[Mrs. Janet Dean in the Chair]
It is good to have the opportunity to introduce this debate, and that so many colleagues from all parties are present to contribute. I guess the subject of local newspapers is a good way of encouraging Members to attend, as we all have good relationships, even love-hate relationships, with our local papers and therefore feel passionately about their success and survival.
Like many hon. Members, I spend a fair amount of my constituency time meeting people in the local business community, listening to what they have to say, taking up their concerns and learning from them. One such meeting was the inspiration for the debate; it was with Howard Scott, the managing director of Newsquest South and West London at his office in my constituency. Newsquest publishes the “Guardian” series of local newspapers, which are well regarded and well read in many places. At that meeting he talked me through the pressures the industry is under and highlighted the impact that taxpayer-funded council newspapers are having on the health of an independent local press. I hope that all my colleagues agree that local papers are part of the lifeblood of our democracy.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend that local newspapers are the lifeblood of the community. Does he agree that news is something that someone does not want people to know, so by printing news the papers hold decision makers and those with power and authority to account and that without them we would be democratically and socially poorer?
That sentiment will be echoed throughout the debate, and it is certainly one that I want to express in some detail and with examples.
Local papers can and should be challenging. Sometimes, they can even be irritating and they occasionally get their facts wrong, but none of those things outweighs the public interest local papers serve. It is not just my view that local papers are part of the lifeblood of our democracy, it is also the clearly expressed view of the current Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who wrote about the matter last year in the Sunday Mirror. My purpose today is to urge the Government to act now to safeguard our local newspapers against unfair competition from council-funded local papers.
I will first give some background information. Research by the Newspaper Society last year found that nine in 10 councils now print their own newspaper. Over the past year around 60 local papers have closed across the country, amounting to almost one in 20 titles. Not all of that is due to unfair competition from councils, as clearly other factors are also at work, new media being just one example. Cost pressures have forced cuts in journalist staff, potentially compromising local papers’ ability to get behind the press releases they are bombarded with from all directions.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the question is about not only the closure of newspapers, but the reduction in the number of editions for some newspapers? My local paper, the Cambrian News, which is celebrating 150 years since it was founded, serves a huge area of rural Wales, but we have seen a reduction in the number of local editions, which also affects the effectiveness of local reporting.
The ability of local papers to really get into local communities in that way is clearly a concern, and obviously the cost pressures that many face are leading to such curtailments, so the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point.
I declare an interest, as I was a member of a local authority for several years, and as a former councillor I have no beef with the idea that local councils should be able to communicate directly with local residents about the services they offer, and provide information to the public. That is a legitimate role for any local council.
I suspect that I will agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman will say. He said that local authorities should communicate with their local residents, but does he agree that the main difference between what local newspapers do and what local councils do is that local newspapers hold local councils to account, whereas local council newspapers seem conveniently to concentrate on all the good things that seem to be happening? They never concentrate on the things that are going wrong in their area.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. It is an issue that many Members, from all parties, are concerned about. When we are trying to engage more people in politics and the democratic process, surely the local press has an important role. Council publications cannot fulfil it to the same extent because they are informative journals, but we need to get more people interested in politics, and the only way to do that is to have a vigorous local press.
Absolutely. That is the reason why I wanted the debate and why I was so pleased that my name came out of the hat soon after applying for the debate. I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman’s point.
Many councils have for a long time produced publications that do not compete directly with the local press. They are often magazines that are published less frequently than newspapers and focus on council services. They can provide a useful service. However, they have to be clearly different from newspapers and must not provide a new service to the local public. My council produces such a magazine, the Sutton Scene, which definitely does not compete with local newspapers.
Just imagine that a beleaguered Prime Minister decided to hire a team of journalists and commentators to produce a daily newspaper that created a positive image of the Government, talking up their achievements and promoting them as well as it could—[Interruption.] It might be impossible even for the best journalist in the world. Such a publication would always be on message, and there would be a huge cost to the taxpayer. Clearly, there would be a lot of laughter as a result, but there would also be an outcry, because clearly that is not right, but it is what is happening locally. Taxpayers’ money is being used to pay for the production and distribution of loss-making, council-run newspapers.
A sinister trend is emerging in some local government quarters of directly competing with local independent newspapers, even to the extent of putting them out of business. One council that has developed such an approach is Tower Hamlets council. It has adopted an aggressive approach to running its weekly newspaper, East End Life. The council’s head of commercial operations, Chris Payne, set out the philosophy behind East End Life at a conference in Sheffield in 2008. Many independent local papers, he said,
“churn out a negative diet of crime and grime, often attacking their local council and generally creating a negative impression”.
