I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of local and regional news.
I am grateful for the opportunity to open this debate on an issue that lies at the heart of the democratic process and in the soul of local communities. I know that many Members share my interest in, and concern for, the health and vitality of local and regional news journalism. Many of us, in our capacity as constituency MPs or, as in my case, as regional Ministers, have a great deal to do with the matter and are worried about what is happening. The Government are worried too, and the issue is at the top of our agenda.
In January, my noble Friend Lord Carter published his interim “Digital Britain” report. After consultation, the report will be published in its final form by early summer. I commend the interim report to Members who have not already read it. They will see that local, regional and national news is a key priority—not one with easy or ready answers but one for which we are urgently seeking the right solutions that will provide a choice of impartial news, whether on television or radio or in print.
Research carried out as part of Ofcom’s public service broadcasting review showed clearly that people trust and value the provision and choice of news services, particularly local and regional news. However, the sector is under pressure due to a combination of structural and cyclical factors, such as changes in readership or in styles of readership. People now tend to go online more for news, particularly younger people. My children think that I am antediluvian because I prefer to hold the thing that I am reading. They read the news online. Although newspapers are diversifying online, the physical circulation of print newspapers is suffering. It is declining by about 5.2 per cent. a year.
The Minister says that her children think that she is antediluvian—I am sure that they do not. We can see the trend in the disappearance of virtually every sporting newspaper, which used to be a mainstay. After the football finished on a Saturday, people would rush out and buy the sporting posts. They have virtually all gone now, as people access their information online or via the television.
Order. Before the Minister replies, perhaps it would be sensible at this stage to point out to hon. Members that there is still only an hour and a half for this debate. Every intervention extends the Front-Bench speeches, so that they could take up a total of 52 minutes out of the 90, and 12 hon. Members are seeking to speak. I propose now to reduce the time limit to five minutes.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You are right; this debate is not so much for Front-Bench as for Back-Bench contributions, so I will narrow mine down.
The drop in print readership has had a crucial effect on the advertising revenue that regional and local newspapers can expect to receive. In fact, it has changed the economy of the media as a whole. The effect on equity is dramatically illustrated by the share prices of two of the four major regional news groups, which have dropped by more than 95 per cent. Those trends are exacerbated by current market conditions, which particularly affect advertising spend. There are global difficulties, and a fundamental shift is being caused by the transition from traditional methods of news gathering and reporting to the versatility of the digital world, which allows us to get news wherever we are on mobile phones—things that we keep in our pockets. The Government therefore have an important role in ensuring that a vital service that the public trust and enjoy is maintained for them.
“Digital Britain” will provide a comprehensive strategy for maintaining this country’s leadership in all aspects of the communications, media and cultural worlds, and as such it will offer thoughtful and practical proposals. It will take into account the views and expertise of media industry professionals, detailed analysis of the needs of the public and the economy, and the public’s views on securing the future of local and regional news.
First, the report will consider various options to ensure that the audience can enjoy the provision of high-quality regional news. In that respect, the recent memorandum of understanding signed by ITV and the BBC is an important step forward. Other options are also being considered for the longer term, including a potential role for a new public service broadcasting institution that would build on Channel 4’s strength.
Secondly, the report will give priority to local and digital radio. Historically, Government and regulators have sought to secure the provision of news on radio by prescribing the number of hours of local news that must be provided by each station. Those licence requirements, alongside the localness regime, have secured a strong local news presence on the radio. However, although we remain of the view that local news is an essential part of the public value of radio, we also recognise the challenges that the industry faces. A review is already under way to examine the role that radio should have in delivering local content in a predominantly digital landscape. The review is expected to report back to Government in the next few weeks and will be reflected in the final report.
We are also aware that there is increasing support for a relaxation of conditions on greater consolidation of local media businesses. The principle is that by sharing resources, particularly in news gathering, we can help to reduce costs. We have therefore invited the Office of Fair Trading, Ofcom and other interested parties to undertake an exploratory review across the local and regional media sector to inform a decision on the existing merger regime.
We all recognise the difficult conditions in which the media currently work, but we should also recognise that the transition to a digital world brings enormous potential to widen and deepen the democratic process. The correct response to a digital Britain is for our media, the envy of the world, to apply their natural propensity for innovation and instinctive creativity to finding solutions to the challenges we face. That means that we need a new way of thinking so that we see a new era of possibility, not an endless vista of threat and decline. We also need a new approach whereby people in the media share a vision of the future and use the converged landscape to forge partnerships.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport recently asked the industry to set out the key actions that it believes need to be taken in the short and longer term to sustain local media. He also agreed that the Government would host a conference bringing together all the interested parties—the National Union of Journalists, the Society of Editors, the Newspaper Society, local media, MPs and local and regional bodies—for a broad discussion of the issues affecting local media and potential new business models. That conference will take place as soon as possible. I am pleased that a more collaborative approach is already emerging, with the memorandum of understanding agreed last week between the BBC and ITV about the provision of news. That is a welcome step forward, which should enable others across the media landscape, including commercial partners, to examine new ways of delivering news.
Convergence in the media not only gives rise to challenges but creates new business opportunities. A sensible strategy that uses that convergence can help to sustain our vital local media. We must explore partnerships locally—private and public sector ones and those that involve local government, which has tended to turn to other methods of conveying its news. Is there potential for a new national network of local media consortiums? Is there potential for partnerships to emerge with the size, scale and vision to break down the old barriers into the media by offering work experience, training and apprenticeships to those who were previously excluded or would not have aspired to a media career, through lack of money or local opportunity? Is there potential to end the old “who you know, who can afford it” culture of journalism? That would be a truly worthwhile legacy of convergence.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier this year that the provision of local news and the plight of local newspapers have to rise up the political agenda. We are achieving that. We will work tirelessly to secure for local communities in every part of the country news that maintains the high standards that have long been associated with British journalism.
We are debating an immensely important subject—the future of not simply a specific industry or sector, but a sector that is vital to our democracy. It seems rather sad to me, as a relatively new boy, that we have only 90 minutes to debate the subject and not the full three and a half hours that we could have if the business ran until 6 o’clock. Perhaps the Modernisation Committee, of which I used to be a member and on which I cut my teeth, could consider the matter. One example of the fall-out is that we will hear from the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) for only six minutes, and that is unfortunate.
We are all used to local newspapers and to broadcasts on the BBC and ITV to which we can look for local news. Even in the current crisis for local newspapers, 40 million adults read 1,300 regional and local newspapers daily or weekly, some paid for and others free. A quarter of the regional press work force are focused on editorial activities. The sector still employs around 40,000 people, and 110,000 paper boys deliver local newspapers. It is still the largest advertising medium in the UK, taking almost £3 billion a year and accounting for 16 per cent. of all advertising revenue. While some of that is migrating online, about 95 per cent. is still print advertising. However, online is becoming more important for local newspapers.
