Guardian blogger and now Kemp Town community reporter for the Brighton Argus, Roy Greenslade, has talked about journalism as a public service before – but he never quite says what he thinks it means.
In a comment on one of his recent posts about hyperlocalism, Roy suggests a familiar slogan: public services not private profit. Which I applaud.
As I note in the comments, in these times when even the least conscious among us can see how privatisation and deregulation have failed to deliver the benefits we were promised they would, it makes perfect sense to be talking about this.
But I wonder what Roy means by it. Public services are not services provided by members of the public for free – which is the sense I get when some people talk about hyperlocal news providers. And services paid for by advertising, or a reliance on other commercial considerations, are not public services.
Naturally, the more the private sector becomes involved, the less possible it is to maintain the ethos of public service, for obvious reasons – public services don’t discriminate; private services do because owners can’t turn a profit from providing services for people less inclined or less able to pay for them.
Public services need public servants, paid for by some form of public levy – be it taxation to pay for teachers, nurses and jobcentre staff etc, or on a more blurred distinction, the licence fee to pay for BBC reporters. The creep of commercialism in the BBC, which BBC worker and NUJ Left activist Becky Branford discussed at our media ownership public meeting in February, coincides dangerously with the constant attacks on the licence fee from other commercial media.
So, I’d like to understand more about what Roy means when he talks about journalism as a public service. Because I think he has a point, but it needs to be fleshed out.
Among the considerations are: How do we define journalism as a public service? Who is providing the service? Crucially, who is paying them to provide it? Is it free at the point of use? How is it controlled? Is it regulated? And if journalists are public servants, how do we hold them to account?
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