Council papers, by contrast,
“help create a positive place-shaping agenda, talking up an area and its residents’ achievements, celebrating diversity and opportunity for all. Look at your local newspapers, paid-for and free…Then ask yourself: can you do a better, brighter, more cost-effective, informative, entertaining, valued and positive local paper?”
That vision of a state-run local newspaper goes well beyond providing local residents with information about council services.
The answer is to return to the reputable trade of journalism. Journalists should work only for independent newspapers and should be guaranteed proper training and decent wages. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it has all gone wrong because we have undermined the trade of journalism?
The hon. Gentleman has a point, and there is also a point about the blurring of the role of press officers and journalists writing news and newspapers. Equally, however, huge numbers of people still want to go into journalism and see local papers as an important starting place for their career.
The vision I have outlined is one that a number of local authorities certainly seem to be embracing. They are spending large amounts of public money to employ press officers to produce what amounts to little more than propaganda masquerading as newspapers. It cannot be healthy for local democracy, or indeed for accountability, as has been mentioned already, for the only source of local news to be paid for by the council.
I will give some examples of the types of practice that need to be investigated. Indeed, the excellent debate pack produced by the House of Commons Library provides many examples of the concerns about the matter up and down the country. As a London Member of Parliament, I shall concentrate on London examples.
In the past nine years, London boroughs have ditched low-key, factual publicity and launched high-frequency, in-your-face tabloids full of good news—even good news that does not bear much scrutiny. I have already mentioned East End Life in Tower Hamlets. Currently, that council paper is produced and distributed to 90,000 homes every week. It runs to 72 pages and contains news, reviews, seven-day TV listings, restaurant reviews and, of course, sport. Circulation for the local paid-for paper, the East London Advertiser, has fallen from 20,000 to 7,500, and its advertising revenues have plummeted since East End Life started to offer subsidised advertising rates that, frankly, it could not match.
How much is all that costing? The council says that it costs £118,000 a year—good value for money for the council tax payer—but that figure hides a great deal. When one looks further, one finds that there is an awful lot of subsidy through advertising paid for by the council and other local agencies. Indeed, on the most recent figures, it amounts to £980,000 a year, so the true cost to the public purse of the publication is £1.1 million.
I am grateful for that point, which is a fair one. It needs to be brought out, and has been brought out clearly in this debate.
In truth, without a huge public subsidy, East End Life would be dead and buried—it would not be able to run. However, if it were acting like a true newspaper, would it not hold the council to account? Let me give an example of what I mean.
Last year, Tower Hamlets paid out £800,000 after cancelling the contract of its chief executive. It paid out another £1 million in compensation to an employee over an age discrimination case, and £500,000 was paid in redundancy to the council’s head of human resources. Large sums of public money are being paid out, but not a single column inch was devoted to explaining any of it in East End Life. When the books failed to balance for that particular operation, and the paper found itself with a £400,000 shortfall in advertising income, it dipped into the council’s reserves to find money for a bail-out. There was no debate, there appears to be no accountability, and there were certainly no column inches devoted to explaining why that was a good use of council tax payers’ money.
How can that be fair competition? Any commercial local paper facing such a drop in revenue would have to take drastic action such as cutting jobs and closing offices.
I do not want to make a long intervention. The hon. Gentleman referred to competition. Is it not a problem if a local authority does its advertising, including statutory notices, in its own paper and takes it away from the independent press? Indeed, the Government should ensure that statutory notices are put in the independent press. Is it not unfair competition when that does not happen?
One thing that I want to put on the record is that the Government did consult on removing statutory requirements to place adverts in independent publications and, I believe, decided not to proceed with that. That was on 21 December, and that good news was welcome.
If I could make a little more progress, I would be happy to give way to my hon. Friend.
I was referring to the drastic reaction—cutting jobs and closing offices—that a commercial entity would need to have to falling revenues. Another example that I wish to give is Greenwich Time, which is delivered 44 weeks a year to every home in the borough. Again, it mimics the format and content of a local paper. Its cost is £708,000 a year, of which at least £532,000 is borne by local taxpayers. Before it goes to print, every page is checked and approved by the council leader. The council claims that it is not trying to put the local independent paper out of business, but it has adopted the practice of holding back stories for exclusives for its own paper.
If we head west, we find that a similar story applies to Hammersmith and Fulham. The council’s h&f news, which is distributed to 75,000 homes, is a perfect example of what I wanted this debate to be about: pseudo-newspapers. It has lots of news, a 12-page property section pull-out, crosswords and a sudoku, a what’s-on section, advertising from local businesses and even a gardening section. Its counterparts in Tower Hamlets and Greenwich and all such publications are written to look at the world through the tinted glasses of the ruling party of the council.