We are debating the local and regional press because they find themselves in a perfect storm. They will not only have to change their business models radically in any event because of the advent of the internet, but they must do it in perhaps the toughest recession the country has experienced in our lifetime. The lifeblood of local newspapers in particular—classified advertising—was already migrating to the internet. Whereas, even five years ago, one would buy a local newspaper to find what jobs were available or what property one could buy locally, one can now do that at the click of a mouse on a range of websites. The recession has made the paradigm shift even more acute.
We debated local media as recently as the end of January in Westminster Hall. The Newspaper Society told me then that it predicted a reduction of 20 per cent. in advertising revenue in the third quarter of last year. I now understand that the advertising revenue of at least one major regional news company declined by 55 per cent. in the fourth quarter. Some people predict that about 40 per cent. of the 12,000 estate agents in this country will go out of business during the recession, and that will have an obvious knock-on effect on local newspapers’ revenue.
I do not need to spout a series of statistics at hon. Members, because we all buy our local newspapers assiduously and we can all see the physical manifestation of what I am talking about, which is that local newspapers are thinner and their coverage is perhaps sketchier than it has been. When we debated local newspapers in Westminster Hall at the end of January, we were all keen to praise the fantastic works that local newspapers do in our constituencies. In my constituency, we have the Herald series, which has a fine editor in Derek Holmes and Simon O’Neill editing the Oxford Mail, and a good local reporter, Emily Allen. I made the point that in my four years in Parliament, three reporters who worked for the local paper for 30 or 40 years have retired. We will not see their like again, in the sense that people are unlikely to work for a local newspaper for 10, 20 or 30 years, so everything is in flux.
As I have mentioned, however, it is not the recession alone that is causing the problem, but a shift caused by the internet and changing patterns of media that have been going on for quite some time. The revenue of commercial radio has fallen by 20 per cent. since as long ago as 2003, and some four out of 10 commercial radio stations are no longer profitable. ITV has proposed substantial cuts to its regional news service, but we cannot pretend that the cuts were forced on ITV only in the past few months—they have been a long time coming. We welcome the announcement that ITV is to work with the BBC to share costs, which I understand will be worth some £7 million a year by 2012. However, that is in no way enough to cover the huge gap in the cost of regional news, which is some £60 million.
The change is therefore urgently needed. However, although we obviously welcome the Government’s decision to look at the market and to get the Office of Fair Trading to hold an inquiry, we are within our rights to ask whether it is too little, too late. We certainly need a dramatic look at the regulations governing ownership and competition. Even in America, the Democrat leader of Congress, Nancy Pelosi, has written to the American Attorney-General asking him to intervene to save local news organisations. She makes a good point, which applies to this country, too:
“I am confident that the Antitrust Division, in assessing any concerns that any proposed mergers or other arrangements in the San Francisco area,”
which she represents,
“might reduce competition, will take into appropriate account, as relevant, not only the number of daily and weekly newspapers in the…Area, but also the other sources of news and advertising outlets available in the electronic and digital age”
That goes to the heart of my argument. The Competition Commission and the Office of Fair Trading have been very much behind the curve. They refused the decision of the BBC and commercial broadcasters to create Kangaroo because they were looking at too narrow a market. We urgently need to sweep away the rules of media ownership that prevent consolidation of local newspaper groups and alliances between local newspaper groups and commercial radio companies.
Five years ago those restrictions would have been appropriate, because they would have allowed one organisation to have a dominant impact on a local area. However, with the advent of the internet, that is no longer possible. There are now myriad local sources to which local people can turn. If we want to find a market solution to what is happening, we have to deregulate as rapidly as possible. We know that the Government have intervened in the past to suspend competition rules—for good or, as some might say, for bad—when the situation was urgent. I submit that the situation is now particularly urgent for the local press.
There is a great deal of concern about whether too many local councils are substituting their newspapers for local newspapers. Does the Minister take the same view as the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families on the Killian Pretty review of planning applications? It has recommended that local authorities should be allowed to pull planning application notices from local newspapers. The Secretary of State has indicated his opposition to that proposal. I asked the Minister from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform about this in our debate in January, but he failed to give me an answer. This Minister is more robust and clear sighted, however, and I know that she will give us an answer on the Government’s position today.
We urgently need the OFT to get on with this inquiry. We need the rules to be pushed to one side, to allow newspapers and commercial radio companies to provide a market solution to their problems, and to consolidate and form alliances as and when they think it appropriate.
Inevitably, much of the focus of today’s debate will be on the crisis facing many of our local newspapers. I share that concern, as do those of my constituents who work in the local and regional Scottish press. I had an e-mail yesterday from a constituent who works for the Daily Record and the Sunday Mail and who was extremely unhappy about the impact that the merger of those papers will have, not only on staffing levels but on the working conditions and practices of those involved. I congratulate the National Union of Journalists on highlighting this issue in its campaign on the local and regional press.
Today, I want to talk briefly about a different aspect of the provision of local and regional news. The United Kingdom should take the opportunity to set up a network of truly local television stations. If that were done in the right way, it could benefit not only the news environment but local newspapers as well. Members will know that, with few exceptions, this country has very few examples of genuinely local TV. We have various types of regional programmes, and a regional opt-out here and there, but we have no local TV networks that are truly focused on local communities in the way that local radio is—particularly with the growing network of commercial radio stations, such as the excellent Leith FM, which is based in my constituency and with which I was fortunate enough to do an interview only an hour or so ago.
The present debate about the allocation of the digital spectrum means that we can, as part of the process, take steps to encourage the establishment of a network of genuinely local TV stations serving local communities. In Edinburgh, for example, we could have Edinburgh TV and, further afield, Fife TV or Scottish Borders TV. There are similar possibilities elsewhere in the UK to a greater or lesser extent.
There is a debate in Scotland at the moment about the possibility of a new digital TV channel for Scotland as a whole, alongside the debate about broadcasting in general that has followed the establishment of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission by the Scottish Government. There is a rather sterile debate about whether £75 million should be found for a new Scotland-wide digital channel, yet we are not having the same kind of debate about local TV in Scotland. I am sure that that applies elsewhere as well. If Scottish National party Members could have been bothered to turn up for this debate, they would no doubt have made some comments at this point, but unfortunately they do not appear to be here today.
A move towards establishing a local TV network in the UK would clearly involve certain crucial financial and organisational issues, but they could be addressed. We need to establish that, in principle, we want to see the growth of a genuinely local TV network that would be delivered on Freeview as a new local tier of public service broadcasting. Above all, that network should be delivered by organisations based in their communities and offering a genuine local perspective, and not a network that purports to be local but in fact carries little more than the occasional local item to justify its licence. Such a development could also benefit local newspapers.
