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Union wants LDR scheme to cover courts as tech giants face calls for levy

CairncrossA public service reporting scheme run by the BBC and regional press industry should be expanded to include court coverage, union chiefs have said.

The National Union of Journalists has called for the expansion of the BBC’s local democracy reporting scheme to combat what it has termed the “failure” of regional titles to cover what happens in the criminal and civil courts.

A total of 150 local democracy reporter posts have so far been created by the scheme, which sees journalists employed by regional publishers to cover public bodies – with the roles being funded by taxpayer cash.

The NUJ’s proposal came in its submission to the Cairncross Review, a government probe led by former economic journalist Dame Frances Cairncross, pictured, into the “sustainability” of the UK’s printed press.

The submission states: “The union wants the LDR scheme to include court coverage, in response to the failure of local titles to cover what happens in the criminal and civil courts.

“Traditionally local newspapers always covered their local magistrate, sheriff and crown court trials and national newspapers covered major trials, with some newspapers – such as the Daily Telegraph and the Independent – even employing reporters who only covered the courts. In addition, the Press Association and a number of agencies covered major trials and appeals.

“Now hardly any local papers cover trials or courts in detail – if people don’t know what goes on in the courts, are not aware of what offences are prosecuted or what punishments are meted out, then they remain uninformed and justice is not seen to be done.

“One of the best barometers of what is happening locally is a magistrate’s or sheriff’s court and if people are not presented with comprehensive news coverage of both the defence and prosecution cases in major trials, they are given a distorted view.

“As things stand, courts are not properly reported, and incorporating this reporting into the remit of the existing LDR scheme would help to address this significant and ongoing problem that is linked to the provision of public interest journalism.”

Court coverage was originally slated to be included in the LDR project but was dropped in the course of negotiations between the BBC and regional publishers. The BBC has declined to comment on the NUJ’s proposal.

Meanwhile industry leaders have focused on the need for a levy on tech giants such as Facebook and Google to support quality journalism.

In its submission to the Cairncross review, the News Media Association outlined a list of 42 options and initiatives to support Britain’s local, regional and national press, highlighting four key measures to “protect journalism.”

They include launching a competition inquiry into the dominance of the tech companies and introducing a “fair, open and equitable” content licence fee agreement, enabling the tech companies to demonstrate the value they extract and to pay for the content from which they benefit.

The NMA also wants to incentivise news aggregators to promote trusted content over so-called “fake news” by giving the tech companies the same legal responsibility as publishers for the content they carry, and introducing independent regulatory oversight of their activities.

And it wants to require the tech companies to give reasonable notice of any changes to terms of business or to algorithms which impact news publishers, such as the changes introduced by Facebook earlier this year which have been blamed by some publishers for a slump in digital advertising revenues.

The NMA said: “Measures of success for the review in 10 years’ time would see a vibrant and well-funded independent news media sector marked by an increase in the number of news media journalists, regular launches of new local titles by dedicated commercial news media companies, and a rebalancing of the advertising market so that revenues follow audiences and advertisers can once again be confident that their brand messages are seen by real people viewing real content in a brand-safe environment.”

Regional publisher Johnston Press has also made a submission to the review although the company has refused to divulge its contents.

A spokesman for Johnston Press said: “We can confirm that Johnston Press has made a submission to the Cairncross Review outlining the challenges faced by the sector and the group, their impact on the sustainability of quality journalism, and possible solutions.

“Like many others, we have asked that our submission remains confidential but look forward to being of help to the Commission in reaching its conclusions about how to ensure the continuity of high-quality journalism in the UK.”


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  • September 26, 2018 at 9:29 am

    I’ve been saying this from the beginning, but particularly since the LDR scheme came into effect.

    In the region we cover, there are several LDRs and none of them are being used in the way they were supposed to be. The regional publishing giants are, entirely predictably, just using the LDRs as replacements for the regular reporters they’ve jettisoned to boost profits.

    The whole remit of the LDRs is to cover the stuff that newspapers can’t currently manage due to resource issues. They are supposed to produce self-generated, exclusive stories about local bodies like councils, hospital trusts, etc, and they are supposed to cover the public meetings that newspapers can’t currently spare anybody to attend.

    Instead, in our area, they quite often just put out council press releases with one extra quote on the bottom – or they attend council meetings of huge significance, which every local paper would (and does) send somebody to anyway, rendering their attendance entirely pointless, but still don’t cover any of the smaller meetings they were hired to attend. The scheme has been a total failure.

    Where these reporters are truly needed – which I have said from the beginning – is in court. Crucial council meetings get covered already. There’s a reason nobody attends licensing sub-committee meetings: they’re dull as dishwater. But giant meetings to fix Local Plans, crucial budget-setting meetings, are covered.

    In court, an empty public gallery can lead to a catastrophic miscarriage of justice. Unscrutinised, prosecutors and judges can abuse their power in horrendous ways. I have zero doubt that the number of innocent people being convicted has skyrocketed as a result of legal aid cuts, police cuts and newspaper cuts. We need bodies in courtrooms.

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  • September 26, 2018 at 9:40 am

    Taxpayers should not be funding commercial companies. JP was a driving force in pushing for local democracy reporters because of financial challenges across the newspaper industry. Reports show JP was allocated 30 LDR worth in excess of £500k. The Times quoted the company’s latest financial figures which revealed JP had spent more than £500k on bonuses for senior staff to thwart poaching attempts from rival publishers.

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  • September 26, 2018 at 10:39 am

    All this means is that LDRs should not be given to big companies who have slashed editorial budgets to fund bonuses for fatcats. There are lots of independent or family-owned local papers out there who could really use an extra pair of hands.

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  • September 26, 2018 at 2:48 pm

    I have no idea why people are going on about rehashing press releases when handing them aren’t part of the LDR remit anyway.

    On a daily basis the LDR’s are attending meeting and uncovering stuff from hearings that haven’t seen reporters for donkey’s years.

    I can understand some not liking the BBC subsidising private companies. But if you aren’t happy with the output, have you ever considered the possibility that some of these publishers are choosing to ignore LDR copy as they don’t think that council copy is ‘sexy’ enough to fly online? You can only guide a horse to water etc.

    I can’t fathom how anyone would be able to handle both court and council meetings as part of their job. Its not like you can drop in and out of trials and missing major points. It doesn’t sound like the NUJ has bothered to speak to LDR’s before issuing this press release.

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  • September 27, 2018 at 3:14 pm

    TwisV tells us: “I have zero doubt that the number of innocent people being convicted has skyrocketed as a result of legal aid cuts, police cuts and newspaper cuts.”
    ‘Skyrocketed’ is a rather wild claim, without any evidence cited. If criminal conviction rates have soared as you suggest, sounds like you have a story on your hands.

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