LOCAL GOVERNMENT REPORTING
In Australia’s three-tiered political system, local government is the level closest to the people, and local councils are a rich source of news, particularly in rural and regional areas.
Councils have the power to enforce laws and impose rates to provide citizens with a range of infrastructure and community services. Journalists covering the ‘council round’ report on everything from municipal elections, annual budgets and strategic plans to local planning, environment, health and heritage matters, and council-sponsored community celebrations.
The first news coverage of local government affairs can be traced back to 1840, when the Southern Australian (1838–51) published details of a proposed Bill to form a Municipal Corporation for the City of Adelaide—Australia’s first local government.
In July 1842, the Sydney Herald (later the Sydney Morning Herald) celebrated moves to establish the Town of Sydney because the colonial government was no longer considered capable of providing adequate services to all areas, particularly regarding planning, streets and roads.
The introduction of local government was a significant development for democracy in regional Australia. People in the regions had lacked a strong political voice. Instead, there was a heavy onus on newspapers to ‘represent’ or to advocate community interests. Journals and newspapers played an instrumental role in petitioning for local government and political representation to be established in their towns.
Both local government and the news media—including suburban newspapers—are central to a healthy democracy, but the relationship is not always an easy one. The news media provide an important link between councils and citizens, and foster robust public debate about civic affairs. The editorial stance of many local media outlets includes advancing the interests of their communities and working with local government to achieve this. However, journalists also play an important ‘watchdog’ role in keeping local government accountable as part of the news media’s celebrated fourth estate function. The importance of local government reporting has been examined by public journalism scholars, who suggest that journalism cannot remain viable unless public life itself remains viable. They emphasise the importance of news media outlets initiating conversations about civic affairs among key publics. Here, the aim is to create a ‘bottom-up’ orientation to public affairs reporting by letting citizens shape the news agenda, instead of elite sources such as council authorities doing so.
The importance of local government to other tiers of politics and journalism is evidenced by developments in related reporting specialisations and the career trajectories of prominent political reporters. For example, the Sydney press’s coverage of Australia’s first ‘Green Bans’—the fight between the local council and developers and Hunter’s Hill residents working with members of the Builders Labourers’ Federation to maintain Kelly’s Bush from 1971–74—foreshadowed the environmental political movement and the development of the specialisation of environmental journalism.
Local government has also been the focus of some of Australia’s best investigative journalism. In the early 1970s, the ABC’s This Day Tonight exposed corruption at Botany Council in Sydney. The Illawarra Mercury’s Mario Christodoulou won the 2008 Walkley Award for Coverage of Community or Regional Affairs for uncovering a corruption scandal within his local council. Local government could also provide good copy for the tabloid press: in the early 1970s, the stoush between Labor’s left and right factions at Leichhardt Council was frequently splashed across Sydney front pages.
Just as many federal politicians began their careers in local government, many top political reporters also started in the local arena, including News Limited’s Tony Koch and Matt Price, and the ABC’s Barrie Cassidy, Heather Ewart and Chris Uhlmann. On ABC Television, the state-based editions of The 7.30 Report (known as Stateline from 1995–2011 and 7.30 from 2012) have provided an outlet for major local government stories.
The relationship between local government and the news media is changing in a digital landscape. Local governments have embraced new technologies, and are no longer entirely dependent on traditional media outlets to communicate information to ratepayers. They now provide interactive websites that invite community comments on planning issues and embark on social media campaigns, partnering with other community and emergency services to inform the public of road closures, fires and floods via telephone, SMS messages and social media feeds. However, they are required by law to publish public notices in a local or daily newspaper. This revenue might be integral to keeping small newspapers alive in the increasingly competitive digital environment.
REFs: K. Hess and L. Waller, ‘An Exploratory Study of Relationships Between Local Government Media Officers and Journalists in Regional Australia’, Asia Pacific Public Relations Jnl, 9 (2008); J. Rosen, What are Journalists for? (1999).
KRISTY HESS and LISA WALLER