday, 25 April 2015

The importance of newspapers - Epigram editorial (25 April 2015)

Newspapers are important. Be it national newspapers, local newspapers or student newspapers. All have different audiences. All have an important role to play at local, national and, at times, international level.

We’re very pleased to have had 13 stories picked up by national news outlets so far this year, which underlines the amount of work put in by so many of our writers and editors.

13 is more than the number of issues we’ve printed so far in 2014-15, and this shows that, on average, we’ve published at least one story per issue that has seen issues highlighted at national level. It is vital that local newspapers, and student newspapers, are supported and able to continue to ensure that people are held to account and readers are kept in the loop.

As an excellent article in last week’s Guardian argued, ‘The presence of a journalist who turns up to council meetings makes local politicians more accountable and keeps tabs on their behaviour.’

Local newspapers can often be a vital vehicle for local campaigners. The said article gave the example of how campaigners in South Wales against the construction of the biggest biomass plant in the world have struggled to get their voice heard since the closure of the Port Talbot Guardian.

Parts of the country that lack a newspaper mean unreported news and unscrutinised politicians and businesspeople, which may make life easier for them but certainly don’t enhance democracy. Concerningly, some local papers, including in some London boroughs, have essentially become council newsletters. 

Some others have seen a rise in ‘churnalism’: the proliferation of regurgitation of press releases, be they from councils or PR companies, in place of news, which many papers are now guilty of as staff numbers are cut and the journalists that remain are increasingly overworked.

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) is rightly expressing concern, and last weekend held a special summit in Birmingham, which I attended, to discuss challenges in the industry.

Meanwhile, at national level, some newspapers are failing at basic duties and reducing faith in the press as a whole, with practices such as phone-hacking and   attacks on individuals.

For example, The Daily Mail attempted a hatchet job on Nick Clegg last election at the height of his popularity (it may be hard to believe now, but he was popular, particularly among students, back in 2010).

It ran a front page that shouted:
‘Nick Clegg in Nazi slur on Britain’, referring to an article he had written in 2002 which had been completely taken out of context.

The 2013 attack on Miliband’s late father, Ralph, as ‘the man who hated Britain’ crossed a line and was rightly condemned by politicians on all sides, including David Cameron. Mail columnist Sarah Vine’s recent comparison of Justine Miliband to ‘Mr Spock’ was also out of line.

While not quite as malicious, some recent ‘exposés’ about Ed Miliband’s love life – when he and the journalists he was linked with were single – appear desperate. Unsurprisingly, they seem to have backfired, with polls and a flurry of tweets showing increased respect for the Labour leader as a result.

Meanwhile, some recent Telegraph front pages have been tediously predictable. Take the 31 March front page ‘letter’ which features 100 ‘business leaders’ backing the Conservatives. Someone pointed out that the equivalent splash prior to the last election was released on exactly the same day of the year: 31 March 2010. Talk about using the same playbook…

Reverting to such predictable formulas is at odds with the Telegraph’s forward-thinking online strategy, which has seen it gain hits from an increasing number of those outside its traditional readership, including many young people and students put off by The Times’ paywall and looking for an alternative to The GuardianMeanwhile, reader trust was significantly undermined amid the HSBC scandal which saw respected columnist Peter Oborne leave the paper, claiming that articles exposing the bank’s tax scandal were pulled because it was an important advertiser.

The Mail is the most guilty of spreading misinformation about, for instance, social security spending. The public believe that 27 per cent of the social security budget is wasted on benefit fraud, but in reality it is only 0.7 per cent. That is letting down readers and failing in the paper’s duty to accurately inform the public.

In short, at a time when local newspapers are struggling for revenue, it is disheartening to see some of the wealthiest newspapers’ low standards.

On the subject of the election, well done to readers who registered to vote in time! I was uncomfortable with the deadline being so early (especially before students had even returned to university after Easter). But anyway, if you are registered, make sure to turn out on 7 May, whichever way you vote. The more students vote, the more our issues will hopefully be addressed and the less politicians will be able to largely ignore them, as they mainly have done over the last few years. 

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