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Amid the leaked briefings on Covid restrictions and headline-grabbing clashes between local and national government this week, few would have noticed a policy paper slipped out by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on a somewhat less explosive subject: the material impact of local media on democratic participation.

But the report, commissioned in April and written by the consultancy firm Plum, carried deeply concerning findings for the future of British democracy.

It looked at the “recent dynamics of the press sector”, and found “the presence of journalism in civil society is vital to its functioning”. The future for the UK is bleak: “The closure of local and regional news titles has led to underreporting and less scrutiny of democratic functions.” 

The effect, it said, could be dire: the absence of journalism, it said, could be “potentially catastrophic” on local communities, particularly in rural areas. 

As well as direct political engagement, the study found the loss of local newspapers could “lead to other effects with negative consequences for cohesion in democratic society” such as “increasingly polarised political behaviour”.

It went on: “Looking ahead, challenging conditions for UK local and regional news publishers are likely to continue.” It added that “this situation is unlikely to change without intervention”.

In the wake of the report, leading figures in the media sector and politicians have told The House a raft of measures are needed to help papers get through the pandemic and the resulting economic slowdown.They are calling for a massive expansion of the existing Local Democracy Reporter scheme in partnership with the BBC, along with tax credits, digital transition grants and an increase in advertising spend.

With job losses as a result of the Covid-19 crisis already being announced, the report looked at government intervention around the world in the industry, many of which go further than the historically “hands-off approach” in the UK.

David Higgerson, chief audience officer at publisher Reach, which owns regional titles including the Manchester Evening News, Liverpool Echo, Birmingham Mail and Bristol Post, welcomed the report’s conclusions about the impact good local journalism can have on democratic engagement.

He said robust local coverage was vital to counter disinformation on social media, and added “we need to make sure we don’t lose any more in the future”.

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Suggesting there should not be direct subsidies from central government to the industry – “we must make sure local journalism can still do its job without worrying they will get a tap on their shoulder for doing it,” he also said they could look at funding a massive expansion of the BBC Local Democracy Reporter scheme.

Launched in 2017, it sees the state broadcaster allocate £8 million a year to fund up to 150 additional roles covering local authorities around the UK for other titles, or shared with them.

Higgerson said it could double the number of reporters and cover every council in the country, and be used for court reporters too – whose numbers have dwindled in recent years.

“It would be very easy for the government to say let’s do that for every crown court in the country, every magistrates’ court in the country.

“Even the LDR scheme we’ve got – there are something like 300 councils, even a doubling of that so every borough council has a dedicated reporter, in terms of investment from the government it would be relatively small.”

It is a scheme James Mitchinson, editor of the Yorkshire Post and a host of other titles in the region, would also like to see expanded.

He said it had “done nothing but good in the areas my titles cover,” and agreed it could be extended to cover courts too, as readers deserve “justice being seen to be done”.

Mitchinson is also wary of state subsidies, but said money could be given to titles through an intermediary such as the News Media Association or the Society of Editors, and it must have “very stringent balances”.

But he was clear more help is needed, explaining: “We will lose titles – and what is even more corrosive is that which replaces them: the hobbyists in back bedrooms who are ill-informed, have nefarious motivations.

“They are not trained, they are not accredited, they are not accountable to a body like IPSO, and so yes it is damaging for those titles to disappear – but that’s compounded by the fact it creates a democratic vacuum where frankly anything can occupy the space and they begin to inform the public however they want to frankly.

“Because social media sites are not regulated, there are no standards and it’s very difficult for an ordinary member of the public to differentiate between what they can and can’t trust.”

Mitchinson also called for transition grants to be made available from DCMS that can be invested in improving digital infrastructure so titles can monetise their business better online and target advertisers to try and take back some of the market share hoovered up by the tech giants.

He said they don’t have the wherewithal to make that investment themselves, and grants “would allow local journalism to save itself”.

Both of them suggested central government and local authorities should go back to making publishers their default place for getting their message out, rather than using Google.

The Lib Dem spokesperson on culture Jamie Stone put it in more stark terms, saying ad spending was the fastest way to get “dosh in the door” at local titles.

Referencing the plight of the newspapers in his northern Scottish constituency he said: “We need to get dosh in the door, otherwise they are going to wither and die. And it’s as bleak as that.”

A former councillor and member of the Scottish Parliament, he said: “I have seen a decline in coverage of council meetings, notwithstanding the best attempts of local papers to sit at the back and report on it, and that’s very dangerous because all sorts of things might be happening that a light should be shone on.

“Not because they are evil, but it’s watching democracy happen.”

