Local democracy in peril, warns Leicester academic

The threat to local democracy in the UK is the subject of a video interview with a University of Leicester academic on a top UK politics website.

Tor Clark, a former newspaper editor and political journalist and now Associate Professor in Journalism, was interviewed by Politics.co.uk about his research into the coverage of local politics by the UK’s regional newspapers.

He warned of ‘a serious and negative impact’ on democracy at a local level.

Professor Clark said:

“When I was a reporter I spent many hours attending council meetings, reporting what councillors said and did about important local issues. That happens less and less now, with a serious and negative impact on the way local people are informed about their communities. I have called it ‘the local democratic deficit’.”

The video interview followed the publication of Tor’s latest research, ‘From The Silent Watchdog to the Lost Watchdog: The decline of the UK regional press’ coverage of local government over 40 years’ featured in the academic journal Media History.

Professor Clark, who is programme director of the university's BA Journalism in the School of Media, Communication and Sociology, added:

“The big issue with declining coverage of local councils, is that if local people don’t know what’s been decided in their name in their area, how can they make a decision on who to vote for in local elections? This sort of lack of information therefore damages local democracy and local society.

“The arrival of BBC Local Democracy Reporters in the last year or so has been a positive development, but despite the efforts of many excellent journalists, the local press no longer covers what is decided by local councils in the comprehensive way it did in the recent past and I believe that is having a negative impact on local communities.”

In the interview Tor was asked whether lack of coverage could allow local government corruption to thrive.

He said: “The regional press used to scrutinise local government on behalf of the people who paid for it and voted for it, because it was difficult for individual citizens to do this.

“This scrutiny led to a number of high-level corruption scandals. If local government is not being as well scrutinised, it means corruption can develop unchecked, and that must be worrying.”