Thanks to the BBC scheme, local democracy is back in the news, says Neil Merrick

hen Eddie Bisknell began reporting on local authorities in Derbyshire two years ago, he got used to caustic remarks from councillors who were familiar with press seats staying empty during meetings.

Eyes on the tow W

public interest journalism was flagged up in last year’s Cairncross review. “Scrutiny committees are exactly the sort of meetings we need a presence at,” says Higgerson. “The whole point of the LDR scheme is to have reporters shed a spotlight on meetings that take place in public.” The distribution of LDRs has caused some anomalies. While

But within a few months, he was part of the furniture, with

councillors joking he attended more meetings than they did. For years, councils in Derbyshire had been subject to little

scrutiny. “If there was scrutiny, it was from a distance,” says Bisknell, local democracy reporter for the county council and four lower-tier authorities. “Reporters were not in the room face to face with councillors.” But that changed in 2018, when the first local democracy reporters (LDRs) were appointed in Derbyshire and elsewhere under a scheme funded by the BBC and backed by regional publishers. Bisknell is now one of about 150 LDRs in the UK, providing copy for a range of media but based mostly at local papers. He is employed by the Derby Telegraph. Bisknell stresses that councillors are not afraid of scrutiny. “They’ll often ask me afterwards if I want further information,” he says. At the heart of the scheme is a desire that journalists attend meetings and uncover stories that council press officers are less inclined to publicise. NHS trusts, clinical commissioning groups and police and crime commissioners also come under the LDR’s responsibility – where time allows. While their salaries are paid by the BBC, the reporters are

recruited by a publisher or other media organisation and under contract to them. Each is assigned a council or group of councils, with most attention given to county and unitary councils (including London and metropolitan boroughs). Stories are circulated to a range of media, including TV and radio, which have equal access to all copy. Matthew Barraclough, BBC head of local news partnerships,

is pleased to see journalists witnessing what happens in council chambers first hand. “Councillors make impassioned speeches and, until recently, nobody was there to hear it.” About 950 media organisations take stories from LDRs. An appraisal carried out by the BBC last September showed that 99 per cent of stories filed by LDRs over a four-day period were used at least once. Just over one third of LDRs are directly employed by Reach.

David Higgerson, its chief audience officer, says the scheme enables journalists to report stories that might escape attention and cover a wider range of committees and panels. The decline in reporting local government and other

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two reporters share responsibility for Sheffield Council (see boxes), LDRs in London typically cover three boroughs each. Barraclough is keen that the workload of LDRs in the capital is examined in a review over the coming months. “I would like London to be much better covered and for more LDRs to attend meetings of district councils in two-tier areas.” Leigh Boobyer, the LDR for Gloucestershire, sees the

importance of covering district councils. “They provide the services that are closer to home,” he says. “Readers care about their bin collections and whether they could be changed to every three weeks.” Boobyer also has opportunities to work off diary. In 2018,

he was tipped off that staff maintaining vehicles at Gloucestershire Constabulary made money by selling tyres online. This was confirmed following an FOI request. “It came through a contact who knew me because I went to council meetings,” he says. More than 30 LDRs are employed by JPI titles (previously

‘They know we understand politics’

WHEN Lucy Ashton returned to reporting on Sheffield City Council two years ago, it was as if she had never been away. “A lot of councillors were

the same. Meetings were the same. Even the receptionist,” says Ashton, who was political editor of the Sheffield Star until 2010. Following her departure,

the post disappeared, and council coverage dwindled. The Star would generally send a reporter only to

meetings of the full council and then, perhaps, for only a few main items.. Now councillors are

used to seeing Ashton or her colleague Molly Williams, another LDR, at most meetings. “We have the luxury – if

you can call it that – of sitting through a meeting of the planning committee for five hours,” she adds. Another benefit, says

Ashton, is councillors who call the paper know they can speak to a journalist who

understands political topics. “We meet them for coffee. It’s good to build up a trust and rapport,” she says. Unlike 10 years ago,

Ashton is under pressure to provide video and audio for broadcasters that take her copy. It can be difficult to keep tabs on whether this material is used by TV or radio stations. She and Williams also

provide stories for the Yorkshire Post. “You need to be disciplined

and write a story to the length you think it’s worth,” says Ashton. “Then you let the news editor cut it to a nib or get another reporter to expand it.”

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