Native information desert eroding UK democracy, says award-winning journalist

The award-winning journalist who documented the attack on the US Capitol last January has warned that an erosion of local journalism has created a “news desert” raising the risk of a similar attack in the UK.

ITV News correspondent Robert Moore, who was named Press Gazette’s Journalist of the Year in December for his coverage of the January 6, 2021 US Capitol attack, said the decline in local journalism meant that the recording of the “erosion of democracy” has now become a struggle.

The comments, made at a joint panel by the Royal Television Society and ITV News on Tuesday, echoed similar points made by CNN chief correspondent Brian Stelter, Labor Shadow Culture Secretary Lucy Powell and Conservative MP Damian Collins.

Stelter said journalists needed to be more vigorous in their reporting of “democratic backsliding” and change the way they cover minor attacks on democracy, while in parts of the UK the BBC was described as the “last local newsroom” by Powell .

When asked by Channel 4 News presenter Cathy Newman if the risk of a Capitol-style attack could materialize in the UK, Moore said: “What’s happening in America could very easily happen in other countries, particularly because we’re talking about them here global polarization fueled by algorithms and the toxicity of social media feeds.

“In a way [the Capitol attack] was a deeply visual story that played to the power of TV news… the next phase of in-depth coverage will be much more challenging because it will be about what’s happening in local school boards or election boards. It will be much more micro.

“And that contributes to one of the big vulnerabilities that we talked about, which is having an impact here, but also in the UK, which is the fragility of local journalism.

“It’s often called a news desert because of the lack of comprehensive local, regional and state coverage. There is no better way to chart the erosion of democracy than at the local level. And now, locally, we don’t have the diversity of media to do that.”

Previous analysis by the Press Gazette in August 2020 found that 33 local newspapers in the UK have been closed since early 2019. In the US, research by Poynter revealed that more than 100 local newsrooms have been closed since the pandemic began.

Moore responded to earlier comments from CNN correspondent Stelter, who said: “Whether it’s a major publication or a local newspaper, we need to explain what democratic throwback is and what it looks like and how we see it.

“What are the signs of erosion as they will not always be visible and physical on the steps of the Capitol.

“They usually take place in closed sessions or in smaller hearing rooms or a council where voting rights are withdrawn and whether changes are made to the way votes are counted. All those little steps, you know, that’s all erosion that needs to be documented.”

Collins, a former chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, added: “We’ve all seen the erosion of local journalism in the UK, perhaps not quite as dramatically as in America.

“But local news gathering for newspapers has been severely undermined by the expansion of major technology platforms. And we need to ensure that public service broadcasting has a vibrant role to play in the big tech world.”

The impact Big Tech has had on the prominence, style and survival of local journalism was a recurring theme of the talk.

Collins suggested the government should consider using antitrust laws to undermine tech giants and “create a more level playing field” if it remains the case that their platforms control which publishers see traffic.

The Conservative MP and Chair of Parliament’s Online Safety Bill Committee also reacted to Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries’ announcement that she was looking to find a new funding model for the BBC after their current deal expires in 2027.

Collins said: “I think there are questions for the BBC about the way it is funded and whether in a digital age where people are increasingly used to only paying for what they consume , you know, they have different subscriptions, makes a catch. all paid work? Will younger people in particular still fall back on it?”

“It’s not really clear what the Government’s position is now,” said Labour’s Powell. “But I don’t think things like local news, for which the BBC is really the last local newsroom in most parts of the country, could be under a commercial ethos or an ethos that’s trying to round up subscriptions for any length of time.”

Powell previously said the government was signaling “the end of the BBC as we know it” in a “pathetic” attempt to distract attention from Boris Johnson’s troubles with Downing Street parties.


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