I was looking through my copy of h&f news to find out what is not happening in the borough as the hon. Gentleman spoke. If I get a chance to speak, I have some rather good news, which he may know about, on the local press in my area. He will be pleased to hear that universally—perhaps not originally, but universally—h&f news is known as Pravda throughout the borough, so perhaps it is not quite as effective as some might think.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman gets an opportunity to contribute to the debate.
The consequence of this unfair competition is that Hammersmith and Fulham had been on the verge of becoming the first borough in Britain where the only source of local news was the council newspaper. As the hon. Gentleman intimated, Trinity Mirror Southern, which owns the local titles in Hammersmith and Fulham, yesterday announced a fight back, and I understand that the Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle will be relaunched as a free weekly paper, to be delivered to 72,000 homes in the area, from this Friday. That has to be good news for the people of Hammersmith and Fulham.
My hon. Friend will know that local newspapers such as our own, the Sutton Guardian, play a crucial role in keeping our local community informed about local matters that affect it. Is he as worried as I am that local newspapers across the whole country are finding it difficult to ensure comprehensive distribution of commercial free sheets, and does he put that down to the competition that they are facing from local councils’ free newspapers?
I am sure that that is one contributory factor that makes it harder for the commercial business model for a local newspaper to be viable and to continue.
Going back to Hammersmith and Fulham, its justification for having a fortnightly council-funded newspaper was interesting: there was not an independent local paper that had a circulation sufficiently robust to be able to communicate with local residents and get messages into the community. Now that Trinity Mirror is planning a free newspaper, which will hit 99 per cent. of households, surely the council should be announcing a timetable for getting out of the state-run newspaper business. Of course, not every area has a newspaper group such as Trinity Mirror, with the resources to change its business model and move to a free sheet. In many cases, local papers are wilting under the pressure of council competition.
My final example is from Waltham Forest. The council relaunched its in-house magazine in 2008 as a local newspaper, the Waltham Forest News, which is distributed free to 110,000 households. The council withdrew its advertising from the local independent press and now places all its ads in its own paper—that goes back to the point that the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) made. As well as turning off the tap on advertising revenue, the council is actively marketing its paper for advertising.
Not only has the funding tap been turned off but news stories are being held back to be given to the council’s paper on an exclusive basis. I am told that, as a result, on a number of occasions the Waltham Forest Guardian received complaints from its readers for not reporting events that had a council connection. In fact, the council had kept it in the dark about what was happening. In 2006, Waltham Forest spent £464,000 with the Guardian series. That fell to £177,946 in 2007 and just £9,749 by 2008. That was a crippling drop in revenue for a significant employer in Waltham Forest. The council’s decision to withdraw its advertising damaged the paper and contributed to job losses and the closure of the paper’s local office.
Getting a handle on the true cost of council-controlled newspapers is hard because often it is not clearly set out in a codified set of accounts. The costs are buried in other budgets, making it difficult to pull together a complete picture. Nevertheless, a combination of freedom of information requests, investigative journalism and so on has allowed us to put a figure on what the pseudo-newspapers are costing. In London, some £10 million a year is being spent on them. I understand that in a couple of weeks, under the auspices of the Tower Hamlets business manager, all the business managers of those effectively commercial council-run newspapers will meet to compare notes on how to be even better at selling advertising in their areas in competition with their local papers.
I said that my purpose today is to urge action. In June last year “Digital Britain” reported on and acknowledged the negative impact on independent local newspapers of local authority newspapers:
“they will inevitably not be as rigorous in holding local institutions to account as independent local media.”
It went on to say that there was a need for the Audit Commission to be invited to undertake an inquiry into the impact of council newspapers and to
“make recommendations on best practice and if restraints should be placed on local authority activity in this field.”
That is what happened. That request was made and the Audit Commission is undertaking a study and a report is on its way. However, the scope of the Audit Commission’s study has been narrowed and will not cover all that “Digital Britain” sought: it will not look at the impact of council papers on independent local newspapers. The wider public interest in a free press is not being considered by the Audit Commission because it is outside its remit. If that is so—I believe it is—it is not good enough. Surely the competition issues must be addressed. I have presented some evidence about why that is so.
Last month, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills said:
“a healthy culture of local news in particular is a public good and Government can’t just wash its hands of some responsibility for sustaining that public good.”
How will the Secretary of State’s good intention be translated into action? If the Audit Commission does not do a comprehensive job and does just a half job, surely the Office of Fair Trading must be asked to finish it off and do the job that “Digital Britain” asked to be done. Without such action there is a risk of the creation of 21st century rotten boroughs, where the only news freely available to everyone is provided by the council.
