Government backs plans to expand publicly funded journalism scheme

Ministers have given their backing to plans to recruit more publicly funded journalists to better cover what happens at local councils, courts and NHS Trusts.

The Government said it would support efforts by the BBC to broaden its Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS), an £8-million-per-year initiative that funds 150 journalists to report on local government.

But, as part of the response to the Cairncross Review into creating a sustainable future for journalism, ministers ruled out creating an Institute for Public Interest News, saying it was not for the Government to have a role in setting up such a body.

In 2018, Dame Frances Cairncross, a former senior editor at The Economist, was tasked with making recommendations into how to future-proof journalism in the face of cuts to staff and falling circulation numbers.

According to Culture Secretary Baroness Morgan, there are now about 6,000 fewer journalists than a decade ago, and print circulation of national and local newspapers has halved.

Dame Frances and her panel of media experts recommended in their report last year that the Local Democracy scheme be “expanded”, and managed or shared by an organisation external to the BBC.

The 2017 scheme has seen 150 journalists recruited to report on the activities of councils in a bid to provide further scrutiny, filing more than 50,000 stories in its first 12 months of operation.

The journalists tend to be hosted in the newsroom of a large media publisher or broadcaster, but their articles are pooled for 850 other outlets to use as part of a wire-style service.

In the Government response to the Cairncross Review, published on Monday, ministers said they were “supportive” of approaches to expand the scheme.

The BBC has already announced its intention to set up a “new body to take over the running of the scheme” and to look for additional funding “from sources outside the BBC”, in a bid to take on more reporters, the Government said.

In November, BBC Director General Lord Hall said any expansion could include staffing reporters to cover court hearings and NHS Trust meetings.

“The Government is supportive of this approach and will follow developments in this area closely,” said a Government spokesman.

Culture Secretary Baroness Morgan
Culture Secretary Baroness Morgan (Aaron Chown/PA)

Dame Frances had recommended that a newly-founded Institute for Public Interest News take over or share the running of the Local Democracy scheme.

But ministers rejected the idea of setting up the institute and said Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s administration would “not be taking” the recommendation forward.

“It is not for the Government to define what qualifies as ‘public interest’ news,” the Government said in response.

“While any institute would be at arm’s length from government, we recognise concerns that even an arm’s length relationship risks perceptions of inappropriate government interference with the press.”

Baroness Morgan said: “Only high-quality journalism can hold the powerful to account and shine a light on society’s important issues – in communities, in courtrooms, and in council chambers.

“The stakes are high and this response shows our commitment to getting it right, so future generations can be inspired and engaged by a free and vibrant press.”Newspapers

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