Saturday, 23 July 2011

Elected Mayors and local Media

Traditional local government in the UK has been carried out by the election of councilors to represent a number of residents in a ward. These councilors then chose from amongst themselves a Mayor who served as Chair of the Council and undertook the civic duties associated with the post. Normally the tenure of a mayor was 12 months. The actual power associated with the Mayor’s office being almost entirely ceremonial. Real influence lay with the chairs of the various committees.

The short duration of the period any individual spent in the Mayor’s office usually meant that the individual occupying the post was rarely well known in his or her own town. Profile amongst your fellow councilors, or leadership of the largest political group on the council, not public recognition, being the criteria for wearing the robes and chains of office. This anonymity was felt to be one of the reasons that there was a general drop in the turn out for local elections. The councilors elected to serve in the town halls being seen as mainly faceless and not really accountable to the electorate.

To address this anonymity and other perceived deficiencies in local government organisation, the post of elected mayor was created by the Blair government in the Local Government Act 2000. The role of the councilors in choosing who would be mayor was to be removed and instead the Mayor would be an individual who would be elected by the residents of a town and who would serve for four years.
The intention was that this would provide a name and a face for residents to identify with and provide a vehicle to re-engage the public with local authority decision making. It was also hoped that the executive powers granted to a mayor would reduce the amount of time necessary for decisions to be made.

The aim of this paper is therefore to examine the success, or otherwise, of the introduction of elected mayors in achieving a higher recognition of the mayor’s office through the medium of the local media, in particular local newspapers.

Outside of London, there are currently eight directly elected mayors. The Mayor of London is elected under different primary legislation and is not included in this study as the huge media profile of Boris Johnson (and before him Ken Livingston) would totally overshadow all other Mayors. The plans by the new Tory-LibDem coalition to introduce elected mayors into major cities, such as Birmingham, may see the emergence of a mayor with a large enough mandate and a platform to match the Mayor of London. However, the people of Birmingham will still need to vote in favour of an elected mayor in the forthcoming referendum to introduce the mayor system.

The eight elected mayors currently in post have a range of local newspapers covering their constituencies. Some compete for coverage in what is a predominately regional newspaper; others have much more locally focused publications with restricted circulations.

The publication frequency also varies with both daily and weekly publications covering the different elected mayors.

All eight of the elected Mayors were contacted to ask if they would participate in this study and the editors of the appropriate local newspapers were also invited to take part.

Four Mayors, Torquay, Mansfield, Bedford and Watford agreed to be interviewed. The Editors of the Watford Observer and the Mansfield Chad also agreed to take part. The two pairs of interviews in Mansfield and Watford have therefore formed the bulk of the conclusions and discussion in this study. Where appropriate supporting remarks from the interviews with the Mayors of Torquay and Bedford have also been included.

There was universal agreement amongst all participants that the role of elected mayor had markedly increased to visibility of the local decision maker within the local town Hall.

There was also agreement amongst the elected Mayors that the local journalists did not fully understand the role of the elected Mayor and so sometimes, the coverage in the local newspapers was not as clear or as comprehensive as it could be. The Mayor for example has no direct control over the planning process and yet this is often one of the most contentious issues in any local authority. This has sometimes led to dissatisfaction with the mayor where it was not really valid.

The Editors of the Watford Observer and Mansfield Chad did on the whole agree with this view. The lack of in depth training for journalists in the elected mayor role was given as one of the possible reasons for this.

This lack of awareness for journalists on the role of elected Mayors has been addressed in the NCTJ recommended textbook for the public affairs for journalists syllabus. However, as the number of elected mayors is still only a tiny fraction of the number of local authorities most journalists working on provincial news papers are still highly unlikely to ever come across an elected mayor. The alternative local government structure of a council leader and executive cabinet exists in the majority of local authorities and they are given even less mention than elected mayors in the NCTJ recommended textbook for the public affairs for journalists syllabus

The other finding of the study was that the newspaper editors and reporters saw the role of elected mayor as being much more newsworthy when it was linked to a clash with the local Member of Parliament over an issue. This was an interesting example of the news value of a story being linked to the perceived value of the source and gave support to the theories of news values that dictate the prominence or otherwise of a particular story.

The conclusions of the study are of course highly subjective as they are based on qualitative interviews that do not readily lend themselves to quantitative analysis.

However, the conclusion is inescapable that the introduction of elected mayors has raised the profile of the local decision makers in the areas of Mansfield and Watford .

As the Mayor of Watford, Dorothy Thornhill, said in an interview for this study;

“I was stopped the other day by one of my residents who said, “I know who you are, I know what you are doing, I don’t always agree with what you do but I know why you are doing it” I liked that. I told him I would put it on my gravestone.”

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