Chris Payne from Tower Hamlets described council-run newspapers as “place shaping”. Orwell would be proud. I hope that we can do something to ensure that Orwell is not proud and that we do not allow state-run newspapers.
May I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) on prompting the stimulating discussion that we will have in the next 90 minutes?
I should like to mention a little bit of history. In 1995, Netscape created a web presence that enabled people not only to read straight e-mails, as we had in those days, but to carry pictures and, inevitably, video. In the first internet bubble of 1999-2000, the only national newspaper that understood what had happened was The Guardian, which then started to run a virulent, clever website called Guardian Unlimited. Of course, The Guardian could do that because it is a trust—a charity, a not-for-profit company—and was able to invest huge amounts of money to become the first national newspaper to measure, understand and put news on the internet. But it did not have to worry about the advertising moving from its paper to its own site, because it was the same business, although, as we know, it is not a business but a not-for-profit company.
Only in the past two years have The Sun, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph fully understood what the net is doing. Why have they done that? They have done it because they have lost their advertising. Since the new year, regular Guardian readers will have noticed that one section is missing—on Thursdays, for example, the information technology has gone—and all the other sections are being rolled into the main newspaper, because the classified ads have gone. Where have they gone? The Government’s classified ads, for example, have gone online, to Direct.gov. The process has changed. Why have The Daily Telegraph, The Sun and the Daily Mirror done that? The Sun gets nearly 3 million hits a day on its website, most of which are from America. Most of the hits on The Guardian are from America, too: two thirds of the traffic on Guardian Unlimited is from America. That is all very well, but advertising cannot be sold to Americans unless there is an American presence and it is being sold from there.
This is a more complex issue than it might seem, because, by and large, Trinity Mirror and Northcliffe are the largest owners of regional newspapers. Over the past 20 years, regional newspapers have been seriously starved of money: perhaps hon. Members visited over that time and saw the antiquatedness of what they had. Some did not have access to the internet in the past 10 years, others have only just got it, and some journalists did not have personal e-mail addresses. On going to the archives to try to find out what was said in the past, all people would have found would have been a cupboard full of 10,000 newspapers. It was impossible. It is all very well for us to say, “This is happening”, but local newspapers have been bled by their parent companies. That is a consideration.
There has been a freefall of advertising—that is the key for all newspapers—because of the power of the net. For example, there is now a website that is supported by the lottery for people who want to work for a Member of Parliament. I wanted a researcher and put an advert on that site, which did not cost me any money; 450 people applied, I had the most amazing shortlist and I got somebody I am thrilled with. In the old days, I would have had to pay for an advert. If I am doing that—if we are doing it as MPs—imagine the implications for the classified advertising market: it has collapsed. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam has made a robust case about local authorities paying, but I am talking about the market. The market has collapsed for weekly newspapers, and that is the difficult bit.
What can we do? The problem has been compounded by the development of local radio, which takes local news. If people can hear their transport, weather and local news every day, why buy a weekly newspaper? There are other reasons why the local market is where it is. In Kent, for instance, which has the largest local authority, Trinity Mirror has just sold out to Northcliffe and there is a private family business called Kent Messenger. However, to keep people out of the classified market, Kent Messenger bought six local radio stations, although I am not sure that that should have been allowed. That course of action has been compounded, since we are in a recession, because now Kent Messenger cannot afford to run both the radio stations and the local newspapers and has made the mistake of shutting front-line newspaper offices in the high street.
Journalists who work in a high street know that people pop in. For example, Flo might pop in and say that she not only wants to buy an ad, but wants to tell the newspaper about a fire yesterday in the village that it did not know about; it gets the story. Without journalists in the high street, and with the newspaper office in a car park or a business centre, no one pops in and the news is worse. That is compounded again if companies say, as Trinity Mirror and Northcliffe have latterly, “We’re going to invest in the websites of regional weekly newspapers.” Why bother to buy the weekly newspaper when you can get Monday’s, Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s news free online?
The strategy of the owners of the local newspapers is confused. They do not know what to do. There are only two solutions. First—I have said this before, but I will say it again, because somebody might listen eventually—we set up a licence fee for radio for the cultural good of Britain, which eventually became a television licence. Why is it restricted just to radio and television? It is a cultural fee. What might happen if someone said today, “I’m going to set up a radio and TV licence and by the way we also run six orchestras. I hope you don’t mind, but we’d quite like the BBC to have an orchestra.”
