Unreported bike theft spins fake news cycle

THIS IS a written-up version of a speech given at an event in the Westminster Parliament as part of the NUJ's Local News Matters campaign.

[NUJ President Tim Dawson; © Lucy Adams]

A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO my favourite bicycle was stolen from outside my then home in one of England's smaller provincial cities. I was bereft. With little expectation of seeing it again, however, I called the police to report my loss.

Then, a couple of hours later, a miracle occurred. A constable called me to say that the thief had been apprehended and my bicycle recovered. In the weeks that followed, I received the paperwork, as the victim of a crime, letting me know that the miscreant had been charged and was then to appear in court. To salve my curiosity, I decided to go and see the whites of his eyes.

At the magistrates court a rather sorry, unemployed 20-year-old was in the dock. His solicitor pleaded that hard times had occasioned a momentary loss of his usual moral compass. He nonetheless pleaded guilty, and was fined and ordered to pay for damage to my bicycle and property.

Looking around the court, however, I realised that the defendant and I were the only ones present who were not legal professionals. So when I got home I called the editor of the local daily paper - who I happened to know socially - to enquire why the press bench was empty?

"We long ago stopped reporting the magistrates courts and only really cover the Crown Court when there is a juicy case", he explained. He simply did not have enough journalists to cover such trifles.

Of course, the apprehension and conviction of a bicycle thief is hardly stop-press news. The more I reflected on the non-reporting of this case, however, the more concerned I became.

My neighbours divided into two camps. Those who had also had bicycles stolen but had not followed the case came to believe that we had been targeted by a crack squad of professional pedal cycle pinchers. Their imagined origin varied, depending upon who you asked, but Eastern Europe, Liverpool and the local Travellers' site were hot favourites - an example of low-level fake news breeding in an information vacuum.

Other neighbours knew nothing of the thefts and consequently did not beef up their own bicycle security, as would have been wise.

The police's heroic role went unrecorded too. Here was a fantastic example of minor anti-social crime being solved by honest pavement pounding. Neither publicity for this nor the deserved praise was forthcoming - perhaps allowing to spread a misapprehension about police priorities and methods.

Over the ensuing weeks, more by chance than design, I had conversations with a couple of the elected politicians who represented my area. Both initially scoffed when I mentioned my stolen bicycle - surely I had been reading too many novels from the 1930s, one wondered. I persuaded them that it was a serious issue - but had the local paper been doing its job, that would not have been necessary.

My broader point, of course, has little to do with cycle security save that this situation is repeated thousands of times daily in local authority areas from Shetland to the Scilly Isles. Court hearings, the deliberations of planning committees, and critical council decisions are all going unreported. Employers grow, contract, arrive and disappear without many in their surrounding areas ever knowing. Schools have record results and are consigned to "special measures" without the communities they serve being any the wiser.

New research commissioned by the NUJ shows that local newspapers continue to close at an alarming pace, that more than half of all local authority areas in the UK are not covered by a daily paper and that in nearly all areas local news monopolies exist. This research provides fantastic granular detail of the crisis facing papers all over the country.

Disturbing as this is, it makes you realise how fortunate we have been. For the 150 years of mass literacy, a largely unregulated private sector media has grown up organically and found ways to provide for many of our communities' news and information needs. In that we are fortunate, but make no mistake, a paradigm shift is underway and new thinking is needed.

Shrinking advertising markets are the cliff over which our local media is falling - but to a far greater extent the local media giants are the architects of their own troubles. Their tendency to local monopoly has been highly unhealthy, as have been the extraordinary profits once considered routine. Trinity Mirror, Johnson Press and Newquest have all enjoyed returns on capital of over 20 per cent in the recent past.

Successful supermarket chains such as Tesco rarely exceed seven per cent returns on capital.

But whoever is to blame, some blue-skies thinking is now required. How about treating newspaper titles as community assets so that their longevity is not dependent on boardroom whims in the United States? Maybe internet service providers, or digital behemoths like Google and Facebook could be levied to create a local news fund? The courts and local government could be required to fund the reporting of their own activities? Robert McChesney's "voucher scheme" is certainly worth considering: see robertmcchesney.org

These are mostly back-of-a-fag-packet ideas, some of which raise complex issues, but the work of grinding some of them into plausible initiatives needs to start now. That it why the NUJ is calling for a short, sharp public enquiry to focus legislators' minds on the issues in question. It would need to engage with stakeholders and flesh out some ideas to tackle this crisis. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) is running an excellent pledge campaign calling for just such an enquiry; MPs are adding their names to Early Day Motion 1109 on this subject and there was a debate in the House of Commons on Thursday 30 March.

I know from many friends who work in local newspapers just how forlorn some feel. I would encourage them, and everyone else who cares about the importance of local news, to keep in mind that profound changes in society often require radical new thinking.

After centuries of private and charitable provision, the state took over responsibility for education from 1870 onwards. That is now considered normal. Roads were once funded by private turnpike companies who charged users. From 1922 until 1955 broadcasting was exclusively the domain of the state, and is now the work of a very mixed multiplicity of providers. We should never be afraid to think out of the box.

Given the support that has poured in for the NUJ's campaign since the start of the week, I am confident that my concerns about local news are widely shared and that we have the wit to come up with fresh solutions. All we need now is enough of you, and people beyond this room to lend their shoulders to give this an almighty shove to get it into the full glare of the government's attention.

If we do that, I am confident that local news will have a bright future.

(And hopefully my bicycle will be a bit safer).