Welsh actor Michael Sheen has offered to support anyone who wants to start a local news service in either of Wales’ major news gaps.
Sheen, who is from Port Talbot, also called on politicians to extend financial support for local news outlets during the Covid-19 crisis to hyperlocal titles which are currently missing out.
Speaking on a panel for Bureau Local about the importance of local news yesterday as part of its Change the Story initiative, Sheen said that in 1970 the town of Port Talbot had five local newspapers and 11 reporters.
Now there are none based either in the county of Neath Port Talbot or Pembrokeshire, he said.
Sheen, who has funded research into the issue of local news and democracy in his hometown, said: “In Port Talbot we have no local reporting, so if knowledge is power we’re incredibly powerless here and you can see the ripple effect of that in all kinds of ways.
“If you’re not getting accurate information from some trusted source then you’re going to get information from all over the place.”
He added: “It is truly frightening, the idea that if you don’t have reliable sources of information, [if] you don’t have representation, your community’s voice isn’t represented and you can’t hold people in power to account and scrutiny, then you have no power – and people will deal with that in different ways.”
Sheen, who once played a journalist in the film Frost/Nixon, said he is “looking at investing and support things that create revenue streams for all local journalists”.
He wants to help find a sustainable model that isn’t reliant on Government money as “inevitably it’s going to affect reporting if you’re worried that your funding is going to be cut”.
Offering his help, he said: “Anyone in Pembrokeshire or the Neath Port Talbot area if you want to dive into this and try to start something up, I will help you.”
Nonetheless, Sheen still urged the Government, and the Welsh Government in particular, to extend financial support to hyperlocal titles.
In March, three-quarters of independent news providers in the UK feared having to temporarily or permanently close because of the coronavirus crisis.
The Treasury has spent at least £35m on advertising with national, regional and local print media during the crisis, but hyperlocal titles were not included in the scheme.
On why local news is important, Sheen said: “Every single community needs to be able to have access to accurate information about the community and what’s happening in it.
“Every single community needs to feel that their voice is represented and every single community needs to feel that the people in authority who are making decisions that affect that community’s life are held to scrutiny and are accountable.
“And without those three things that community becomes disengaged, completely understandably, from the democratic process, becomes frustrated, starts to get its news from unreliable sources, feels incredibly angry and alienated by not being represented, and the people in authority know that they can get away with anything.”
But he added that it could be “even more dangerous” to have “zombie” local news titles that are produced in towns or cities many miles away as local voices are not represented and too much content comes from press releases.
“In some ways that’s the more dangerous thing, people feeling like there is a local paper… out there, but if the only voices that you hear in that news are coming from high status people, people who are already in authority, people who are in power, it doesn’t matter then if there’s a local paper – in fact it makes it potentially more dangerous,” he said.
The BBC gender and identity correspondent Megha Mohan and Reach data journalist Annie Gouk were also on the panel, which can be watched here.
Picture: ITV/This Morning