He said a “vibrant local press cheers people up and improves the quality of life”, echoing Mitchinson, who said the report shows papers are a “symbol of a functioning society”.

Jo Stevens, Labour’s shadow culture secretary agreed, saying: “We know the vital role that local newspapers play in our democracy holding councils and regional and devolved governments to account. 

“The decline in local newspapers is not just damaging for our democracy but also our sense of community. 

“Sadly the problems that were already there in terms of funding have been exacerbated by the pandemic and the need to find a long term solution is imperative.”

And industry body the News Media Association said: “Local newspapers underpin democracy at a local level and this study provides a graphic illustration of one of the many ways in which they do this.”

But its deputy chief executive Lynne Anderson added: “The study also highlights the significant challenges facing the local news sector. 

“It is vital that we act urgently to safeguard local news media and local journalism by taking decisive action to level the playing with the tech giants and providing quick targeted support for the industry so it can continue to invest in the journalism we all want to read.”

The National Union of Journalists have been lobbying government to look at their plan to help the industry, which includes policies in the short-term such as a windfall tax of 6% on the tech giants, using the Digital Services Tax, to fund a News Recovery Plan, and free vouchers for online or print subscriptions to all 18-and-19-year olds.

In the longer term they want to see the establishment of a government-funded Journalism Foundation – as recommended in the UK’s Cairncross Review into the media – to invest in local news and innovative journalistic projects, and to confer “asset of community value” status on local newspapers, as happens with community pubs, helping preserve their ownership.

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NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet said: “This research underlines the relationship that exists between a healthy local press and the engagement of communities in local democracy. “Undermine, diminish or obliterate local news and see the impact come election time. Quality journalism gives communities a voice and ensures citizens are informed and able to engage and fully participate in issues that shape their lives.”

On the windfall tax for tech giants she said: “it’s high time these global entities pay their fair share”, saying journalists are not seeking handouts but investment to improve local democracy and serve the public good.

In response to the report, the media Minister John Whittingdale said: “This government has always recognised the importance of a free press to our country and democracy, but our new research shows just how vital it is. 

“The direct correlation between local newspaper provision and electoral turnout proves that a healthy democracy, even at a grassroots level, needs high quality local journalism to thrive.

“In response to the Cairncross Review, we committed to helping put our news media on a stronger footing. Now the pandemic has exacerbated the challenges facing news publishers in what was already a changing landscape.

“With misinformation out there about the virus, the reliability of information is now more important than ever and it remains my absolute priority to ensure we do all we can to support local news outlets during this crisis. 

“The long term sustainability of the local and regional press is vital so they can continue holding decision-makers to account.”

DCMS pointed to measures such as designating journalists and newspaper employees as key workers at the start of the pandemic so they could keep doing their jobs, as well as  fast-tracking the removal of VAT from digital newspapers, and launching the “All-in, all together” advertising campaign which saw £35million spent across approximately 600 titles, with more than 60% to to local and regionals.



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Operation Fox Hunt: China sent fugitive’s elderly father to America to coerce him into going home, US claims

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The case is believed to be part of the ruling Communist Party’s Operation Fox Hunt, an international anti-corruption campaign targeting Chinese fugitives — often former officials or rich individuals suspected of economic crimes.

The US Department of Justice said Wednesday the charges included “conspiring to act in the US as illegal agents of the People’s Republic of China.” Five people have been arrested, while three are believed to be at large in China.

In 2016, the group — which includes an American-licensed private investigator — is alleged to have embarked on an illegal campaign targeting a former Chinese government official, who has lived in the US since 2010. They are accused of recording and harassing his daughter, taping a threatening note to his front door and flying his elderly father from China — allegedly against his will — in 2017 to pressure his son to return to China.

The note on the target’s New Jersey home said in Chinese: “If you are willing to go back to the mainland and spend 10 years in prison, your wife and children will be all right. That’s the end of this matter!”

Speaking at a press conference Wednesday, US Assistant Attorney General John C. Demers said the arrests sent a message that the US “will not tolerate this type of flagrant conduct on our shores.”

“Without coordination with our government, China’s repatriation squads enter the United States, surveil and locate the alleged fugitives, and deploy intimidation and other tactics to force them back into China where they would face certain imprisonment or worse following illegitimate trials,” he said.

Speaking at a press conference Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said that Chinese law enforcement agencies “conduct foreign cooperation in strict accordance with international law, fully respect foreign laws and judicial sovereignty.”

“The United States ignores the basic facts and uses ulterior motives to smear China’s work in pursuit of escaped and stolen goods. China firmly opposes this. We urge the US to immediately correct its mistakes,” he said.

