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Why it's vital that we hold the powerful to account; Chief reporter Martin Shipton argues that mainstream news organisations which serve their communities well by holding the locally powerful to account provide the best possible counterweight to fake news...

A Caerphilly council report leaked by a whistleblower in 2012 highlighted senior officers' big pay rises IN DECEMBER 2012 an envelope addressed to me arrived in my office, the contents of which continue to have ramifications to this day.

It contained a secret report from Caerphilly council, showing that 21 senior officers had been awarded big pay rises, most notably the chief executive, whose salary rose from PS132,000 to PS158,000.

No-one, apart from a small minority of councillors and the beneficiaries themselves, appeared to know about the pay increases.

What added further interest to the disclosure was that the report had been written by the chief executive himself.

The only thing to do was to share the knowledge I had gained with our readers - which I quickly did.

As expected, the story was met with enormous interest by residents of Caerphilly and by many living much further afield. It outraged the council's grassroots workers, on the third year of a pay freeze, who participated in a lunchtime protest organised by their union Unison.

The scandal is still a major issue in Caerphilly, where three top council officers remain away from work after four years because disciplinary cases are still ongoing.

If a whistleblower hadn't decided to leak the report to me, it's very likely that details of the pay rises would never have reached the public domain.

And if papers like the South Wales Echo didn't exist, people with a legitimate grievance to air would find it more difficult to get heard.

There are those who argue that newspapers have had their day, that anyone and everyone can perform the role of a journalist, and that social media has a far greater reach than conventional news outlets.

While it goes without saying that social media and the internet generally have allowed people to express themselves in a way that wasn't possible before, there has also been a significant downside to the multiplication of information sources.

With no formal quality control on the contents of the internet, those with a vested interest to deceive are able to spread lies on a global scale. Sometimes, people spread lies for the sheer hell of it.

Earlier this week, S4C screened a programme about the phenomenon of fake news in which presenter Bethan Rhys Roberts visited Veles, a town with 55,000 in the former Yugoslavian republic of Macedonia.

Young people in the town made up stories headlined "Pope Francis endorses Trump", "Hillary Clinton sold weapons to Isis in Syria" and "Hillary Clinton indicted".

Around 100 fake news websites have been set up in Veles, where English is one of several languages that are widely used.

The young people - mainly male, but with some young women involved too - publish the false stories and receive a portion of the advertising revenue generated by sharing them on platforms like Facebook and Google.

With huge numbers of internet users clicking on outlandish fake news stories, those who make them up can earn in a day what the average worker in Macedonia is paid in eight months.

One problem with the huge expansion of available information has been that people's attention has been grabbed by a glut of inconsequential trivia.

Like fast food, a modest amount of inconsequential trivia will do you no harm, but if you overdo it there will inevitably be negative consequences. It leaves you bird-brained, muddleheaded and without an understanding of what is going on around you. It destroys or at least inhibits critical thinking to a point where you are easy to exploit.

Well-researched, well-written and revelatory journalism is an antidote to such temptation. It tells people what is actually happening in their community and gives them the information that can empower them to make a difference.

These are not, however, rights we can be complacent about.

Sadly the UK has slipped to 40th place on the World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders.

Describing a "heavy-handed approach towards the press, often in the name of national security", the body said: "Parliament adopted the most extreme surveillance legislation in UK history, the Investigatory Powers Act, with insufficient protection mechanisms for whistleblowers, journalists, and their sources, posing a serious threat to investigative journalism. Even more alarming, the Law Commission's proposal for a new "Espionage Act" would make it easy to classify journalists as "spies" and jail them for up to 14 years for simply obtaining leaked information.

Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 remains cause for concern - in particular, the law's punitive cost-shifting measure that could hold publishers liable for the costs of all claims made against them, regardless of merit."

But while the UK Government deserves to be challenged over its increasingly authoritarian approach, those who run mainstream media outlets also have a duty to ensure they do their jobs properly.

Holding the locally powerful to account can sometimes be uncomfortable, but it's absolutely necessary in a properly functioning democracy. Local mainstream news outlets will survive if they step up to the plate.
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Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 5, 2017
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