Is Leicester a News Desert?

Leicester is in the headlines today because it might be the first British city to be forced back into lockdown following a spike in reported Covid-19 infections. While the picture remains uncertain, the headlines this afternoon have made it clear that the UK government is considering shutting businesses and amenities again to stave-off a wider spread and infection.

There are many reasons that a spike in infections may have occurred in the city, and a thorough public health assessment will have to be made as to where and why these additional infections are being reported. Is it general social contact that is driving the spread of the virus, or is it workplace-based? The city centre is only just returning to normal after a prolonged period when shops, restaurants and bars are closed, but many workplaces have stayed open.

[Update: Monday 29th June] Quoted in the Mail Online, Sir Peter Souslby, City Mayor of Leicester says: ‘What they’re suggesting is not a return to lockdown, it seems that what they’re suggesting is that we continue the present level of restriction for a further two weeks beyond July 4. Now that’s obviously very different from the dramatic lockdown in Leicester that was being briefed at the weekend’. Sir Peter added: ‘I’ve looked at this report and frankly it’s obviously been cobbled together very hastily. It’s superficial and its description of Leicester is inaccurate and certainly it does not provide us with the information we need if we are to remain restricted for two weeks longer than the rest of the country.’ And slamming the lack of data on those who have tested positive he said: ‘What we have got is an assessment of the situation, which is itself, partial, which admits that the increase in positives is as a result to increased testing and that there is perhaps nothing in significance in those results. The concern is that if there is anything out there we need to see it and it needs to be at street level’.

Leicester has many small factories, warehouses and packing plants mainly in the east of the city. If the spread of the virus is to be tracked, public health officials will be actively tracking and tracing the source of the outbreaks and looking at ways to mitigate them in the future.

A contributing factor might be that public information has not been getting through to the people who work in these factories. Leicester has one of the highest numbers of people in the UK who don’t speak English as their first language. Communicating an essential public health message becomes much harder when language integration is lower and alternative languages are less well facilitated.

Leicester also has a high proportion of residents who have low literacy skills, so the typical forms of media that many people engage with may not be understood as easily, or respected and trusted as much as they might be by the majority population of the East Midlands region.

For example, BBC Leicester is an English language station that covers both the City of Leicester and the county of Leicestershire. The Leicester Mercury is the main local print news source. Each have been in decline in line with national news industry trends over recent years. People’s reliance on them in the early stages of the pandemic might have risen, but it is likely that the spread and range of people using them might have narrowed.

Alternative sources of information and news in Leicester is patchy. There are no alternative, independent news providers that are based in the city, and which cover stories that are written by and for people in the city. There are several online news aggregators, lifestyle magazines, and what’s-on guides, but there is no designated news service that acts independently of the public authorities, the BBC or commercial media.

There are six active community radio stations in Leicester. These cover different communities in the city with information and guidance, but there is no news service that goes beyond the press-releases and Tweets that form the basis of updated community information. Leicester is increasingly a news desert, and doesn’t have an active network of citizen’s journalists who are creating, sharing and discussing stories and topics that follow journalistic principles of accountability and press regulation.

The question I want to pose for a future edition of the Decentered Media Podcast, is does Leicester need an independent news network? I’m interested in finding out what it would take to establish a network of local, independent reporting in Leicester, and who might get involved in establishing a news platform that can be trusted and which is directly accountable to the people that it serves?

There are many examples of positive local news networks around the country, but as the Public Interest News Foundation has reported, these networks are in danger of being wiped-out because they don’t get Covid-19 subsidies from the government, which mainstream and commercial news organisations have been getting.

There’s a lot to discuss and think about when it comes to local news in Leicester, and the extent to which we can learn from others who have been down this path before, and those who are still striving to open-up the way that news is created and shared that suits the realities and needs of our times.

If you have something to contribute to this discussion, it would be great to get you involved in a podcast soon, so that we can share some ideas. Tweet me or email robwatson@decentered.co.uk

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