Democracy, trust & the media
Standards in public life are in decline while rising income and wealth inequality, conflict over the role of the public sector, fake news and digital media echo chamber effects have helped populists win influence and power.
A democratic deficit has grown while trust in our institutions and civic engagement, particularly among young people, has reached an historic low.
Our political system is proving unfit for purpose just as we most need it to respond to a new class of super-wicked problems.
These not only require many people to change their views and behaviour, but demand urgent resolution despite there being no central authority to deal with them.
The decisions of those in leadership positions are often also their cause.
Exeter must confront a cluster of such cross-sector, multi-stakeholder problems covering housing and education, health and social care, transport and mobility and economic and social justice.
At the same time the city declaims itself as a “global leader in addressing the social, economic and environmental challenges of climate change and urbanisation” despite the many ways in which it is anything but.
If reality is to match rhetoric, profound change must take place.
However Exeter City Council became what the Electoral Reform Society calls a “one party council” last year, having been overwhelmingly controlled by the same political party since 2012.
Devon County Council has been in this state, under the same leader, since 2009.
Academic research has shown that this greatly increases the likelihood of corruption, cronyism and spending decisions which offer poor value for public money.
The city council has outsourced governance to unelected boards and policy-making to unaccountable organisations, undermined decision-making scrutiny and transparency and defied local government guidelines and legislation.
Major problems remain unaddressed while those in leadership roles disregard available solutions, present counterproductive outcomes as positive change and ignore the wishes of residents in making decisions which will adversely affect the city for decades to come.
“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want published; everything else is public relations.”
Often misattributed to George Orwell
Civil society and democratic literacy
Attempts to address such problems are hampered by the way public policy is determined and delivered across overlapping jurisdictions by multiple authorities with often conflicting political perspectives and strategic interests.
Other powerful yet unaccountable organisations and actors also significantly influence decision-making which affects us all.
Active participation in civil society is an important remedy for these ills. It critically depends on people understanding complex processes while also being sufficiently well-informed about what is taking place to engage with local democracy and intervene in the interests of their family, friends and communities.
From parliament to parish council the democratic literacy on which this participation depends relies on ready access to accurate, relevant, timely information about who is deciding what on whose behalf and how the bill for those decisions will be paid.
Local public interest journalism
Good quality local public interest journalism can answer this need while empowering communities, representing their interests and reflecting their cultural life.
It can hold wealth, power and the influence of individuals and institutions to account by investigating their actions and challenging them in the public sphere.
However, changes in the structure, role and reach of legacy local media whose editorial independence is at risk from advertisers, owners and shareholders have left it ill-equipped to play this role.
Exeter Observer is part of an agile, innovative local news sector that has emerged in response to these challenges which avoids the pitfalls of traditional local media business models to deliver independent journalism that has public interest at its heart.
More about Exeter Observer
- Independent, investigative, in the public interest
- Journalism with community benefit at its heart
- A local fourth estate
- Development strategy references
Exeter Observer is published by Exeter Observer Limited, Community Benefit Society No. 8435 registered under the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014.
Our registered address is St Sidwell’s Community Centre, Sidwell Street, Exeter EX4 6NN.