Skip to main content

Newspaper Redundancies

Volume 488: debated on Monday 2 March 2009

2. What recent assessment he has made of levels of redundancies in the newspaper sector; and if he will make a statement. (259227)

We do not hold figures on the number of redundancies, but I can tell the House that 57 local newspapers have closed in the past 12 months. Given those real pressures, Lord Carter is considering how to sustain quality news provision across all media at a local level as part of the final “Digital Britain” report.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. He will be aware of the recent announcement of 70 job losses at the Daily Record and Sunday Mail in Scotland. As he says, that is far from an isolated example. Indeed, the parent company of those newspapers, Trinity Mirror, just days afterwards announced profits of more than £145 million. Will he outline what he thinks the Government can do to stop that erosion of employment within the sector, which undoubtedly will have an impact on the quality of journalism?

I certainly share my hon. Friend’s concern about, as she puts it, the erosion of the work force at a local level. I do not think that there is a constituency represented in the House that has not seen some pressure on its local newspapers as a result, obviously, of the cyclical pressures in the economy and, perhaps more importantly, the structural change in the media industry. Lots of advertising spend is migrating away from press towards other advertising. Those are the real issues that we have to address. I gave her a commitment that I would meet the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group to discuss that, and I believe that we now have a date set for that meeting.

I believe that those issues are of the most profound importance, because they affect the health of democracy at a local level. We need to come forward with proposals to ensure that there are high-quality training and media at a local level across all media. As part of the “Digital Britain” process, we have an ability to place focus on that issue to raise it up the agenda, because to be frank it does not often get a good airing in this place. By doing so, we can develop proposals to help to sustain local media into the future.

Does the Secretary of State accept that in many communities the local newspaper is as important as the local post office, the local shop or the local pub? Given the number of closures, which he has already referred to, and the fact that journalists are being laid off, offices are being centralised and newspapers are becoming more distant from their local communities, there needs to be urgent action, in particular to relax the competition rules so that markets are judged more broadly in terms of media consumption, and also to encourage local newspapers to take part in consortiums for the provision of regional news, while at the same time perhaps addressing the problem in the broadcast market for news.

The hon. Gentleman, as Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, is quite right to say that we need to look afresh at how best to provide local news in future and to consider other ways of working—perhaps local newspapers working with media at a regional level or other possibilities that might include considering the role of regional development agencies and the Learning and Skills Council. Those are all ideas that I am perfectly happy to consider.

The hon. Gentleman raised specifically cross-media ownership rules. He will know that, as part of the “Digital Britain” interim report it was proposed that there be now a review by Ofcom and the Office of Fair Trading on the appropriateness of current rules, given the structural change in the media industry. That work will come forward as part of the final “Digital Britain” report, but the views that he has placed on the record today will obviously be heard as part of that.

I have an interest to declare. I am a former president of the National Union of Journalists, and my predecessor but one, Stan Crowther—whom you will recall, Mr. Speaker—had a lifelong career as a journalist in south Yorkshire. We all have problems with journalists—even you, Sir—but whereas it is possible to have politicians without democracy, I do not believe that it is possible to have democracy without independent journalism, and print media are essential: digital media could never replace them. However, we are seeing a massive erosion of our print media. Journalists are going out of the door regionally, locally and nationally. Lord Carter may be twittering away on the digital problems, but we need more urgent examination now of how we are to keep our print newspapers and trained journalists alive and in business.

I do not know whether Lord Carter twitters or not, but I certainly agree with my right hon. Friend that we all have our problems with newspapers. Indeed, I had my own last week.

As I said in my reply to our hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark), the time has come for Parliament to take a greater interest in the health of journalism at local level, and particularly in how it might relate to skills and to the health of democracy. These are big issues, and we need to come up with new models for sustaining local news in the future. We all need to keep open minds on how best that might be achieved, but I could not have put it any more persuasively or directly than my right hon. Friend.

What concerns many of us is not just the health of journalists, important as that may be, but the health of local communities. Does the Secretary of State accept—I paraphrase what the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) has just said—that online is no substitute for in the hand, and that local newspapers, especially weekly ones, help to give a sense of cohesion to our communities and must not be allowed to perish?

I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Gentleman’s view, but let me gently point out that we should not set up a conflict between online and in the hand. The world is changing out there, and we need to recognise that.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman wholeheartedly about the importance of trusted local names which help people to be discerning about the information that they are given. People trust local newspapers to be an impartial source of local information, like their local community. If they have the same reputation in the online world, some people are likely to feel more at home in that world, because they will know the background from which the information comes and the stance taken by the paper concerned. We must help local papers to make that migration into the online world, where the two media can live side by side.

My right hon. Friend is well aware of the importance of the community, which is represented through local newspapers, local radio and, of course, regional television. Does he believe that there is a way in which all three can survive better if they can share that news and information? We cannot afford to lose any of those strands, and we cannot wait for the digital age, because it is happening now and we need action now. What does my right hon. Friend propose for us?

My hon. Friend has put it very well. That is exactly what I have in mind: partnerships at regional and local level. We have talked about a potential partnership between the BBC and a commercial operator in the provision of regional news on television, for instance. Obviously the BBC may have a broader role in helping to sustain local newspapers by providing access to information and, possibly, pictures and footage. There are all kinds of possibilities. As I have said, we need to approach the matter with an open mind, recognising that things will probably need to change if we are to provide an infrastructure to support local media in the long term. I am confident that if we approach it in the right way, the right models and solutions can be found.

The Secretary of State says that Lord Carter will conduct a review, but surely what newspapers need is not a review but a decision. At the current rate, another 1,800 jobs will be lost in the newspaper industry before that review is published. What immediate practical steps will the Secretary of State consider, before more newspapers are closed and more jobs lost?

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is making a spending commitment and suggesting that there should be a subsidy. If he is accusing us of not acting quickly enough, I should tell him that we put in train the “Digital Britain” review precisely to take a quick but nevertheless detailed look at the range of issues affecting the media industry across the board and to come back with firm recommendations by the summer. That represents a pretty focused piece of work and I encourage him to engage in the process. It is not necessarily just funding; it may be regulatory change or looking at new ways of providing services, but in this case he cannot accuse us of being behind the curve. I told the House at our last Question Time that I had decided to raise the issue up the Department’s agenda, having met the Society of Editors, and I remain absolutely committed to making sure we get solutions that the newspaper industry can work with.