I agree with the Minister that convergence offers great opportunities as well as great threats. In the process of considering how the world of local and regional news will move forward, we need to maximise the opportunities while remaining aware of the threats. For example, there is a threat that consolidation could result in even fewer players dominating even more of the media market at local as well as national level. We could see ourselves moving into a world where there is even less local news content in any local media form than there is at present. Those are directions in which we certainly do not want to move. If we work in the right way, we could actually see convergence and the development of local media such as local TV supporting other local media areas, so that the different forms could learn and benefit from sharing expertise, resources and, indeed, advertising, but that can be done only if we also accept that there has to be a real plurality of ownership, real competition and, above all, local TV and local media more genuinely based in local communities.
We have already heard about the crisis in the local and regional news—news that is trusted and valued by our constituents, and, as the Minister said, lies at the heart of the democratic process. That crisis has been brought on by the current economic difficulties and the resulting reduction in advertising spend—a reduced advertising spend that has to be spread ever more thinly as we increase the number of outlets, not least with the growth of online content. It is interesting to note that some analysts suggest that Google now has more UK advertising revenue than ITV.
Local and regional news provision comes, of course, from television, radio, newspapers and increasingly, as I said, online. Figures suggest that 24 per cent. of young people now get their news predominantly from online sources. We have a real crisis in all four of those outlets, and it has led to something like 2,000 job losses in the last 12 months.
In television ITV, along with the BBC, is one of the key providers of regional news, yet we have seen its recently announced £2.73 billion pre-tax loss for the last financial year, due largely to a downturn in advertising revenue. We have also seen the number of regions for regional broadcasting brought down from the original 17 to nine, which I think amounts to a real loss for our constituents. In Bath, for example, my constituents will now get their local news from as far away as Penzance—and I have to say that, frankly, they are about as interested in that as they are in news from Bolton, which is the same distance away from Bath.
Commercial radio, too, is facing huge problems. We know that five local stations have been forced to close in the last 12 months, and RadioCentre predicts that between 30 and 50 stations are in imminent danger of closing. There have also been a number of mergers, which have undermined the value to local communities.
As many people have reported in recent debates, newspapers have fared no better, with 60 titles closed in the last 12 months and a 14 per cent. reduction in the work force. Many of our valued daily newspapers, such as the excellent Bath Chronicle, have had to become weekly rather than daily publications. I am sure that all Members speaking in this debate will be keen to sign, if they have not already done so, early-day motion 916, offering support for local journalism, and also early-day motion 1044, which reports the concern of many of us about the recent decision of the Guardian Media Group to reduce the number of offices serving local communities in the Greater Manchester area. Even online provision has been affected.
The question, then, is: what can be done? We are in a difficult position, midway between the preliminary report by Lord Carter on “Digital Britain” and the final result, which is due out in the early summer. Many of us were disappointed that we did not get more detail in the preliminary report, but it is worth placing on record my belief that it is possible to move forward in a number of areas.
In the case of television, it is clear that major structural changes are needed. I do not want to see the BBC’s licence fee being top-sliced and I do not want to see the crazy Conservative proposal to freeze the licence fee implemented. If the best they can offer the British people is a £3 per household cut as their solution to the current economic crisis, that is a bit bizarre. It is particularly bizarre to do that at a time when the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) claims that he welcomes the conversations, discussions and agreements going on between the BBC and ITV to share resources and facilities that will help ITV through its difficulties.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for conveying the Liberal Democrats’ message that there will be no help for the taxpayer from them during a recession. If he honestly believes the propaganda that spending £68 million would lead to a single job loss at the BBC rather than a cut in some very expensive salaries for “talent”, he really is a prisoner of the BBC’s corporate affairs department.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman took the time this morning to read the report of today’s speech by Mark Thompson, who heads the BBC. It gives full details of the major changes and cost savings that the BBC will make. Those savings will help to support other commercial public sector broadcasters, which I welcome, but I hope that the Minister will also be prepared to help ITV by, for instance, relaxing the rules governing its contract rights renewal.
The Secretary of State’s unwillingness to consider the possibility of product placement, which could have brought additional money into broadcasting and, perhaps, removed some revenue from online services, was antediluvian. The Minister might also consider allowing more flexibility, not in the total amount of advertising time on our commercial channels but in the time slots in which advertisements are placed.
I hope that the talks between Channel 4 and the BBC will continue, because, among other things, they may help to protect ITN.
Attention has already been drawn to the problems of radio, but we should now concentrate on the issue of cross-media ownership. There is an urgent need for us to consider ways in which the rules can be adjusted if we are to protect commercial radio stations. I hope that that will involve the introduction of a new localism test for stations applying for licences. The current test to establish whether a radio station is truly local does not deliver what my constituents—and, I suspect, many others—want.
We must also think about newspaper ownership, and try to find ways of supporting newspapers. Many newspaper owners were concerned about the proposals for BBC Local, which they rightly feared would damage local newspapers. Perhaps the proposal could be reformulated: the BBC could offer financial rewards to local newspaper and radio journalists in return for what they could provide. There are many good ideas to be explored, and I hope that the Minister will explore all of them.
This subject is crucial to us as politicians, and to the nation. It involves our roots, and it involves local democracy. In this country, power is much better scrutinised at the centre by a well-organised and energetic national press than it is in the localities, where it is hardly scrutinised at all—and that scrutiny is becoming weaker and less adequate.
The local and regional media are fundamental to local democracy, to community—a local or regional news medium represents a community talking to itself—and to the provision of local information. They provide what people want to read about in the localities. We must therefore try to find ways in which we can serve and help the threatened local media.
I am not greatly concerned about the threat to radio. It is a real threat, but I am not particularly bothered about financing and supporting our local juke box. There is no reason why that juke box should be placed in Grimsby—or, for that matter, in London, although the BBC, with Radio 1, is well qualified to place it in London. We happen to have some very good local radio stations in BBC Radio Humberside, Compass FM and Lincolnshire FM, although perhaps I am prejudiced because they are in my area.
I am, however, worried about the threat to regional news on television and the regional production of television programmes, especially given the announcement of the closure of the television centre that brought television production to our area and put Yorkshire and Lincolnshire on national television screens. The closure will mean a loss of jobs and a contraction of local news services. Yorkshire Television, the ITV licence-holder in the county, is shedding 40 of the 100 jobs in regional news. That must mean that there will be a less adequate service and less adequate competition with the BBC.
I am also concerned about the pressing newspapers problem. The National Union of Journalists estimates that 900 jobs have been lost in local newspapers since June last year. Since that is its estimate of vacancies and redundancies notified to it, it must be an underestimate, so I should think that well over 1,000 jobs have been lost in local newspapers. They are struggling. There are two reasons why, and it is important to differentiate between them. The first is the effect of the recession, which is affecting advertising revenues, particularly from estate agents and the local property market. The second is the growing competition from the internet, with classified adverts being placed on internet sites. It is important to differentiate between the long-term trend threatening the long-term viability of the local press, and the immediate problem of threats caused by the recession. Both, however, have produced a steady process of job shedding.
