MP Condemns Hyperlocal Websites as Purveyors of Tittle Tattle and Opinion


Wednesday, December 9th, 2009. 3:37am


Adrian Sanders MP dismissed websites as 'Tittle Tattle' during a session of the House of Commons' Culture Media and Sport Committee on Tuesday the 8th of December 2009

Adrian Sanders MP dismissed websites as ‘Tittle Tattle’ during a session of the House of Commons’ Culture Media and Sport Committee on Tuesday 8 December 2009.

In a shocking exchange at the House of Commons’ Culture Media and Sport Committee on Tuesday the 8th of December 2009 Adrian Sanders MP (Liberal Democrat, Torbay) dismissed everything that’s online as “tittle tattle” during a debate on “The future for local and regional media”.

In one of his contributions Mr Sanders said:

Most of what’s online is indeed tittle tattle and opinion.

Mr Sanders’ astounding statements came as the committee took evidence from Sion Simon MP in his capicity as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Creative Industries. I have transcribed the exchange below:

Adrian Sanders MP (Liberal Democrat, Torbay)

Good Morning. We’ve been told in this inquiry that up to half of local newspapers could be closed in five years time. What impact do you think that will have on the scrutiny of local democracy?

Sion Simon MP (Labour, Birmingham Erdington)

My personal view is that it is probably unlikely that half of local newspapers would close in five years time. Clearly nobody knows what will happen to the newspaper market in five years time; nobody knows what will happen to particular newspapers. It is clear it is a sector under a lot of pressure; it is clear that a lot of local newspapers have closed in recent years and we’re quite clear that local news is a public good. It is important for our democracy; all our research shows that people value local news and plural sources of local news in our democracy. So if half of local newspapers were to close I think that would be a shame. We should be clear though that it is news that is the public good, rather than newspapers. What is important is that people get access to plural sources of news, across platforms as this market changes. It is not for the government to determine the shape of the future in terms of what percentage of the news market goes on to what platform although we are quite clear that local news is important, local newspapers are important in their communities and, where we can, the government wants to support local newspapers.

Adrian Sanders MP (Liberal Democrat, Torbay)

So you don’t see it as the government’s role to intervene to support local newspapers and local journalists?

Sion Simon MP (Labour, Birmingham Erdington)

It’s the government’s role to make sure that local newspapers have every opportunity, every reasonable opportunity to continue to prosper. We should be clear there are many local newspapers up and down the country which continue to make a good living doing local news, it is not a redundant model, local newspapers still work and clearly with a migration of advertising, particularly classified advertising, online which was a core part of the recent revenue stream of local newspapers at the same time as the global crisis exacerbating and speeding up that trend has put local newspapers under massive pressure. This is still a significant sector with significant strength and as you say it is not the government’s job to intervene directly to prop up regional newspapers, but to give them every opportunity to carry on doing what many of them have been doing very successfully.


Sion Simon MP speaking during a session of the House of Commons' Culture Media and Sport Committee on Tuesday 8 December  2009

Sion Simon MP speaking during a session of the House of Commons’ Culture Media and Sport Committee on Tuesday 8 December 2009

Adrian Sanders MP (Liberal Democrat, Torbay)

You seam to be saying “Crisis? What crisis?” but that is the terminology which has been used in the evidence we have been given. The local newspaper industry is in crisis. Clare Engles (?) came up with the figure of half of the 1,300 local newspapers closing. The chief executives of Trinity Mirror and Johnston Press both insisted it is the worst crisis they have ever faced. So there’s an air of complacency.

Sion Simon MP (Labour, Birmingham Erdington)

There’s no complacency. I am quite clear local newspapers have suffered some massive declines and are under a lot of pressure. That’s not a matter for dispute. The structure of the market in response to technological change has radically altered and local newspapers are having to radically alter. In Birmingham the Birmingham post is now a weekly paper, the Birmingham mail is now a morning paper that’s an example of Trinity Mirror changing the way it does business, changing the offering to fit the economics of the new environment but still producing two very good products …

Adrian Sanders MP (Liberal Democrat, Torbay)

The question was about the scrutiny of local democracy. Now if you’ve got a newspaper that’s gone to weekly, who is now going into the council meetings, who is going in every day to scrutinise what’s going on in the local court. Who is keeping an eye out on what’s happening in the business world in a local community. It can’t be done on one day a week as well as it could have been done six days a week.

