Champion of local causes, campaigner for the weak and teller of tales about 12ft sunflowers, 10lb babies and the council’s latest money-saving scheme.
Local newspapers like The Star have been telling it like it is for more than 125 years – it’s our 126th anniversary in June – and this week Local Newspaper Week celebrates the role of our paper in our community.
Seen as a vital check on the powers of elected officials, watchdog of our rights and a key source of local information, The Star and Telegraph – like hundreds of other papers across the country – are proud of our role. But there lurks a growing threat to our freedom, a sense that we may be sleepwalking into censorship.
Local papers are in danger of being punished for the misdemeanours of a few national tabloids that brought about the Leveson inquiry with the phone-tapping scandal in which victims of crime as well as celebrities had their phones hacked by unscrupulous journalists.
The Government-backed Royal Charter has been submitted to the Privy Council Office and is due to be presented to the Queen by the Lord President of the Privy Council, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg at the end of the month along with the alternative and independent charter put forward by the newspaper industry.
The independent version – which has the support of most national, regional and local newspapers – is currently open for comment on the Privy Council website until May 23.
Our politicians are keen to go down the route of the Government sponsored charter. A position questioned by Star Editor Jeremy Clifford who believes that way lies trouble for small newspapers and local democracy. He said: “My fear is that our local MPs simply do not understand the effect that the Government-sponsored charter will have on local newspapers. They all think that local newspapers have nothing to be concerned about but they do because the original Royal Charter does not meet the concerns raised by Leveson who wanted to insure that local newspapers were not adversely affected by the solution proposed.
“I would want people to understand the real threat that the Government-sponsored Royal Commission could pose to the Sheffield Star and Telegraph and to much smaller newspapers,
“Smaller papers do not have the wherewithal to deal with claims against them like national newspapers do. They will therefore pull back from running more contentious articles and affect our role in democracy in bringing people to account because of the fear we would not be able to cope with the administrative burden of a tribunal and the financial implications that it raises.
“We have lobbied our MPs and we want our readers to understand the impact the original Royal Charter could have on their right to know. It is important that the press have a voice and that readers understand the implications for smaller publications.”
Deputy Prime Minister and Sheffield Hallam MP Nick Clegg’s office declined to comment on the charter but Mr Clegg did praise the role of The Star, saying: “Local Newspaper Week is a celebration of the importance of local and regional newspapers to thriving local communities and democratic accountability.
“The thoroughly deserved high levels of trust readers have in their local newspapers are the envy of other parts of the media.People still want to engage with the world they know best – the area around them. Local newspapers provide that, and much more, with incisive reporting, great writing, and good humour – not least inThe Star.”
Sheffied Central MP Paul Blomfield said: “Local newspapers play a vital role in our democracy. It’s a job that The Star does well. I’m just sorry some of national tabloids have abused their power. But the new independent regulation agreed by all parties in Parliament will restore the balance in favour of ordinary people.”
Penistone and Stocksbridge MP Angela Smith said: “The proposed Royal Charter would create a new independent voluntary system of self-regulation. Its code would set high ethical standards alongside a complaints procedure which would be accessible and fair. The new system should also have real teeth to ensure protection and redress for all citizens.
Sheffield Heeley MP Megg Munn praised The Star but said she preferred the original Royal Charter.
“Local newspapers like The Star are very important because they provide a level of news for people they would otherwise not get,” she said. “Regarding Leveson I think things have got so bad that regulation needs underpinning but I don’t think there is anything to fear for local newspapers.
“Broadcasters have regulation and it doesn’t stop them. I have read Jeremy Clifford’s letter but I don’t agree. I don’t think local newspapers have anything to fear.”
Sheffield South East MP Clive Betts said: “I don’t think the public are prepared to trust the tabloids after what happened with phone hacking.I think Leveson was balanced and sensible and I think that there is a place for local newspapers.”
How the two charters differ
Both plans envisage a Royal Charter establishing a recognition body but there are several key differences:
No newspaper or magazine has signed up to the Government charter which was agreed between politicians and the Hacked Off lobby group. The new press charter – backed by the Star, Telegraph, other Johnston Press publications – was agreed after weeks of talks with politians and civil servants. Most newspapers and magazines support it.
The Government charter can be changed only by a two-thirds majority of both Houses of Parliament. The press version excludes politicians, but gives independent members of the recognition panel and the regulatory board a veto over any changes. Under the Government charter the industry is obliged to set up a free arbitraion service that regional papers fear is wide open to exploitation by ambulance-chasing lawyers. n The press version allows the industry to set up a pilot scheme to ensure it works.
The Government charter gives the new regulator control over the Editors’ Code, one part of the current system that received no criticism from Leveson. In the press version it remains independent of the regulator.
The press plan would include a public consultation to allow newspaper and magazine readers to have their say, which is not being offered under the cross-party plan.
The press say their charter delivers what Lord Leveson called for: ‘voluntary independent self-regulation’. They argue that the Government version, which would be imposed on editors, would be neither voluntary nor independent.