Those problems have also resulted in the local press moving down market. The local press has become much more tabloid—much more interested in rape, murder, arson and other sensationalist aspects of local news. That might boost circulation in the short term, on a one-edition basis, but it becomes jading as a constant diet, and people do not want to read it. This has also produced an over-emphasis on populist politics. It has driven politics—and us as MPs—out of local newspapers, which used to be our way of reaching our electors and our community. That trend is overdone.
The complaints from the media owners about loss of profitability, and whether they can survive, are also overdone. The figures show that. The NUJ has compiled all the figures. Trinity Mirror had an operating profit of 19 per cent. last year, and the figure for the Johnston group was 29 per cent. We should compare those figures with the figure for Tesco, which is 6 per cent. Why do these companies want to make such huge profits out of the local media? We should also take into account the excessive competition from freesheets, and the waste of money involved in the London freesheets competition.
How can we help the organisations concerned through the current situation? First we must bring the parties—the editors, journalists and owners—together to discuss what is wrong, and we should involve the BBC, particularly in training and media studies. We must try to develop a strategy for the industry, with the industry.
The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) said that freezing the BBC licence fee would not do any good, and that it would be a gesture. Perhaps Mark Thompson would like to make a gesture, too, with the £816,000 package he gets? A lot of people in my constituency have to scrape hard to pay the licence fee, which will be £142.50 when the increase comes through next month. Freezing the licence fee would send the right signal. Everybody else has to tighten their belts. Indeed, the local newspapers, that we all love, are doing so, because they have to. As the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) said, their advertising in areas such as employment, cars and property is shrinking. Therefore, they are making journalists redundant—some of whom have, no doubt, worked on the paper for a long time. There will also be fewer opportunities for young journalists leaving media courses, as they will find it more difficult to secure employment with such newspapers.
We cherish these newspapers, and we must see what we can do to give them some support. In my patch, we have the Lancashire Evening Telegraph and the Lancashire Evening Post, and the weeklies, The Longridge News and the Clitheroe Advertiser and Times. They have internet sections as well, and they must do that for the future; they must see the internet not as a problem that will put them out of business, but as an opportunity that will give them great potential for the future, with advertising online as well as in the newspaper. Goodness knows what will happen in 40, 30 and 20 years’ time.
Will newspapers in the form that we know them today survive at all? Perhaps all the local news will be accessed via iPhones, BlackBerries or goodness knows what other devices that we can only imagine now. There are probably kids in silicon valley working on the next device that everybody will be buying to download newspapers. We must ask what can be done in the meantime to ensure the viability of local newspapers, so that they are still around to embrace the new technology. There is nothing worse than seeing a newspaper that was established 100 years ago or more going to the wall because of the current financial crisis. We must do everything possible to support local papers.
We use local papers to get our messages across, because the news is local to people and they savour finding out what their politicians are doing. We get lots of opportunities to get stuff in the local papers, whereas it is far more difficult, although not impossible, for us to get stuff in the national papers or on to the national TV or radio news. People want to know what is happening locally—in their own communities—and thank goodness we are helped by journalists who are employed here in Parliament and are basically conduits for us to get our messages across. I should also mention the team of expert journalists who work for these papers in our own constituencies, because they know our patches as well as we do and, thus, when we talk to them they know what we are talking about.
On regional TV news, I am delighted that the BBC was not allowed to do what it wanted to do—develop its local TV stations, featherbedded by its £3.5 billion of licence fee payers’ money, which it gets whatever it does. The plans would have crippled a lot of our commercial newspapers and, indeed, ITV, which is against the wall at the moment, as I have seen in my region. Granada TV, my local station, does a great job with “Granada Reports” and “Party People”, which is the local political programme, but even over the past 12 months the coverage of “Party People” has diminished—instead of being on every week while the House is sitting it is now on once a month. The tremendous current affairs programming that Granada used to do, which involved great expertise, has been diminished; Granada is having to pull its horns in simply because of the financial crisis.
I hope that the Minister has some answer on giving support to local papers and regional news. I think that product placement would have been one of the answers; it would have given ITV an opportunity to get some extra cash, at least during this recession.
I welcome the selection of this subject for today’s topical debate, because it is clear from what has been said that we face a crisis in our local and regional news journalism. Every hon. Member has local stories to tell to highlight that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) has said, the National Union of Journalists estimates that at least 1,000 editorial jobs have been lost since last June, and many other jobs will have been lost as local newspapers and offices have been closed. We understand that at least 60 titles have closed in the past six months; indeed, only last week a group of 18 local newspapers went into administration. The estimates are that we could lose a third of all local newspaper jobs by 2011.
It is clear that we face a crisis in this industry, and that has many implications for local communities. We talk a lot in this place about community identity and community cohesion. One of the most powerful ways in which communities achieve cohesion is through an identity that is reflected in the sharing of information about what is going on locally. If we were to see the end of local and regional press, that would have huge implications for all of us.
What we are seeing is an intensification of a process that has been going on for some time. The current difficult economic times have meant that over the past few months there has been a large decrease in the amount of advertising revenue on which local newspapers are able to rely, but in reality that trend has been going on for some time. Some newspaper groups are perhaps taking advantage of the fact that we are in such difficult economic times to go ahead with proposals that they were intending to implement anyway. The reality is that our local newspapers are owned by a number of large organisations, which, in general, are still making heavy profits. Mention has already been made of the fact that profits for local media organisations of 20 to 30 per cent. were normal, and now that profits have fallen to single figures, the organisations are not used to that.
In my constituency, for example, the Largs office of the Largs and Millport News—a historic newspaper that has been around for generations—has closed, and it now operates out of Ardrossan, which is outwith the circulation area of the paper. That story is being repeated nationally. Local offices are closing and newspapers are moving to other areas of the country with which they have traditionally had no connection. We are also seeing more common pages produced to be published in several newspapers in different areas.
We have heard calls this afternoon for the relaxation of media ownership laws and deregulation, but that is not the approach that the Government should take. Several suggestions have been made about how the Government could assist local media, including providing guaranteed advertising, but simply putting extra funding from Government into failed models is not the way forward. Local media face a huge challenge from the digital age and web-based technologies, and the answer is not international companies coming in to run local newspapers. We need local newspapers that are genuinely responsive to, and reflective of, the communities that they serve.
I welcome the comments made by the Minister this afternoon about bringing together all the partners in the sector—the trade unions, including the National Union of Journalists, and the enterprise organisations and regional development bodies in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland—to look at ways to put local journalism at the heart of the local media. We need quality media, and by bringing everyone together, I hope that we will be able to find creative solutions for the future.
I felt compelled to take part in this debate as only last week one of my local newspapers, the Reading Evening Post announced that it will stop publishing daily and will instead publish twice a week. That will mean the loss of some 100 jobs, which is bad enough in itself, but the change will also have an impact on the wider community. Local newspapers are incredibly important to local communities. A local newspaper can act as the glue that binds communities together. For example, local charities, voluntary organisations, sports clubs and many other organisations rely on their local newspapers to support everything from fundraising to recruiting new members or volunteers.