Sion Simon MP (Labour, Birmingham Erdington)

The answer to that in the specific case of Birmingham is that its daily paper which is doing the daily job and the weekly paper is doing a more discursive job, particularly aimed at the business community, which you couldn’t previously do as a daily paper. But the other answer is that a lot of this work is being done and will be done in the future … before I say that let’s get this clear a lot of this work will continue to be done by local newspapers. It’s not complacent for me to say that there are still very large numbers of local newspapers producing great products doing great work holding government and local government to account. The vast majority of reporting on local councils is still done by local newspapers. Let’s not just right the whole sector off as if it’s disappearing down the plug-hole because it’s not; it’s under a lot of pressure but there are still a lot of people there doing a lot of good work. But in the future that stuff will also be done in new places. Who will go to the council? Hyper-local news-sites like Pits n Pots in Stoke on Trent will go to the council meetings – as they do. Stoke on Trent has got a successful local newspaper but it also has a very successful hyperlocal news site in Pits n Pots who, if you want to know, what’s happening in the council and behind the back stairs in the council and everything to do with local government in Stoke on Trent you’re at least as likely to go to Pits n Pots as you are to go to the Stoke Sentinel.

Adrian Sanders MP (Liberal Democrat, Torbay) – Interrupts

I’m not convinced.

Sion Simon MP (Labour, Birmingham Erdington)

The point here is that it is news that’s important and it’s scrutiny of democracy that’s important to the citizen and we need to be clear that as it migrates from one platform it migrates sometimes onto another…

Adrian Sanders MP (Liberal Democrat, Torbay) – Interrupts

But it’s not news, it’s just tittle tattle, which is what you appear to be describing as the alternative to the Stoke Sentinel which you’ve just mentioned.

Sion Simon MP (Labour, Birmingham Erdington)

Have you read Pits n Pots?

Adrian Sanders MP (Liberal Democrat, Torbay)

No [Disdainfully]

Sion Simon MP (Labour, Birmingham Erdington)

It’s frankly a bit rich of you to dismiss it as tittle tattle if you don’t know anything about it.

Adrian Sanders MP (Liberal Democrat, Torbay)

It’s a website

Sion Simon MP (Labour, Birmingham Erdington)

That doesn’t make it ….. You think that anything that’s online is tittle tattle?

Adrian Sanders MP (Liberal Democrat, Torbay)

I think, most of it …

Sion Simon MP (Labour, Birmingham Erdington)

I think that’s a ridiculous view.

Adrian Sanders MP (Liberal Democrat, Torbay)

Most of what’s online is indeed tittle tattle, and opinion.

Sion Simon MP (Labour, Birmingham Erdington)

That’s just nonsense and a ridiculous view

Adrian Sanders MP (Liberal Democrat, Torbay)

It’s as ridiculous as being complacent about newspapers.

Sion Simon MP (Labour, Birmingham Erdington)

I’m not being complacent. If you think that everything that’s on the internet is tittle tattle then that’s not a serious discussion. Pits n Pots is a very serious community website that does a really good job, done by volunteers, not for money, taking it very seriously, doing a very impressive product and you should find out about it before you criticise it.

I have transcribed from the pretty inaccessible video at : http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=5319. At the time of writing an official transcript has not been published online.

My Views

The media play a very important role in democracy. I think local democratic decision making suffers greatly from a lack of easily accessible information about what elected representatives, local magistrates and judges, health chiefs and police authority appointees get up to.

Here in Cambridge the public bodies themselves are a big part of the problem. Neither the city or county council, or the police authority, or NHS trusts make videos of their proceedings available online and in practice only councillors are even able to take photographs. Many important decisions are taken behind closed doors, either in secret sessions or in party meetings. The NHS trust considers publishing hard copy glossy booklets more important than getting the information they contain online.

Many meetings aren’t publicised, and minutes and decision notices are typically weeks or even months late in being produced and are very hard to access. The courts are even worse than the councils; there is generally no way of knowing when particular cases are going to be tried.

Given easier access to information I suspect many more people would actively participate in the scrutiny of local democracy and the quality of what the professionals produce would be increased too. Judging by the number of news stories which came out of one day I spent in court it appears there’s a lot going unreported.

One consequence I believe this has is people vote on the basis of national party allegiance even when electing local councillors. I think that if more was known about what individual local councillors did, and didn’t, do more voters would be better informed and able to elect representatives better able to reflect their views.

While I value the press highly I don’t think there’s any need for government intervention to prop up local newspapers to enable them to continue in their current form. Locally it is easy to see how, given their content, the Cambridge News website could, take on a much larger role than they do currently; there needs to be competitive, or economic pressure to drive that improvement. government subsidy will not provide that.

