Scrutiny and local journalism
It used to be the case that local journalists were not interested in council meetings, and certainly not scrutiny meetings. Thinking back ten or even five years, the level of press interest in council business was minimal. Major council decisions have still been covered (often idiosyncratically) but the hollowing out of the local press – the closing of many titles and the concentration of journalists in regional hubs which may be at a substantial geographical remove to the area on which they are reporting – has had implications for this kind of reporting.
This is, however, changing. There are two reasons for this.
The first is, of course, where we are as a sector. Huge financial challenges abound, provoking big decisions with profound effects on local services – effects which are highly likely to be newsworthy. Currently, Cabinet and Full Council tend to be the crucible of debate on these issues, but if scrutiny is doing its job right it too will be weighing into the discussion.
The second is the Local Democracy Reporting Service. This service, operated by the BBC and funded by Government through the licence fee, employs a large number of reports to have a specific focus on the business of local councils. Local democracy reporters (LDRs) have played a significant role in the highlighting of the fallout from the Northamptonshire intervention, for example – and we can expect that to only continue.
Scrutiny, therefore, needs to think about the press in how it carries out its work.
There are two aspects to this. The first is operational – the accessibility of scrutiny meetings and of scrutiny councillors to the press. We need to understand the needs of the press in how scrutiny meetings are planned and conducted, and the needs of others present who might want to record proceedings. For some councils, the public and press are “admitted” to meetings in a way that could best be described as grudging. Meetings are not conducted in a way that really makes the business of the council transparent to observers. Accessibility is also about scrutiny chairs in particular being available before and after meetings to speak to reporters – with the support of corporate communications officers.
The second aspect is strategic. It is about thinking about the likelihood of press interest in work as it is being planned, and thinking about how this can be managed and capitalised upon to raise the profile of scrutiny and the work it carries out. Widely reported work with a high profile is, arguably, more likely to have an impact.
For this to happen scrutiny needs a mature relationship with the press. In places where corporate comms acts more as a gatekeeper than as a facilitator of the conversations that councillors need to have with local reporters, that needs to end. Councils where scrutiny’s profile is deliberately kept low – for example by a refusal of corporate comms officers to carry out work to publicise work – that, too, needs to change.
We are continuing to gather information about how scrutiny works with LDRs and about how we can support those conversations, where they happen. If you are looking for independent advice on managing scrutiny work on contentious issues, and where you expect press interest, then please get in touch. And if you’re an LDR, please get in touch too – we want to hear more about your experiences attending meetings, speaking to councillors and officers, and to understand what more we can do to make councils more open and responsive to the press.
Written by Ed Hammond, Director, Centre for Public Scrutiny