The Evening Post is one of only three regional newspapers to have increased its circulation over the past year, so it is very disappointing that it faces these cuts. It has a good team—I know the editor, Andy Murrill, well, and although politically we differ markedly, I know that he is a very good editor who cares deeply and passionately about Reading and its people. His newspaper reflects his view that being involved in and supporting the diversity of the town is essential to both the present and the future of the town.
My constituency is a very diverse area with many different ethnic groups and religious creeds. Relations across those groups are good precisely because the newspapers in the town, especially the Evening Post, have taken such a positive approach to building understanding and good relationships. Andy Murrill deserves enormous credit for the part that he has played in that.
In order to weather the economic storm, local papers need both our understanding of the challenges they face and our support. I believe that the public sector has a role to play, particularly with regard to advertising, of course, in circumstances where that represents the best value. Local newspapers give councils, hospitals and the police, for example, an enormous amount of positive and free publicity, but those organisations have been switching their marketing and advertising spend to glossy in-house publications, recruitment websites and their own websites. I think that Reading borough council’s glossy magazine costs about £60,000 a year, from memory, and it is read by probably 100 people in the borough. Taxpayer-funded organisations have a duty to get best value, spending their money wisely. Why print their own magazine when two perfectly good local newspapers exist to communicate exactly the same information? It makes no economic sense at all. In these difficult times, a two-way partnership with the public sector needs to be encouraged and established in which editorial content is financed through recruitment and public notice advertising. It is much better value for money and keeps local newspapers going.
There is also a role for the Government. They need to look urgently at the law regarding monopoly restrictions on local newspapers. There is now so much media choice, with radio, TV, other niche publications and websites, that the notion of strictly newspaper-dominated local monopolies simply does not hold water. There is also a certain paradox. Some newspaper groups have always enjoyed a monopoly in certain towns with absolutely no problem at all, yet newspapers cannot merge in other towns to safeguard their futures. That does not seem to be either fair or in the community’s interests. The Office of Fair Trading perhaps needs to consider how it interprets the law with regard to the wider operation of the local media rather than simply considering the local newspapers. The Reading Chronicle is part of a family-owned group, yet it was forced to sell one of its Slough newspapers owing to the OFT ruling that it would have a local monopoly.
I can understand the concerns about local monopoly positions. I know that some local politicians in particular are concerned about the political and editorial stance of some local newspapers. My view is that local newspapers that want to maintain circulation will avoid getting involved in the childish political squabbles that take place from time to time and will focus just on serving the interests of their local communities.
I would have liked to have gone on to talk a bit about local television, but I think that I am going to run out of time. My message to the House this afternoon, as well as to my local media, is: use it, or lose it.
I want to use the debate to highlight my concern at the decision by the Guardian Media Group to announce 150 job losses at the Manchester Evening News and its 22 weekly newspapers, including the extremely successful Stockport Express, which serves my constituency. The weekly newspapers will continue to exist but their offices will be closed and the papers will all be written and designed at head office in Manchester by a remote pool of journalists. That development chimes with an unwelcome national trend towards centralisation of services and people. Sixty local newspapers out of 1,300 closed last year according to the Newspaper Society, and we do not want our weekly newspapers in the Manchester area to end up suffering the same fate.
Local newspapers such as the Stockport Express, which has been going since 1889, play an essential role at the heart of their communities. That is because they are written by journalists who are constantly out and about and who know the local area and its people well. Local newspapers strengthen democracy and community life and hold local government and other organisations to account. They also provide a forum for individuals and organisations to speak to each other.
Unlike many other newspapers locally and nationally, the Stockport Express is bucking the national trend and is gaining new readers all the time. It is the only paper in the north-west to have increased its sales. The latest ABC figures show that circulation has risen by 1 per cent. while every other title was down, in most cases by more than 5 per cent. In fact, the Stockport Express is the only one of 25 paid-for weekly papers in the whole UK to have seen an increase in sales, so it is very sad that instead of building on such a great success story, the Stockport Express is about to be weakened by having no editorial presence in the town. The rise in sales of the Stockport Express under the able editorship of Mandy Leigh has been accomplished as a result of the paper’s reputation as a trusted, honest and open community newspaper. It is very grass roots: it understands the community and gives it what it wants, which will not happen if the editorial staff are all based in Manchester.
The Stockport Express has six very popular district pages devoted to small areas of the town. Those are the pages that readers often turn to first, and people tell me that it feels as though they know exactly what is happening in their road. The paper also runs hard-hitting campaigns, such as the one to save Stockport’s Plaza theatre. That campaign is going from strength to strength. The paper has exposed countless stories of wrongdoing, and its very good sports page is often devoted to coverage of Stockport County, the local football team. Readers have been following the team’s financial ups and downs, as well as its success in the league, and each week there is another episode in what is an exciting saga.
The paper provides a vital voice for the man or woman in the street. People feel that they can turn to it if they have an issue or a problem that they want to air. If they are unhappy with the care an elderly relative has received, for instance, they feel confident that their local paper will give them a fair hearing and will not willingly misrepresent them.
Highlighting individual cases also brings to the attention of local and national policymakers wider cases of injustice, and that can help to bring about change. I remember how one such incident began with a story in the Stockport Express on neighbours’ complaints about noise and antisocial behaviour arising from a small children’s home. It transpired that there was no need for such homes to be legally registered but, after a successful campaign, legislation was introduced in 2000 to require small children’s homes to register, which allowed better monitoring of such premises. I can think of many examples over the years that illustrate the important part that local newspapers play in the democratic process of bringing about change.
The Stockport Express has also been a prolific winner of awards over the years. It was the last holder of the Guardian Media Group’s award for best paid-for weekly, and is the current holder of the How-Do award for weekly newspaper of the year. Several of its journalists—including chief reporter Peter Devine—and photographers have won national awards.
If the Guardian Media Group proposals go ahead and the Stockport Express is produced in Manchester, face-to-face contact with the town of Stockport will be lost and there will be no on-the-spot journalists. The upshot will be that the bond between paper and town will be loosened, which can only damage the paper’s future prospects.
When I gave my maiden speech in the House of Commons in May 1992 I praised our good local press, which then comprised of six papers. Since then, all of them have closed, apart from the Stockport Express and its sister paper the Stockport Times. It is ironic that The Guardian began in Manchester as a successful independent community newspaper, and yet the Guardian Media Group plans to take this drastic action.
Local newspapers provide a documented record of our social history that cannot be replaced by social networking sites and the internet. They are a record for generations to come, and for a town to lose one would be to lose its collective memory. Therefore, I urge the Guardian Media Group to think again about its proposed cuts.
I rise to speak unashamedly in support of my local newspapers, which have had a long and impressive involvement in the community. The most important of the various local newspapers is the Northampton Herald and Post, but the paid-for daily the Northampton Chronicle and Echo dates back almost 300 years. We are very proud of it, and it is an integral part of what Northampton is all about.
