“A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy.” Nelson Mandela, 1994
It’s been a lively old start to 2017 for Millwall Football Club. Even if you’re not a football fan, you have probably heard the hullabaloo around its battle with Lewisham Council and the development plans around the Den Stadium.
One well known fan, Danny Baker, cast a distasteful hex over councillors and developers Renewal; another commentator publicly told them to hang their heads in shame. An unlikely coalition spoke in unison: Lewisham conservatives, their Lib Dem counterparts, and the London mayor Sadiq Khan have all piped up in defence of the club over the past days.
It’s the culmination of months of fierce lobbying by Millwall’s supporters, helped in no small part by some fine investigating by Barney Ronay of The Guardian.
The upshot won’t be clear for a while (the council’s cabinet postponed a crucial vote for a second time earlier this week). But whatever happens, such a noisy protest is surely a testament to press and people power in Lewisham?
Sadly, no. Or at least, only in this isolated case. It’s an illusion, an anomaly in one of the least democratically accountable areas of the country as far as the Fourth Estate goes.
It’s not just that 98 per cent of councillors come from the same political party. They may be elected but that sort of dominance should instinctively set off alarm bells, whatever your political persuasion.
The real concern, however, is the black hole in press coverage, the widespread Millwall story being the exception that proves the rule. A few unusual circumstances helped it on its way. The club’s campaigners proved dogged, loud and enterprising. The council’s scrutiny committee – with a notable mention to councillor Alan Hall – did its job. The issue caught the attention of a journalist on a national newspaper. And critically the story, evolving as it did into an existential threat to the club (real or supposed), struck a chord with football fans everywhere.
Sadly, then, this does very little to suggest a healthy local press. Regional media in fact played little part in holding the council to account – hardly surprising when you consider the journalist headcount assigned to this sprawling, diverse borough. There are almost 300,000 people living here – perhaps more now – a borough brimming with stories both good and bad.
And the precise number of reporters dedicated to this beat is…. absolutely none.
Being kind, you could add together the beleaguered reporting staff of the News Shopper – three of whom have Lewisham and two other boroughs on their watch – and make one person in total. That’s at a pinch, given recent industrial action and redundancies, and the trouble people have in getting hold of a copy.
Perhaps add in a fraction of a body for the coverage in the South London Press and its sister papers; or the East London Lines website and its sporadic stories. And beyond that? Nada. One and bit reporters for 300,000 people. Surprising? Scary might be more apt.
The truth is that very few people even realise this is an issue – and the sheer weight of available information plays a part in that. Beyond newspapers, you can get a wider variety of news from more sources than ever before. Housefire in Hither Green? Members of Facebook group Mummy’s Gin Fund will probably know about it even before the fire engines arrive. SouthEastern trains late again? There’s an app for that. And the council, to its credit, dutifully puts up meeting minutes, and reports on attendance.
There are also blogs and Twitter feeds for everything from the Lewisham branch of the Met Police to the Hilly Fields Park Run. In short, enough updates and details to swamp even the most avid social media junkie.
So why does the reporter headcount matter? Even though Nelson Mandela made his above point about the press before blogs and Twitter took hold, the sentiment remains. It might not be that highly regarded these days but a professional, investigative press is key to holding the local authorities to account. And in Lewisham, it’s clinging to existence by a thread.
As a point of comparison, the main outlet in Coventry, a city of roughly the same population, has nine named reporters on its website – and even that is a shadow of what it used to be.
Lewisham, quite simply, has a void, a gaping hole only partly compensated by a thousand Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and blogs. That’s not to criticise their value. Some are great. Brockley Central has been running for the best part of a decade, posting with admirable regularity and generating genuine debate. There’s the Deptford Dame and Transpontine. The 853 blog has some proper journalistic backbone.
But who’s doing the dirty work on a daily basis? Going to the magistrate courts to follow up on crimes committed in Lewisham? Quizzing the police? Dutifully attending council meetings? Scrutinising planning permissions? Looking into the dramatic cuts into the council’s budget and how they are being managed? Tracking Lewisham’s woefully troubled secondary schools? And crucially, telling the wider world impartially what they find?
You already know the answer. Mandela would be worried.
It is impossible to quantify what we’re missing out on. What else would be discovered if more people had the time, training – and ideally a wage – to ask more probing questions?
It’s also hard to know what can be done – although the more people who see through the illusion, the better. Commercial news-gathering operations are struggling. Collaborative, community solutions are time-consuming to manage and unpredictable in output. “Lone wolf” blogs can be piecemeal and unreliable.
There are occasional glimmers of light, including a BBC scheme to fund 150 local journalists later this year – although it’s not clear how they will be assigned. (At least one for Lewisham please!).
But mostly, residents just have to hope the powers-that-be, including the 98 per cent local political majority, do the right thing on trust. And after the Millwall furore that may be in shorter supply.