The Fourth Estate

Contributing Editor Ben Gartside writes on the essential role of local media. This article was initially published in the Winter 2017 Edition of Anticipations, “Local Government and Devolution”.

In February, the Washington Post added the motto “Democracy Dies in Darkness” below their online masthead in response to the election of Donald Trump and his consistent attacks on the media since then. According to Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, the quote originates from Bob Woodward - one of the journalists behind the biggest story of the 20th Century, Watergate.

Woodward is the height of journalistic glamour - he was portrayed by Robert Redford in the film in All the President’s Men, after all. Nonetheless, both Woodward and Watergate collaborator started at regional titles - Woodward at Montgomery Sentinel, Bernstein at Elizabeth Daily Journal.

Today, the Elizabeth Daily Journal ceases to publish, and the Montgomery Sentinel is the only remaining paper in a county of over a million residents, down from five a decade ago. Sadly for the UK, the problem is not exclusive to our American cousins. Ten local titles in the UK have closed down in the last three months, and according to a Press Gazette investigation into the closure of regional papers, 198 have closed between 2005 and 2015.

This is a significant issue for the believers in devolved and local government - local papers either lost their competition (meaning that standards of holding politicians to account dropped), or in the case of regional papers folding entirely, disappeared.  

The demise of regional press raises an important question about the future of governance of Britain: If the regional press has reached a point of unsustainability in the age of revenue squeezing advertising algorithms, is devolved government a flawed goal?

Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle said in his book Heroes and Hero Worship: "Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”

In the past few months of national governance, we’ve seen two resignations in Priti Patel and Michael Fallon, and arguably should have seen two more in Boris Johnson and Damian Green. Patel left due to a scoop by BBC Diplomatic Editor James Landale, Fallon due to a scoop by The Observer. If Green had been forced out, it would’ve been due to initial reporting by Tim Shipman in the Sunday Times, and Sam Coates continuing to follow the story.

If cabinet-level ministers are willing to take risks for personal benefit like Patel with back-channeled government meetings, or Green by offering to pay for DUP advisers, isn’t there a good chance that regional politicians will be doing the same, albeit with the lack of scrutiny?

The aim of devolution is to bring power back to areas that have been long ignored - it’s why I rejoiced at the creation of the Greater Manchester Mayor. However, reclaimed power without accountability is less useful than a centralisation of powers that doesn’t work for large areas of the Great Britain.

Whilst the death of regional media may not be a fatal blow to devolution now, it has the potential to be a few decades down the line, after continued failures to account for regional government show themselves in the form of deprivation and a continued postcode lottery, all because structures of outside accountability were not available.

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