The Chronicle and Echo is produced six days a week, and it offers the community an excellent product. I am not currying favour by saying that, because the truth is that the Chronicle and Echo is a vital part of our community. I am not sure that it gets all the recognition that it deserves—and therein lies one of the problems that we face.
I do not believe that the value of the Chronicle and Echo is recognised enough in the House, or by local government officials in the Northampton area. They always allude to it as “the Chronic”, which gives the House some idea of how it is regarded. Yet I assure the House that, if it were to disappear—I do not think there is any threat of that, and I would be horrified to learn otherwise—those same people would shout their mouths off because it was no longer there. The paper’s value to local democracy is immeasurable.
The paper is the major vehicle for broadcasting local democracy—for understanding it and raising interest in it in the community. We misunderstand what local newspapers are about if we fail to recognise that role. I pay tribute to David Summers, the editor, Richard Edmonds, the news editor, Wayne Bontoft, the reporter, and the journalist team, whose jobs are under threat, as are those of many journalist teams up and down the country.
I pay tribute to the bravery of those journalists. They get involved in political matters. They encourage political involvement. Thank God, the days when local newspapers simply carried obituaries and photographs of weddings are long gone—not that that was ever part of the Northampton local newspaper scene. Local newspaper teams show considerable courage and journalistic ability in reporting local news honestly and clearly. Without that, our local democracy would be less.
In the brief time left for my speech, I shall talk about the difficulties faced by the local newspaper. The number of car adverts has fallen dramatically. That is a simplistic statement, because we know that people are not buying cars in anywhere near the numbers of a year ago. There has been a massive fall in car advertising. On Thursdays, the major day for job advertising, the number of job adverts has gone down from 1,000 to 200. That is a reflection of the problems we face nationally, but—importantly—that newspapers face in terms of advertising revenue.
Official notices are absolutely vital. Although I understood the reasons for passing the insolvency measure earlier, it will none the less further hit local newspapers. We need to understand that. I call on the Government to ensure that as much as possible of the advertising revenue in their remit is directed to local newspapers. If ever they needed the help of the Government, the House, and indeed local authorities, it is now. If we lose our local newspapers, we will regret it for ever more.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), I am concerned about the decision by the Guardian Media Group to close local news offices across Greater Manchester, coming as it does when the Manchester Evening News, the regional sister paper, has already faced substantial cuts. The decision means that scores of journalists will lose their jobs, which will have a huge impact on the quality and coverage of local news in my Denton and Reddish constituency. There will be a profound impact on great local titles such as the Stockport Express and Times and the Tameside Advertiser.
We all know that local newspapers have an absolutely central role at the heart of local communities, so I was shocked by the announcement that Guardian Media Group is making 150 redundancies, including 78 journalists, and closing all its weekly newspaper offices in Greater Manchester. It means that 39 jobs will go at the Manchester Evening News and another 39 jobs will disappear in the weekly newspapers, including the titles covering my constituency—the Stockport Express and Times and the Tameside Advertiser.
The plans also mean that all weekly papers in the MEN group, from as far north as Accrington to as far south as Wilmslow, will be based at its Deansgate office in central Manchester. That is devastating not only for the staff involved, but for Greater Manchester and the surrounding areas as a whole.
As we have already said, local newspapers play an essential role at the heart of their communities and are written by a group of dedicated journalists. Local newspapers provide quality, independent journalism; they hold authorities to account and campaign on behalf of readers, to professional standards of fairness and accuracy and with no agenda other than the public interest. It is more important than ever to preserve those principles, but the closure of local newspaper offices will have a profound effect on them. The founding fathers of The Manchester Guardian, as it was originally called, and in particular its long-time editor, C.P. Scott, would be appalled and saddened by the developments. As he said in his centenary lecture, a newspaper is
“much more than a business”.
“reflects and influences the life of a whole community”
and has a
“moral as well as a material existence”.
Let me give examples from my constituency. The Stockport Express and Times and the Tameside Advertiser are an integral part of their communities, and have been for many years. They play a major role in informing residents about events, crime, and local schools and their activities. They celebrate local success and highlight failures, and call the council and Members of Parliament to account through their investigative journalism.
In Tameside, many people feel that moving the branch office from Ashton-under-Lyne will mean that local people will have reduced access to democracy. In my constituency, many people pop into the Ashton office to give journalists a juicy story, to find out more about something that appeared in the previous week’s paper, or just to voice their concerns about certain issues. The same is true in Stockport, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport.
Similar issues arise from reduced distribution. A substantial number of people do not have internet access, so they cannot go online to find out what is happening. The beauty of purely local newspapers is that they avoid that problem. If we lose that presence in the two boroughs that I represent, people will feel that the title should no longer be the Tameside Advertiser or the Stockport Express; the newspapers will be more a Tameside or Stockport version of the Manchester Evening News, with a reduced number of pictures and stories, and more shared elements across the whole of Greater Manchester.
For journalists, unemployment is a big issue. Most have trained to postgraduate level, and then spend at least 18 months training to take the national certificate examination in journalism. At present there are virtually no jobs to be had in journalism, certainly not in Greater Manchester, where the Manchester Evening News media have a virtual monopoly. That means that standards in journalism will be lowered, and we should all be concerned about that.
Localism is the important factor for people in my constituency. The Stockport Express and the Tameside Advertiser are wonderful local campaigning newspapers with dedicated journalists. The Stockport Express has been an institution in Stockport since 1889. The Tameside Advertiser is a newer title than its Stockport sister paper, but it is just as highly regarded in the borough. This disgraceful decision urgently needs to be reversed. The newspapers are the key to campaigning in our areas, and we need to make sure that they are preserved for the future.
I am well aware that the subject of today’s debate is local and regional news, but I hope that hon. Members will understand if I restrict my remarks to the job losses announced at the Guardian Media Group just last week. I should like to take this opportunity to refer hon. Members to early-day motion 1044, which is in my name.
There is no point denying that local news is going through a torrid time, with advertising revenues falling and the recession hitting it hard. I am aware that the Guardian Media Group job losses are just the most recent example of a problem that is prevalent across the country. I rise to speak today to say that the newspapers that cover my constituency of Cheadle are under threat. The Guardian Media Group owns not only the Manchester Evening News but some two dozen titles across Greater Manchester, including the Stockport Express and Times, which, as we have heard, covers the whole of the Stockport borough, including my constituency.
Just last week, the chief executive of the Guardian Media Group announced 150 job cuts. That includes the jobs of 78 journalists, 39 of them from the Manchester Evening News and 39 from weekly newspapers right across the Greater Manchester area, including the Stockport Express and Times. Some of the job cuts will be voluntary, but there is little doubt that for the first time in its long and proud history, the Guardian Media Group will be responsible for compulsory editorial redundancies at the Manchester Evening News.
