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Local News Media

Volume 486: debated on Monday 19 January 2009

5. What assessment he has made of the prospects for the local news media industry; and if he will make a statement. (248265)

I am aware of concerns in all parts of the House about pressures on the local news industry. Last week I met the Society of Editors to discuss those issues and what can be done to support local newspapers. I have also asked Lord Carter to look at local news media in his work on the “Digital Britain” report.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Is he aware of the Scottish national issue and the announcement by Newsquest that it is to cut 40 editorial positions at the Glasgow Herald? The company is giving almost all the journalists redundancy and asking them to reapply for their jobs, despite making £23 million in Scotland in 2007. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet the National Union of Journalists to discuss not just that issue, but the wider issue of the press?

Like everybody, I feel for those people who have lost their jobs at the Glasgow Herald. I will certainly agree to my hon. Friend’s request for a meeting with the NUJ, although I should point out that many of the policy responsibilities in that area are the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. However, I recognise that local newspapers face pressures both from the current economic climate and from structural changes in the media industries. Only a few years ago the press accounted for 54 per cent. of the advertising spend in this country, but the figure is now down to 43 per cent., so there are real structural changes taking place. We need to take a careful look at local news outlets in the current climate and see whether more creative ways can be found to sustain high-quality media at the local level. Lord Carter will take forward that work in “Digital Britain”, but I am sure that colleagues in all parts of the House will want to pay close attention to the issue.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the Evening Standard is at the centre of London’s local news media industry. Under the circumstances, might it not be appropriate to conduct an inquiry into whether a former KGB member is a fit and proper person to own that newspaper?

The Evening Standard is indeed a well-loved part of London life—a view held on both sides of the House, I hasten to add—and, whatever changes are in the offing, it should maintain its character and journalistic standards on all counts. I am sure that, like me, the hon. Gentleman will accept that what matters is not an individual’s nationality but the plans that they have to uphold those standards and that character. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark), these are principally matters for the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

What confidence does my right hon. Friend have that the partnership between ITV and the BBC for regional television news can be maintained? What plans does he have to monitor the success of that partnership?

Regional news on ITV produces strong feelings on both sides of the House. Many representations have been made to me about the need to maintain a provider of news in the regions, and my hon. Friend has also made that case in a very forthright way over the years. I suggested some time ago that a partnership between the BBC and ITV in the regions would be a good way of sharing costs and sustaining those important news services. I am encouraged by reports that the two sides have made good progress on establishing a partnership arrangement. Ofcom will say more this week about public service broadcasting, in the culmination of its second stage review. We will need to consider all these matters in the round when we come to make our decisions, but there is good progress to report and I hope that my hon. Friend will continue to support the need for a good solution for the north-west and other parts of the country.

The Minister will know that one of the biggest issues facing local newspapers across the United Kingdom is the increased power of the online offering from the BBC. I do not want to use this as an opportunity to bash the British Broadcasting Corporation—

—tempting though that might be. More importantly, will the Minister tell us today about his concerns in this regard? The BBC has a monopoly interest and can rely on a large licence fund from the taxpayer, and it is crowding out any sense of competition from local news media in many parts of the country.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell) set up the BBC Trust to examine precisely the issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised. It not only looks at the desire of the BBC to launch new services but applies a wider public value test so that the actions of the BBC can be considered in terms of the effect that they will have on other parts of the media industry. The hon. Gentleman will know that the BBC’s local video service was tested by the trust on that basis, and the trust made its decision late last year. Listening to his question, I imagine that he will have found that decision favourable. Obviously, these issues need to be carefully considered. The local media are an important part of the health of our democracy in every hon. Member’s constituency, and, this year, we need to pay closer attention to the pressures on local newspapers and to helping them to survive into the digital age.

With reference to the earlier question about the possibility of the London Evening Standard being bought up by a Russian oligarch, and given that Roman Abramovich is reported to be trying to sell off Chelsea to middle eastern interests, how long will it be before Londoners see their evening paper being traded from an oligarch to the middle east?

There is obviously a limit to what I can say on this matter. Indeed, the policy responsibility rests with the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. However, as I have said many times in relation to the ownership of football clubs, it is not nationality that matters, but the importance of any individual who purports to own an important part of British national life having the best of intentions and seeking to uphold its standards, character and integrity. That is all that can be said on this matter for the time being.