Operation Fox Hunt

The Chinese government launched Operation Fox Hunt in 2014 to target wealthy citizens who were accused of corruption and had fled the country with large amounts of money.

Beijing authorities said at least 150 corrupt officials had fled to the US, and provided American counterparts with a list of “priority cases.”

Demers said such operations — regardless of whether the targets were guilty or not — were “a clear violation of the rule of law and international norms.”

“Rather than work with US authorities for assistance with recognized criminal cases as responsible nations do, China resorts to extralegal means and unauthorized, often covert, law enforcement activity,” he said.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said at a news conference Wednesday that in a different Operation Fox Hunt case, the Chinese government had sent an “emissary” to the target’s US-based family warning that the person should “return to China promptly or commit suicide.”

Wray said that when Operation Fox Hunt targets refuse to return to China, family members in their home country “have even been arrested for leverage.”

“These are not the actions we would expect from a responsible nation state. Instead they’re more like something we would expect from an organized criminal syndicate,” Wray said.

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Van Drew’s defection to GOP haunts him in tight race

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Van Drew, like many of his Republican colleagues, now finds himself having to answer for an unpopular president, whose shaky handling of the coronavirus and inflammatory rhetoric has damaged the GOP’s standing nationwide, especially in the suburbs.

Van Drew currently trails in the polls to a well-funded Democratic challenger in Amy Kennedy, a former public school teacher who married into the Kennedy political dynasty. Kennedy is leading Van Drew by five points among registered voters, according to a Monmouth University poll from earlier this month, though it’s within the survey’s margin of error. POLITICO’s election forecasters rate the race as a “toss up.”

Democrats have tried to use Van Drew’s party change and sudden embrace of Trump as a cudgel, branding him as “switcheroo Van Drew” and accusing him of betraying his constituents for his own self interests. In one ad, Democrats even ribbed Van Drew for his taste for flashy suits in a bid to portray him as superficial and inauthentic.

“It felt like he was willing to do or say anything to keep his job,” said Kennedy, who decided to run for office after hearing Van Drew promise his unwavering loyalty to Trump. “There are a lot of people in the district who really respect someone who can be independent-minded, but that’s not what that felt like to them.”

In an interview, Van Drew defended his decision to abandon the Democratic Party, which caught his colleagues off guard and stunned Washington. Van Drew, a dentist who served in the state Legislature for over a decade, noted he was always a conservative-leaning Democrat. But Van Drew argued that the party abandoned its “big tent” principles and was no longer a good fit for him.

Yet despite pledging his fealty to Trump in an Oval Office sit-down, Van Drew now says he is not beholden to any leader — including the president. And Van Drew maintains that voters respect independent-minded politicians, especially in his south Jersey district just outside of Philadelphia, which went for Trump in 2016 but backed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

“You vote for the person,” said Van Drew, who won his seat by eight points in 2018. “It’s not your job to vote for me, if you were in my district, because I’m a Republican. It’s your job to think about the two candidates and which candidate would do a better job for the district.”

“I didn’t betray anybody,” he added. “When people call me up and they need help, whatever party they are, I help them.”

The match-up between Van Drew and Kennedy — which has become one of the most hotly-contested races in the country — has drawn national attention, with outside resources pouring in. Democrats are not only eager to win back a seat they thought they had already seized in 2018, but also seek revenge for Van Drew’s high-profile defection.

Kennedy, who has notched endorsements from Obama and Joe Biden, has outraised and outspent Van Drew. Kennedy has spent $1.2 million on the airwaves, compared to Van Drew’s $367,000, according to the ad-tracking firm Advertising Analytics. But Van Drew had roughly $600,000 more in the bank than Kennedy as of mid-October, according to the latest FEC reports.

Republicans, meanwhile, have sought to reward Van Drew for joining their ranks while also preventing the GOP from slipping further into the House minority. Since joining the party, Van Drew got a rally from Trump, desirable committee assignments from GOP leaders and a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention.

Notably, Van Drew’s campaign message has focused on calls for bipartisanship and putting country over party. He talks more about American exceptionalism on the campaign trail than he does about Trump, though Van Drew confirmed he plans to vote for the president, despite endorsing home-state colleague Sen. Cory. Booker (D-N.J.) in the Democratic presidential primary.

Van Drew has also tried to label his opponent as a liberal Democrat who supports sanctuary cities, open borders and defunding the police.

“I believe the future of the country depends upon not just my election — of course, I’m not an egomaniac — but on the direction that we take,” Van Drew said. “And the direction that my opponent would want to take is significantly different than the direction I would want to take.”