The group also announced that it would close the Stockport editorial office—and, indeed, all its editorial offices across the Greater Manchester area—with the result that the Stockport Express will no longer be produced in the area that it covers. Instead, it will be designed around a common template, with the central section containing common pages drawn from the Manchester Evening News leisure and entertainment content. It will be created at the Manchester Evening News offices in Deansgate by a combined pool of journalists, and the content of the paper will be shared with the Manchester Evening News. In other words, it will not remain local, and it will not retain the local community flavour that has been created by hard-working, locally based journalists. That will be a devastating blow to the community. The Stockport Express is vital to the life-blood of our area. It increases community engagement, and it strengthens local identity. The editor, Mandy Leigh, and all her team deserve congratulations on producing award-winning newspapers.
Many residents rely on the local paper for local news, to hear about local events, and to keep connected as a community. For elderly and infirm readers especially, the local paper is a vital source of information and a key link to the local area. As a former employee of the Guardian Media Group myself, I am all too aware of the dedication and hard work that many people have put in over the years to build up Greater Manchester’s local weekly newspapers, and it would be a tragedy if that hard work was allowed to go to waste. Local papers, including the Stockport Express, provide excellent, quality, independent journalism. They report the news fairly and accurately to the public. They play a vital role in scrutinising and reporting the work of the Government and local elected representatives, holding public authorities to account and campaigning on behalf of local residents, all of which, in a time of economic uncertainty, are more important than ever.
Local papers reflect the local community, they cater for its needs and they work on its behalf. The plans by the Guardian Media Group will sever that link with the local area, losing the vital ingredient that makes local papers local. That can only damage the future of those papers. I join other hon. Members who have appealed to the Guardian Media Group to reconsider the proposals in the best interests of our community. I am happy to tell the House that it is a message that several of us will repeat to the chief executive of the Guardian Media Group, Mr. Mark Dodson, at a meeting later this afternoon.
I requested this debate last Thursday, and I am pleased that we are holding it today. I am pleased that everyone has enjoyed it so far, and I hope I can join in with a further contribution.
I want to speak about regional television and the fact that regional television companies are under the cosh, none more so than Granada. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) rightly stressed the importance of political programmes. The BBC screens a regional political show on Sunday, and we must ensure that we retain the showing of “Party People” at least once a month. Indeed, it should not be shown once a month but once a week. That is what competition is about, and it is unfair that there is no competition in regional and local news, because of the dominance of the BBC.
I have nothing against the BBC, and I want it to remain in place, but I want to ensure that there is a challenge and true competition, which must come from local newspapers, local radio and local television. Regional news and regional current affairs programmes must continue. Indeed, regional current affairs programmes are just as important as regional news. It is only right that BBC funding should be top-sliced, and that money should be put into a pot to ensure that there is true competition. The BBC has programmes online, and it has local radio, regional television and national television. There is nothing wrong with that, but I want competition to continue. It is important that ITV remains one of the main competitors.
The issue of product placement has been raised. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State got it absolutely wrong—product placement is a way of getting new revenue in and ensuring that there is true competition in the market. That is what we have to remember—it is about competition.
Of course, we must talk about local radio, which is under the cosh, but there is some good news for my hon. Friend the Minister. On Saturday I had the pleasure of reopening the new studios for that great community radio, Chorley FM, which is broadcasting all over Chorley as we speak. Chorley FM shows that there is some good news coming out.
As for our local newspapers, both daily and weekly, none are more important than the Lancashire Evening Post, the Lancashire Evening Telegraph and the Bolton News. My constituents rely on those newspapers. There are times when we do not like what newspapers print, and there are times when we love what they print. The important point is that they are there to provide news locally, and it is local news that would not be picked up in any other way if it were not for local radio and local newspapers, such as the campaigning Chorley Guardian.
Chris McGuire and Vanessa Taylor, the veterans of the newsdesk and the Chorley Guardian have not only run important campaigns, but have played an important part in raising money. After one of my colleagues on the local authority tragically died of cancer, the Chorley Guardian ran the Mary’s Prayer campaign, which raised the much needed sum of £50,000 for cancer charities.
My constituent, Jessica Knight, was, tragically, subjected to a frenzied knife attack, was stabbed 35 times and survived. The Chorley Guardian and the Chorley Citizen ran a great campaign. The Chorley Guardian raised £20,000 on behalf of Jessica Knight to set up a trust fund for the family during those difficult times. What other local newspapers have done is good, and if they did not such things, who would do it? There is nobody to step in and take their place.
We have touched on what has happened under the Manchester Media newspapers. The Chorley Citizen was running a very good weekly free sheet in Chorley. Unlike Preston and South Ribble, which lost their Citizen newspapers, Chorley’s remains, but it is now operating out of Blackburn. The news comes from that distant headquarters. Thank goodness we have Chris Gee as a reporter, a local person well qualified to report that local news. That is what it is about—local people guaranteeing the news.
If people want to know about a birth, a death or a marriage, as many do, they pick up the Chorley Guardian. They look at the news and they want to find out who has died and who has been born. They all want to hear the good news as well. That is what the local media do. There is no alternative, so the Government must stand up and top slice some of that money from the BBC. Let us make a difference for the people we represent, give that money to the local media and ensure that there is competition in this country, not the dominance of the BBC.
We tend to think of local media, as we have done today, in terms of their broadcast role, but they are businesses in their own right, and not all of them are large groups. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) pointed out, many of them are family owned. That applies to my own area. They are facing the normal business pressures that all businesses are facing in the recession, plus the knock-on effects and the specific problems of their industry.
I am glad that the undermining of local newspapers by the BBC over local video on demand has passed, but it is necessary to have a reasoned debate about how the future of local media will develop on a multimedia basis and the regulatory regime that will apply.
There has always been cross-fertilisation of different media. During the mid-1990s I was a business presenter for the BBC. Being a Conservative in the BBC at that time gave me a hint of what being an endangered species must be like. My experience of TV newsrooms was that they were fed by local papers, and not the other way round. We live in a world where we are blessed with different means of getting our messages across, and we should not throw out the old ones as we go along and pick up the new ones.
A number of points have been made about newspapers, principally that local newspapers are at their best when they have an affinity with the local area and when they have taken on a campaigning role. I pay tribute to the Henley Standard for the support it gave me for the recession networking event that I provided last week, and for its own Think Local campaign to help local shops in the town.
During the debate we have developed considerable consensus about the challenges facing newspapers with the drop in advertising income, loss of jobs and loss of titles. I hope we will also achieve some consensus about the solutions, such as freeing up restrictions, encouraging innovation and encouraging newspapers to take on roles within their own community.
We have not heard a lot today about what is local in terms of television, although the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) rightly touched on the matter. One of the great problems for my constituents is that the geographical areas covered by regional broadcasting have got bigger and bigger; someone in my constituency watching “local” news can see items about Birmingham or Southampton. Those reports will be important for the local communities involved, but they are not local news for my constituents. We will not have time today, but there is an issue of balance that we need to discuss and work through. What should the balance be between the need for regional television to have controllable and reasonable costs, and what works for the audience in respect of the regional network’s coverage?