There is a demand for local news, comment, debate and discussion. Local newspaper websites may be one of the locations where that demand is met in the future; but newly emerging sites, local sections of national newspaper or broadcasters’ websites as well local authority and even elected representatives’ sites all also have the potential to provide what people want in the way of local engagement. The web makes it easier for people to compete with the established players; the last thing those offering innovative products need is the government spending tax payers’ money on propping up a sector not, in some places, changing itself fast enough to keep up with its customers.

Dodgy Blog

As for the Liberal Democrat MP dismissing material posted on the internet; that happens on a local level too. Cambridge City Councillor Colin Rosensteil has described my website as a “dodgy blog”. That prompted some discussion and helped bring in a couple of new readers.

8 comments/updates on “MP Condemns Hyperlocal Websites as Purveyors of Tittle Tattle and Opinion

  1. Brian Johnson

    It all comes down to the costs of production.

    Each individual copy of a newspaper costs the publisher a certain amount.

    For a dead-trees version, the initial costs are vast, running costs are huge and individual copy costs are significant.

    For an on-line version, the initial costs are moderate, running costs small and individual copy costs tiny.

    Which business model looks like a dinosaur?

    Oh, as does Adrian Sanders MP.

  2. Chris Rand

    “Now if you’ve got a newspaper that’s gone to weekly, who is now going into the council meetings, who is going in every day to scrutinise what’s going on in the local court?”

    …not 90% of local newspapers, that’s for sure. If they justify their lack of coverage of local council activities by saying it’s not something that sells newspapers, that’s a fair and commercial decision. But for anyone to claim that local papers do go into council meetings or scrutinise what’s going on in the local court is a joke. “Citizen journalism” may be less reliable than local newspapers in many ways, but when it’s good (like this blog), it provides more of a public service than the newspapers have ever done, and we all know how uncomfortable that’s going to make those in power.

  3. David Hollingsbee

    The main story in today’s Cambridge News is that the letter “N” of the world “ONLY” has been painted the wrong way round on one of the guided bus signs.

    Presumably this is the case in both the printed and the online versions.

    An online comment which has been posted under the story reads: “Any chance of some real news please?”

  4. Colin in Cardiff

    I’m only here because I was so astounded by Mr Saunders comments when I heard them on Yesterday in Parliament yesterday. He truly is a fool.

    There will be more of this though – there’s a very close relationship between politicians and the press, particularly an MP and his/her local paper, so they’re bound to lobby for them.

    I largely agree with what Mr Rand says above but would go further – actually taking an active interest in, or God-forbid, participating in our democracy (whether it be local or national) is the province of a tiny, tiny minority of the people of this country. It’s sad, but we do, by and large have the democracy we deserve, which is not a very good one.

    I have no idea how to change this, or what the – no doubt very complex – reasons for it are, but, if newspapers are to get some sort of subsidy – it’s certainly under serious discussion in Wales – then I would like to see them set some very, very tough rules on what they do.

    The press has had a far too easy ride in almost every way imaginable and it is to a large extent a disgrace – local and national. They keep saying ‘freedom of the press’ and ‘scrutinising democracy’ as if saying it, or the fact that it would indeed be a good thing, means they are actually doing it.

  5. David Vincent

    Whatever happens with the local press model, I do not see that we will return to the days of the specialist Court reporter, or even the specialist reporter on Council affairs. It is this level of detail that is important. I read (in The Guardian I think) that the government is proposing to list on-line the convictions in local courts. Clearly, this is only a very small part of what matters in Court proceedings. If it becomes increasingly clear that no one is interested in justice or democracy functioning in public, then the excuse for them to function behind closed doors is already in place.

  6. Richard Article author

    Mr Sanders has responded to a request from Pits n Pots for an interview to say:

    In select committees MPs ask questions of the witnesses, not the other way round. In this case the witness was the Minister responsible for Creative Industries. From his answers it appeared to me that he has time to surf the net, but not help prevent the closure of local newspapers and the loss of skilled jobs. In that context when compared to a local newspaper most of what appears on the web is tattle-tattle and opinion.

    That is not the same as saying a particular website is tittle-tattle and opinion, although as if to make my case for me a couple of websites have published their own opinions that the exchange was me expressing that view. Had they been present, or watched the entire exchange, they would have realised I was commenting generally in a heated exchange with the Minister.

  7. martin brown

    HI would like mps to look into bad weather ,icy paths .my wife fell on the foot path ,at TAN LANE in STOURPORT ON SEVERN . On block pathing is council have used to identefy egde of path or crossing piont for the blind.these block are deadly when icy .the council have used concret slabs on the otherside of the road .Could someone take the time to look in this deathtrap created by councils
    thanks
    martin
    PS if this has been sent to wrong adrress could you please pass to ALL MPs as to find local MPs email adress is almost inpossible to the public .

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