Are Anti-Local Media Policies Harming the Pandemic Response

The government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been characterised by a reliance on faulty assumptions about so-called herd immunity, and by an obsession with centralised management and procurement. When it comes to ramping up the social infrastructure to deal with the pandemic, it’s clear that ten years of brutal austerity has left the cupboard empty. We just don’t have the local resources in place to contain the pandemic through tracking and tracing. Instead, the government has put in place big schemes and big resources that it hopes will have the ability to lift capacity and fill the gaps in what should have been a robust local public healthcare system,

Donna Hall’s account of how local councils have been bypassed in favour of centrally organised and run call centres and data processing, exposes the choices that the government has consistently made when it comes to planning and funding for public social provision. It is easier for this government to give away money to ferry companies with no ferries, than it is for them to give money to local public services that can directly strengthen the infrastrucutre and capacity for testing and tracing.

The main advantage of local provision, as Hall points out, is that local teams of contact tracers know their local circumstances, and have experience working their local patches. It is asinine, as Hall points out, for a report of a potential case of Covid-19 to be made to the centrally managed call centre, for it then to be rerouted and cascaded back to the local teams. These teams then then have to reinterpret the information all over again. Why not let people who are reporting suspected cases of Covid-19 infection go directly to the contact teams and report their health concerns to their local care and wellbeing services? By centralising the process of contact tracing, and not using local government to support these essential tracking service, Donna Hall argues that we run the risk that if something is faulty at the centre, it also cascades out to the periphery.

An indication of how the breakdown of trust can happen might also be slowly unfolding in regard to our media, news and information services. Ofcom has reported that more people are taking themselves out of the information loop and are actively avoiding news services and reporting. Ofcom’s figures indicate that 31% of people are now actively avoiding news, compared with a figure of 22% a couple of weeks prior. This could be for two reasons. First, information overload has set in, and the relentlessly flow of negative stories has worn away many people’s resilience. Otherwise, it could be that trust in our news and information providers is being similarly worn down. It could be a combination of the two, as weariness and scepticism take root, but we only have limited evidence to base this on at this point.

If this trend towards news avoidance continues, however, then there is a real problem, because government and essential services will find it more difficult to get their messages into the public domain. Getting the public to respond to those messages in a positive manner will become ever more difficult as media and information resistance builds-up. Either way, weariness and contempt are a threat to good public health, and could prove to be deadly. As more people become hardened to essential messages, they become more difficult to reach and communicate with. As the public health messages start to change, and the challenges of the lockdown become the challenges of the new social and health normal, then issues of ongoing social trust, sustainability and wellbeing, become more urgent.

A conversation I had this morning with a group of entrepreneurs from Leicester, seemed to indicate that the syndrome of information overload and scepticism of the public health message, is becoming widespread and is taking root. I was talking with otherwise savvy and independent business people, who expressed their weariness of the flow of sensational stories and antagonistic discussions. The question I wondered about after this conversation was: why is this happening when we have access to multiple forms of news and information like never before? Why are we loosing faith in our collective ability to process and engage with one another through our media, and arrive at a place of mutual and truthful understanding?

Contributing factors are plentiful, but when it comes to newspapers and broadcast media, we are probably witnessing the consequences of years of proprietors, editors and journalists running fast and loose with what they publish. Years of partisan political positioning, the selective demonisation of many groups of people in our communities, and the significant narrowing of the news ecoomy around a few large corporations. They are all starting to show their pernicious effects. The news industry in the UK usually blames the rise of the tech giants and social media platforms for this problem. The news industry argues that commercial media operators are left with no option but to consolidate their news services and reduce investment in sustainable local provision and platforms. I don’t buy this. It’s been a set of choices made for commercial expediency all along.

We’ve been living with a capricious news industry that has been left to its own devices for too long, while also letting the tech giants off the hook, as they gobble-up revenues that used to ensure local and independent journalism was viable. The answer, however, is not to shower public subsidy on the newspapers with no strings attached. With the loss of so many local news services, that previously supported an information ecology which could keep local communities civically vibrant and active, we are now seeing the emergence of news and local information desserts. Newspapers have been closed and merged at an alarming rate. Local radio has been centralised and networked. Ofcom, and its masters in the Department of Dicital, Culture, Media and Sport, has been complicit in giving almost total control over local media provision to a small number of large international conglomerates.

Likewise, at the start of the lockdown the BBC won many plaudits for its efforts to shift resources behind a coordinated platform of message-focussed services. The BBC started to do its historic job and stepped in to fill the gaps left by the closure of schools, places of worship, art galleries and even fitness studios. The BBC has been able to plug a void in our social lives during a time when we can’t get out to visit such places because of physical distance requirements. But, while a lot of these services have proven to be useful, I have my doubts that this is something that had to be provided by the national state broadcaster as an emergency responce, when it should have been providing these kinds of services in the first place.

