A major campaign aimed at highlighting the importance of independent local media has received backing from local Councillors.
Councillors from different parties spoke of the importance of the ‘Fourth Estate’ in Derry and the north west, ahead of a campaign being rolled out during Local News Matters Week from March 24 to April 1.
Local representatives from the National Union of Journalists gave a presentation to Derry & Strabane Council’s Governance & Strategic Planning Committee at its March meeting in the Guildhall on Tuesday.
NUJ Derry & North West Darach MacDonald told the committee: “As the Fourth estate, the press has a vital role in public life, informing the public of political and other events, while also holding government accountable to the people who elected it.
“To do that effectively, however, requires strong, independent and adequately resourced local media outlets.”
Mr MacDonald expressed concern over the “rapid decline” in staffing levels at media outlets across Ireland and the UK, and cited episodes in England where newspapers have been shut down overnight.
“That is of huge concern to the NUJ and it should be of equal concern to you as elected representatives of our community who need the media to do your job effectively,” Mr MacDonald said.
He said that the Local News Matters campaign was calling for a parliamentary inquiry into the state of local news, while also calling for local newspapers to be recognised as community assets.
The NUJ is also calling for new rules which would mean media outlets across Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales could be offered to potential new owners and co-operatives rather than being “closed overnight”.
Action by government and employers “to stem the relentless job cuts”, is also being called for, along with increased investment, from a range of sources, to safeguard the future of quality local journalism.
“Our campaign aims to reclaim a vital, vigorous press that is at the heart of the community it serves and is owned and operated in the public interest,” Mr MacDonald said.
Fellow NUJ branch officer Felicity McCall said: “We realise what a valuable life-line local papers are for the community and that is something to be maintained.”
SDLP Councillor John Boyle said that these were challenging times for “the Fourth Estate”.
“Obviously there are challenges and also opportunities in relation to the proliferation of online content,” he said, adding;
“We all have broad dealings with the media on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. I would commend the local media for their diligence and hard work, and I experience that regularly.
“Very clearly we are very supportive of you aims and objectives and we are 100% behind you,” he told the union representatives.
Sinn Fein Councillor Mickey Cooper said his party was also supportive of the campaign.
Colr. Cooper said for his party in historical terms, the local press were “absolutely key” during an era when a lot of media outlets, particularly those coming from England, showed reluctance to interview party members.
Colr. Cooper said that journalism strived to represent all views “without fear or favour”, but he said that the centralisation of newspapers created issues around how independent journalists could.
“The whole idea of investigative journalism has to be allowed to thrive and continue; and the whole idea of editorial independence is absolutely key,” he said.
Also supporting the call, Independent Councillor Paul Gallagher said: “As an Independent Councillor I think it is important the local media exist, particularly to hear the smaller voices- it’s not just about the big parties all the time.”
Independent Councillor Gary Donnelly said it was important to draw a distinction between the local press and some of the tabloids.
“Without the local press for smaller parties and independents it would be very difficult to get messages out. In my dealings with the local press I have always found them to be very courteous and professional. They do a difficult job, particularly in politics, were you can’t please everyone,” he said.
Derek Hussey, UUP Councillor made reference to a “close family member” whose “private family life” had been publicised, adding that such situations created difficulties.
He said however that he had close friends who were journalists and had great respect for many media figures, adding that the local press were very important and of mutual benefit to elected representatives.
Mr MacDonald concluded that it was “wonderful” to hear the support from the local Council and said he looked forward to that being formalised in the near future.