Covid 19 coverage: Financial support for national and regional newspapers

By Claire Meadows

The Covid crisis has reminded people of the value of the media, the Executive Director of the Society of Editors (SoE) has said.

Speaking as part of industry magazine InPublishing’s podcast series, Ian Murray, Executive Director of the press freedom group since 2017, discussed industry funding challenges, the threat of hasty legislation, the effect of Covid-19 and holding politicians to account, the role of the SoE and whether Harry and Meghan now saw themselves as ‘celebrities’ rather than public figures.

On the subject of trust, Murray said that the Covid crisis had seen the industry rally together to serve their communities and that both the public and government had recognised the vital and trusted role that journalists played in keeping people informed.

He said: ““We have had numerous reports to us during the current Covid-19 crisis of newspapers rallying because their local communities have been coming to them and saying “We can’t make head nor tail of this, can you tell us what is going on? […] We trust our local paper” The reports that are coming out are also showing that, in general, that is true also of national newspapers.

“The media has come out of this crisis quite well in respect of trust judging by the surveys that have been done. The media has been providing that information. The government have recognised the role of the media and they have come forward with financial support for national and regional newspapers. I hope and believe that one of the very thin silver linings of this terrible time we are currently going through is that it has reminded people of the value of their local, free and independent media.”

Murray, former editor of the Southern Daily Echo for nearly 20 years and former Editor-in-Chief of Newsquest’s Hampshire titles, said that despite recent recognition, elected officials needed to take more accountability for their habit of undermining the credibility of the industry when dismissing unflattering or unfavourable coverage.

He said: “One of the big roles of the Society is to point the finger at some politicians and those in positions to influence who, on the one hand, quite often say “We believe in a free press and we believe in scrutiny but we don’t believe in a press that attacks us” but then they don’t believe that the press should be free to attack the things that they say. That, they say, is fake news. Ultimately that undermines the credibility of the media when you have people in positions of power saying “that’s all fake news. Don’t believe it”. One of the things we have to do, as an industry, is fight back. As I have already mentioned, one of the very thin silver linings of the crisis is that it has really underscored just how important having a strong media in this country is.”

On the topic of funding mechanisms and initiatives to ensure the viability of the newspaper industry, many had been promising, Murray added.

He said: “We have seen a great amount of success from the local democracy initiative which is funding from the BBC which funds something like 150 local journalists working in the regions. We have something similar – 80 journalists so far – as part of Facebook’s Community News Project. More of the same of that would be quite good. There is a lot of consideration going on around putting more people on the press benches in courts and I believe that inquests are just as important.

On the topic of Harry and Meghan and their relationship with the media, Murray said that news organisations would undoubtedly continue to report on their endeavours on behalf of the public.

He said: “If someone says, “I am not going to talk to you”, you can say, right, I am just going to ignore you but ultimately that just denies the public. That denies them the news and information that they should have. Instead it will be a case of, ok, we are still going to report on you and make it as absolutely accurate as we can. We will still come to you for a comment and we will still offer you the opportunity to speak.

Murray added that the media had continued to cover Harry and Meghan’s charitable work in Los Angeles and that this was unlikely to change.

He added: “I feel that with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex that has been the case and continues to be the case. Even those publications that they are at odds with are still running articles on the good charity work that they are doing. That said, that should never prevent any news organisation from pointing out if they think that there is some hypocrisy here or is this right that this should be going on? For any individual, organisation or body to believe that they can only have nice things written about them and that anything that is critical of them is unwarranted and an intrusion into their privacy, I’m afraid, is on a hiding to nothing.”

Murray, who took over from founding Director Bob Satchwell as head of the Society of Editors in 2017, said that the role of the Society of Editors had evolved in recent years but, it continued, fundamentally, to support the industry and champion the role of the media in keeping the public informed.

He said: “At its heart we are there to campaign on behalf of press freedom, for freedom of expression and the public’s right to know – even if sometimes they don’t want to know – for diversity in the newsrooms, which has been one of our platforms for a long time, and also high standards of training in editorial training.

 “From the Society’s point of view, we can continue to hammer home the message – whether it be from a national, broadcast, regional or local level – the importance of a free and trusted media. It is there to have the checks and balances on local democracy, to ensure we have open justice in this country but it is also there to knit societies and communities together.”

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