It is time to end the endless review culture. The delay in sorting out the future for local media, including both newspapers and broadcast media, will cost jobs and erode an important part of our local heritage.
I shall be very quick, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I know that the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) would like a quick word if he catches your eye.
I thank the Minister for the speed with which she and the Secretary of State responded to the National Union of Journalists group’s request for a conference to consider these issues. The meeting with the Secretary of State was very useful. It shows the benefits brought by all-party groups and how important it is for us to broach all issues relating to this crisis. I congratulate the Minister on what she said.
We look forward to going ahead with what my hon. Friend has just described as “a brilliant idea”.
I want to talk about two issues. There is a view among those who work in the industry that the recession is being used as a front for some of the cuts in local and regional media. We know that the industry is in decline, although interestingly that decline is not anything like the same locally and regionally as it is nationally. Despite that, local and regional media are being sacrificed, often because of national titles. I hope that the conference will identify, consider and act on that issue.
Before making my second point, I shall refer quickly to my local newspapers, the Stroud News and Journal, the Dursley Gazette, The Citizen and Stroud Life. I feel sorry for the staff in local media. Some of the terms and conditions under which the journalists, photographers, editors and sub-editors work, and the pay that they receive, are simply unacceptable. The pay was low before the current cuts were imposed. Many people working in the sector are on the minimum wage—and, dare I say it, below it. Recently, more people have been encouraged to come on work experience as a way of getting a job. Disgracefully, that has included the BBC. It has been said that work experience is the best way to get into the industry, and the issue then becomes about people who have money and can afford to work free for six months. That precludes so many others.
It is right and proper that we look at the impact on people who work in local media; as hon. Members have said, we depend on them to get our message across. Furthermore, the general public have to trust and rely on them. If those people are treated in that deplorable way, we will not get quality and there will be no fairness.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) for shortening his speech. With all due respect to the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), it is an affront to the House that we can now have a two-and-a-half-hour Adjournment debate, given that many of us would like to speak at greater length on this subject. That demonstrates that the Government are not that serious, bothered or concerned about what is happening in our provincial press. I have been advised that local newspaper week—“week” as in seven days, not “weak”—will be from 11 to 17 May.
I speak as a former branch secretary of the north Essex branch of the National Union of Journalists, and it may come as a surprise to colleagues that 40 years ago I was editor of a weekly newspaper. Looking back, it is clear that that was the heyday of local newspapers, when their penetration in local communities was virtually 100 per cent. What we are now witnessing is happening not only in newspapers but in regional television. Anglia Television, for example, has contracted its two news services into one, which means that across the east of England there is 120 hours a week less airtime for regional television.
In recent weeks, all our local newspapers, the Colchester Gazette, the award-winning Essex County Standard and the East Anglian Daily Times, have sacked staff—not that we read about it, because a non-aggression pact is in place. However, I can say that the Colchester Gazette has dispensed with the services of 13 experienced journalists including the editor, the news editor, the chief sub-editor and the features editor. I am not criticising local journalists or the editor, who is now running the Gazette and the Southend Echo, but the paper is now produced in Basildon and printed in Brighton for Colchester—it is our own BBC. My concern is that there is less and less coverage of our local councils, courts and so on, which is a serious problem for local democracy and accountability. Local journalists want to report on those things, but they are being prevented from doing so by commercial circumstances.
Newspaper conglomerates have built up massive profits over the years. They have not invested properly, yet they still want to cream off as much profit as they can. The Government need to act and get a grip on that.
In the very short time that I have, I shall briefly cover three subjects. The first is the need to review the rules governing media ownership, which Members have mentioned in this passionate debate. I point out that the Government have already asked the Office of Fair Trading and Ofcom to examine the merger regime for local and regional media and let us know whether any changes are needed. They issued a discussion paper on 13 March inviting responses by 31 March, which is a short window.
I turn to national and local government support for local media through advertising. We need partnership working, and I know about the Killian Pretty recommendations and that planning applications and information are worth about £40 million a year in advertising revenue. I urge hon. Members to get their local councils and local papers working together on that.
I shall end by talking about job losses and short-time working. I have enormous sympathy with what the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) said. I did an interview with the Colchester Gazette this afternoon and spoke to a young reporter who was deeply shocked at having been asked to take a week of unpaid leave. At the East Anglian Daily Times, I spoke to a much older reporter who was shocked at being made to work short time and at the fact that his job was under threat. Those are the human tragedies behind the figures that several hon. Members mentioned in huge detail. The Government do care about this issue, and we are doing something about it. I thank hon. Members for their contributions.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of local and regional news.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Further to the important point that the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) made in his speech in the topical debate, it will be apparent to you and all those in the Chamber this afternoon that one and a half hours has been wholly insufficient to deal with an issue of huge concern to hon. Members representing constituencies throughout the country. I had intended to intervene, but I understood that there was such pressure that you decided—entirely rightly—to reduce hon. Members’ speeches to five minutes. It would therefore have taken time out of their contributions if I intervened. The hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) has tabled an important early-day motion on the matter—
I am sorry. The hon. Member for Stockport signed that early-day motion. Will you, Madam Deputy Speaker, consider having a word with Mr. Speaker to ascertain whether, when we have a topical debate, which is a good institution, some discretion could be given to the Chair to extend the debate when it appears, perhaps at the last minute, that more Members want to speak than was first believed? We would not then have two and a half hours on an individual Member’s Adjournment debate and the House would have an opportunity to discuss a topic further because, in my case, I have been told that the Aldershot News will be merged with the Aldershot Mail—
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. When we introduced topical debates, I thought that there was provision for flexibility for the Chair. If that is not correct, will you advise us about how we can ensure such flexibility in future?
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am the third complainant, though the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) spoke during the topical debate, so he is in a better position. May I also ask you to use your influence with Mr. Speaker—and we can obviously approach the Leader of the House—so that we can consider the flexibility of rules on a Thursday? For example, if an Adjournment debate does not take up the whole of the rest of the time, perhaps we could resume the topical debate afterwards and thus use the time allocated. Often, as you know, there is great pressure on the topical debate when the subject is important, and the House would be grateful if, together, we found a solution that allows big issues to be discussed by everyone who wants to participate.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The subject of a topical debate is, by nature, something that is in the news, but also important. Could the flexibility that we all seek be such that the Adjournment debate, which is supposed to run for only half an hour, stick to its half hour, and the topical debate could run until 6 o’clock? Clearly, we will now finish early if the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) does not take two hours over her Adjournment debate. She probably will not because she expected only half an hour. We want to give you, Madam Deputy Speaker, the ability to use your discretion and wisdom to extend a topical debate.
The points of order that four hon. Members have made on their concerns about the topical debate are now well and truly on the record. It is a matter for the Leader of the House and the Modernisation Committee. Those views are on the record and will be taken up.