Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The curious incident of the dog-owner in the early morning Into the last mile of an early hour’s run last Saturday, I passed through a wicket onto fenced common land. The field is about a mile in perimeter and mainly used by dog-walkers plus a few other runners. I found the gate unfastened (there is a rather pointless leather strap that can be used to hold it in position) and I left it so, as it is more often than not. Fifty metres further on I heard a bellowing accusation, directed at me – ‘You might have shut the gate…’ I pointed out that I’d left it as I’d found it. There followed a torrent of abuse, extraordinarily loud for 06.35 in the morning. Amongst it all was the instruction, whatever the circumstances, to fasten the gate shut out of ‘respect for the public’. (That’s a subject I can claim to know a little about, but this feller wasn’t to know that. In that context, he provided a tidy example of anti-social behaviour in the public realm). He stomped off, telling me to fuck off. Bemused, I congratulated him on being sufficiently grown up to be able to swear at people. There are two other gates to the field, neither of which has a fastening. It’s possible he feared a marauding horde of fierce peasants from the estates of the nearby town, I really don’t know. But the self-evident folly of his attitude seemed to illustrate perfectly the arrogant, superior middle-class middle-England conviction that it is the right of the Haves to tell others how to behave, whatever the context. It was like a local echo of the Westminster approach to Scotland. I often puzzle over whether this is a universal phenomenon across time and geography. My experience from time spent in other countries suggests it is: but in England, with our centuries of pretend (and pretentious) imperial dominance, people do it better – with more emphasis, more conviction, more individual presumption of their own superiority. It seems such a shame.
What to do about local community information? What’s needed to re-invigorate local democracy? Well we could start with an honest assessment of the state of local community information, and who contributes to it. Some years ago Hugh Flouch and I ran an unconference at Ofcom for people interested and involved in local online networks (sometimes unhelpfully called ‘hyperlocals’) in London. A number of recommendations emerged for modest pieces of work – e.g. around standards, training in journalism and editing etc – which wouldn’t have required much funding to ensure they happened. As far as I know no funding was secured and none of this work was ever carried forward. Despite the early enthusiasm and promise, and many remarkable examples of good practice, the local online networks movement can hardly be described as being in rude health; and I’m sure there is much reinvention of wheels. Meanwhile the state of local information provision around the country is dire. A new paper by Martin Moore for the Media Standards Trust notes that around the country, local council meetings now regularly go unattended and unreported. Moore argues that: Innovation in local news and information is urgently needed to address the decline in local newspapers and to help support and reinvent local news and community information for the 21st century Without such reinvention we risk weakening our civic communities and our local authorities becoming unaccountable There is a window of opportunity for the UK government to seed, through an independently run competition at no cost to the taxpayer, a flowering of innovation in news and information and civic technology at a local level The opportunity for innovation and growth will decline as non-UK technology platforms further colonise local media space. There's a little hyperbole here - local authorities won't suddenly become 'unaccountable' - but the argument is sound. I would have preferred less emphasis on competitive funding schemes, which have arbitrary effects, and more on (i) small-scale targetted grants that add value across the sector; and (ii) the social, economic and governmental benefits of involving more citizens in the production of their own news and the discussion of their own issues. I’ve recently been designing a questionnaire survey to be administered at a local level in east York, for a JRF-funded project. Among the questions we’ll be asking will be a few about local channels of information – how important are they? do local people contribute to them? and could local people be contributing to them more? Is a local resident-run website likely to encourage community involvement in local issues, or discourage it? Would it make for a more positive sense of local identity or a more negative one? By taking a non-tech, community development approach to such questions we may gain insights that will be valuable in re-invigorating the neighbourhood online networks movement: that certainly seems to be needed.

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