Linking localism and the phone hacking story

This article was originally published by Total Politics.

It isn’t just immigration, public services and housing. The coalition’s localising policy informs the debate about the media too, as we explore the tension beaten localisation and cosmopolitanism

With each twist and revelation the News International phone hacking scandal takes on a greater life as a political event in and of itself. It would be glib to deny its particularity or the moral agency of the people involved, but it is nonetheless interesting to consider it within the broader context of changes to the way we all consume, share and even produce news.

The threats posed to big media corporations by the internet are familiar. They include the challenge that free and easily sharable material poses to old business models and the way in which a host of new actors: bloggers, citizen journalists and activists, are jostling to fill the spaces traditionally  occupied by professional journalists. A recent feature in The Economist argued that new technology was making the news a social medium again as it had been until the early nineteenth century. But as well as re-socialisation of news we are also seeing a re-localisation of it.

Hyperlocal websites, now numbering in their thousands, have been popping up in communities around the UK. Ranging from neighbourhood forums to parish newsletters, these sites are increasingly places where people turn to find out, publish and share news about what’s happening in their community. Moreover, research suggests that these sites are adding democratic value to society in a way that many mainstream papers struggle to match with two thirds of users feeling more able to influence decisions locally.

This reflects a wider ‘relocalisation’ of the web. Much of the internet’s momentum until now has been about the eradication of geography but new(ish) developments – hyperlocal and community websites, geo-location tagging and local, open data – are all about engaging with place and with where people are (often with where they are right now).

This has its dangers of course, Cass Sunstein and Eli Pariser have both written about the way in which the web’s logic of connection and recommendation can limit our cognitive horizons confining us to a bubble of inputs that are similar to the things we already know and like. Similarly we would not want a world in which our news horizons did not extend beyond our immediate neighbourhoods. And of course it’s too soon to write off the traditional press: newspaper circulation may be falling in the developed world but it’s rising massively in the new economies.

So while we need a balance, the re-emergence of local news nonetheless represents a shift in the centre of gravity away from centralised control and towards a diversity and granularity that the big media companies inevitably struggle to provide.

This tension beaten localisation and cosmopolitanism is one of the key challenges of our time and we see it playing out in a number of contemporary issues: in debates about immigration, in debates about choice and diversity in public services and how they’re funded (central for example to Eric Pickles’s announcements about the localisation of business rates yesterday). At local government level we see it particularly in the dilemma between strategic planning and bottom up ‘big society’ localism.

News media is just one of the edges in this debate, but in this sense it does seem appropriate perhaps to see the phone hacking scandal as being symptomatic of a much larger process that it may yet help to accelerate.

Jonathan Carr-West is policy director at LGiU. You can follow him on Twitter here.