Do we get the media we deserve? That was the theme of a very interesting debate which I went along to last week. It was organised by Liverpool Parish Church as part of a series of Lent Talks
One of the speakers was Alastair Machray, editor of the Liverpool Echo. He came under fire from the audience over the heavy emphasis which his paper places on crime stories. This was understandable since it is rare indeed for the front page of the Echo to feature anything other than a shooting, an armed robbery or a drugs bust.
To his credit, Machray defended his actions with refreshing honesty by stating that he was simply giving the public what they want. He made the point that sales drop by 16 per cent on days when he uses a non crime story as front page lead.
Of course, this situation is by no means unique to Liverpool. Take a look at the front page of any tabloid newspaper anywhere in Britain and you will see that crime stories dominate. Perhaps the late US writer H L Mencken got it right when he wrote that “nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the public.”
However, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact local newspapers are vital to the social, political and economic wellbeing of the community. That’s why in his budget this week the Chancellor announced that he was looking at ways of helping local papers with tax-breaks. This looks likely to take the form of reducing the amount which publishers pay in business rates rather than any direct Government subsidy.
We need to remember that local newspapers are commercial businesses which have to make a profit in order to survive. The loss of readers, and much needed advertising revenue, to online media means that newspapers publishers across the country are struggling to sell copies of their papers.
So, do we get the media we deserve? The answer seems to be that we get the media which the marketplace dictates. While many of us may feel a bit uncomfortable at having our local paper filled with reports of shootings and stabbings, we may need to accept the fact that the alternative is not having a local paper.