Friday 7 May 2010

NS warning: 'local newspapers' watchdog role threatened by greater secrecy from public bodies'

Local newspapers are still acting as watchdogs by covering public bodies but are finding more attempts to muzzle them, according to an online survey conducted by the Newspaper Society for Local Newspaper Week.
Nearly 80 per cent of local newspaper editors believe public bodies such as the local council, police or health authority are becoming more secretive and only 10 per cent believe getting information from public bodies had become easier.
The survey found that a third (35 per cent) of editors had a reporter prevented from attending a public meeting or prevented from reporting details from it. Eighty-two per cent of those who had encountered these obstructions had challenged them and more than two thirds (67 per cent) of those challenges were successful.
The survey also found:

  • The average local newspaper attends 12 meetings of public bodies a month and publishes around 30 stories from these meetings.
  • More than a fifth (21 per cent) of local newspapers use digital technology such as Twitter to report live from these meetings.
  • The average local newspaper that covers courts successfully challenged a reporting restriction on 3.2 occasions in the past year.
  • Out of all papers surveyed, the average local paper will have a reporter covering a criminal court on an average of 2.3 days out five, according to the survey.
  • In the past year, the average local newspaper submitted 16 FoI requests and in 81 per cent of cases, the information requested was successfully obtained.
NS communications director Lynne Anderson said: “The findings of this survey point towards an extremely worrying trend of increased secrecy among public bodies making it harder for local newspapers to perform their scrutinising role on behalf of their readers. Local newspapers act as a watchdog for democracy by shining a spotlight on the workings of public bodies and it cannot be right for this vital function to be undermined.”
Local Newspaper Week is themed Your Voice and runs from 10-16 May.

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