Furthermore, it’s not as if the BBC had been crowned in glory in recent years. The criticisms of the BBC’s coverage of Brexit for many has been problematic. For the BBC to suddenly remember that it is a public service, which has a duty to protect the interests of the citizens of all parts of the UK, beggars the question of what they thought was their job before the pandemic broke? It is ironic, however, that the BBC has remembered this role just when Netflix, YouTube, Disney, Facebook and many other platforms, are offering viable alternative entertainment and news services, at a lower cost in the commercial domain. The question is, therefore, when you get your entertainment from a range of alternative streaming platforms, and your news from alternative online news services, what role does a national public service broadcaster retain if it can’t be trusted, or lacks sufficnet relevence to our lives that it can’t be identified with?

BBC programming at a local level, for example, is still massively underfunded. and remins subject to cuts as the licence fee is under preassure. The BBC is still dominated by a culture of professional elitism, which means that content is devised centrally and hierarchically, then offered to audiences on the basis that it matches the social needs that the BBC has identified on behalf of the public. This process, however, is seldom open to public, civic or community scrutiny. It is seldom possible to question the national or the local managers and commissioners of BBC services, because the BBC lacks any requirement for civic engagement and deliberation about the services and programmes it provides. Occasional meetings with MPs, and glossy public relations reports, do not count as accountability. The BBC works on a model that it knows best, the question, however, is how sustainable is this appraoch?

Where is the openness and transparency in regard to the BBC editorial processes? How can the public shape or change the guidelines that reporters, programme makers and managers consider when producing content or fostering wider social discussions? I once had it put to me by a senior BBC executive that the role of BBC local radio was to ‘own’ local conversations. There was no mention of facilitating or supporting those conversation, just an expectation that the BBC has a dominant position in local discourse that is beleived to be self-evident for all to see.

This lack of local civic engagement and accessibility in the processes that determine what media we are presented with, is a significant contributing factor in the growing feeling of disassociation and meaninglessness. If local voices and opinions aren’t heard or represented in local media, and local discussions are ignored or compartmentalised, then it is little wonder that the level of understanding among the public of the civic and public processes, which keep our communities safe and well, is so poor.

There is clearly a point at which the relentless production of pre-formatted and conveninetly packaged media content becomes meaningless and vapid. One group who is most at risk from Covid-19 are people who have poor diets, and as a result are obese and diabetic. Parrallel problems occure with our media. Those most suseptable to fake news, propaganda and disiformation, are those who only have access to convenience media.

With the Covid-19 pandemic, we have reached a point at which the meaninglessness of much of corporate and commercial media has become apparent. The reliance on click-bait and indignation is what is used to drive site visits, newspaper readership, radio listenership and audience engagement. But it has left us with an anxious and fear-driven public climate. Convenience media is where realistic and positive contributions to social change get drowned out by sensationalism and fear mongering. A climate in which trust and accountability are put on hold as we are swamped with information that we can’t digest. Convenience media blocks off any attempts to use media to relate to and understand our shared experiences, either through inclousive discussion or story telling.

We need, then, to recognise that, as with contact tracing, this relaince on centralised solutions is not the only option. Indeed, centralisaiton is often the worst option in the long term. We need to discuss and learn to understand that resilient and adaptable local solutions, grounded in local knowledge and awareness, will be better supported and more effective if they are carried by people with local knowledge, with local connections, and who are able to speak for and about local concerns. There is an urgent need to think again about what makes our news and information sources trusted? If the people who make and produce media on our behalf, in the conveninec media industires,  don’t want to involve us in the conversations about what makes our media relevant to us, then they should get out of the way. We need media that is produced by people who walk the same streets, sit in the same cafes, pray in the same places of worship, send their children to the same schools, care for their elderly in the same places, use the same public services as we do, and then, most importantlyu, pay the same taxes as we do. Then we allow them into our lives.

We need, then, to boost local media in its many forms. Both community and commercial. Both in terms of the cash that is available for local service, and the recognition for the role that they place in civic society. We need to build a new tier of media that is driven by the need to build social value and social capital, that is recognised and celbbrated by local public authorities, by local civic, community services and charities. If national government isn’t capable of supporting a localised media infrastructure, then we need to think about how we can use our local conenctions and relationships to enhance and provide support media provision, access and participation in local community-focussed media that can foster trusted, accountable and inclusive forms of reporting, discussion and engagement.

This post was revised and updated on Wednesday 6th May, 9.14am

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