Switching parties has yielded mixed results in the past, so it was always going to be an electoral gamble for Van Drew, strategists say. He risks infuriating the Democrats who backed him in 2018, while there’s no guarantee Republican voters will trust him. And independents might be turned off by his tight embrace of Trump.

Nearly half of registered voters said they were bothered by Van Drew now running for Congress as a Republican, according to the Monmouth University poll.

Crossing the aisle may have looked like a safer bet for Van Drew during the height of impeachment, when there was widespread concern that swing-district Democrats could suffer at the polls because of the party’s efforts to oust the president.

Had he remained in the Democratic Party and maintained his opposition to impeachment, Van Drew would have likely faced a primary challenge from the left. Before he became a Republican, polling commissioned by Van Drew’s campaign showed just 24 percent of Democratic primary voters believed the congressman deserved to be reelected.

But the political landscape has changed vastly since then. Trump’s approval ratings have slumped both nationally and in Van Drew’s district. The sagging economy is further clouding the outlook for Republicans up and down the ballot. The Monmouth University poll has Joe Biden with a narrow, three-point lead over Trump in a “high turnout” election in the district.

“The president’s popularity has gone down. That hurts someone who pledged undying allegiance to Trump,” said Mike DuHaime, a Republican operative and former adviser to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Meanwhile, many frontline Democrats are actually well-positioned heading into November, defying expectations and fueling hopes that their party could actually pad their majority even further. And the election has largely been dominated by the coronavirus — not impeachment.

“No one cares about impeachment anymore. It seems like 10 years ago, not 10 months ago.” DuHaime added.

On the coronavirus, Van Drew has echoed Trump’s rhetoric. He railed against health restrictions dampening the economy, highlighted how Trump overcame the virus, criticized D.C. residents for wearing masks even alone in their cars and called on Washington to “go big” on a stimulus package.

“You know what makes people upset where I am in my district? The people that went out of business, the people that lost everything they own, the people that can’t even keep their homes, the people who work for the casinos,” he said.

Van Drew also said he has worked tirelessly on constituent services during the pandemic, which could help boost him in the race. And GOP strategists say Van Drew will likely once again attract some crossover voters — but it may not be enough.

“He has always won because people transcended party to vote for him. But is that enough in a year where Trump is so dominant on the ballot and affecting how everyone views everything?” DuHaime asked. “Now, just so many people this year are voting party-line to send a message to Trump.”

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The NHS Covid-19 App Has Only Had Half The Downloads NHS Advisors Say It Needs To Help Stop the Coronavirus Pandemic

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The NHS Covid-19 app has been downloaded over 19 million times (PA)


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The official NHS Covid-19 app has only been downloaded by 40% of adults with eligible smartphones—half the number researchers say is needed to effectively halt the spread of the virus.

Experts from the University of Oxford claimed in April that 56% of the general population, or 80% of current smartphone owners, would need to use a contact-tracing app for it to be effective in helping stop the coronavirus.

Speaking to the BBC earlier this year, Professor Christophe Fraser, a member of the modelling team which advised the NHS on the contact tracing app, said this was “a very ambitious target”.

But he added that the app would still have an effect if fewer people downloading it, with his team estimating that one infection could be averted for every one to two users.

The app, which tracks who a user has been in contact with using anonymous bluetooth data, has now been downloaded 19 million times since it went live on 24 September, according to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

These latest figures came alongside an announcement of the latest updates to the app, which included improvements to its accuracy and fixes to prevent incorrect exposure notifications.

Following its launch, some users complained that they had received notifications from the app telling them to self-isolated which later disappeared.

But, a DHSC spokesperson insisted such messages were “default privacy notifications from Apple and Google, who provide the underlying framework on which this and many other countries’ Bluetooth contact tracing apps are based.”

The most recent update has reportedly improved the app’s ability to judge the distance between users and so better estimate when there is a risk of infection. 

Gaby Appleton, director of product for NHS Test and Trace, said she hoped these changes would “make it as simple as possible to keep users and their loved ones safe”.

“We are thrilled that over 19 million people have chosen to download the app to help protect their loved ones while preserving their privacy, and that over 680,000 QR codes have been created by businesses to support digital contact tracing,” she continued.

The DHSC also announced that the NHS Covid-19 app, which currently only operates in England and Wales, will soon become interoperable with contact tracing apps in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Jersey and Gibraltar.

Under a proposed system set to be launched in November, users who test positive on any of the apps can choose to upload their anonymous Bluetooth key to all app users across the UK.

 

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