Following my drift, why is only one organisation allowed access to that cultural fee? If it were taken away from the BBC and Ofcom invited bids, and as a result the BBC had access to only 90 per cent. of that fee in the first three years, we would have a fund of £300 million that we could spend on community radio and television, academic publishing—you name it. People would be able to apply for money from that cultural fund, even for music lessons in schools, if it were for the cultural good. If we do not do that, there is no solution to help the local newspaper.
I am not suggesting that we should subsidise Trinity Mirror’s or Northcliffe’s local newspapers, but there will be a Guardian alternative locally and groups of people will want to set up not-for-profit newspapers, often online, that need funding. People cannot make it work. But what if they tried? How much does The Huffington Post lose? God only knows. The person who runs it is amazingly fortunate because she has backers in Los Angeles that allow that to happen. But look at the news she collects and at the cost of it. Tina Brown in New York has 5.5 million readers, but there is no money.
Making news work online and offline is complex and it is harder for local newspapers, because they lack the drive, ambition, aspiration and understanding of the market.
The hon. Gentleman makes a strong case. Let me remind him that some local newspapers are truly independent—I am sure he knows that, but I want everybody to register the point. They do not have a group such as Trinity Mirror behind them, or a big backer who can cross-subsidise. There is a paper called the Southwark News that is entirely independent. It is even more at risk if councils behave as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) suggests they increasingly want to do.
As I have said, that case is a matter for the Audit Commission, and I am amazed that it has been allowed. Perhaps questions should be asked about that in another place in due course. My instincts are that newspapers have forgotten why they are there. My sense is that they should have a lesser presence on the weekly pages, but go to the net as fast as possible. They should be local social network sites. On my social network site I want to find the Yellow Pages, Facebook, YouTube and Time Out. If such a site can be produced for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, it will get as many readers as the local paper does currently. How do I know that? I set up my website 10 years ago. The circulation of my two local weekly newspapers is between 8,000 and 11,000 people, but my website gets more than 15,000 readers. Who would want to read it? It is read because it contains local news and is produced daily.
My point is that the newspapers were wrong because they should have come to the net earlier. If they are planning to come to the net now, they will need to invest huge amounts of money, which their owners do not have. Therefore, they will need a fund or we will go backwards—hon. Members know where I am coming from. We wait to see how Rupert Murdoch will deal with this issue. Perhaps the iPhone application—or whatever—will cost 5p for the front page, 20p for the op-ed, 50p for the best journalists and more for other things. However, I counsel caution, because The Guardian tried to do that, and less than 12,000 people bothered to pay for an application for their iPhone, which would be updated twice a day. Will such measures work? I do not know, but somehow we must find a fund to help local newspapers.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) on securing the debate. In south-west London we benefit from the excellent “Guardian” series. The hon. Gentleman receives extremely positive coverage from the local newspaper, which is down to the excellence of his performance, not necessarily to how well he manages that medium.
The national media are very powerful and can crush people at will. As many hon. Members know, I have successfully sued such media. As mentioned previously, local media are, in the main, owned by big international conglomerates. My local newspaper is part of the “Guardian” series owned by Gannett. The “Advertiser” series in Croydon was part of Trinity Mirror, and is now part of Northcliffe Media, which reflects some of the trends in local media.
It is important that we expect organisations to invest properly in the capital and in the staff of their newspapers. Many people work in the business out of love, care and perhaps a desire to move on to bigger and better things. They are significantly underpaid, particularly when compared with the local government sector, where someone who works in public affairs or producing local newspapers can often earn double.
There are some good points and merits of local newspapers that we should boast about in this debate, to justify support for thriving local media. We are lucky with the Newsquest “Guardian” series, as it has a broad editorial base for its activities. Its contribution to the community can be seen in its green pages, in its campaigns in the interests of business—in our case, for south London businesses—and in its promotion of contributions from individuals to their community.
I went to an event run by the Croydon Guardian which celebrated Croydon champions. That newspaper has taken a positive line on removing sex industry adverts from its newspapers. I hope that Northcliffe will do the same with the Croydon Advertiser, although so far it has refused.
Finally, we should recognise that the industry is extremely efficient. The Croydon Guardian operates with three journalists—Kirsty Whalley, Harry Miller and Mike Didymus, who report to Matt Knowles—but the quality of production is amazing.
Yesterday, I was pleased to meet the editor of the Croydon Advertiser, Andrew Worden. There is a challenge to the Advertiser from the local council newspaper, Your Croydon. There is heavy—top-heavy—investment in the press department of the local authority, and often there is little distinction between Croydon council’s press office and the parliamentary campaign of the Conservative candidate for Croydon, Central. One can see the power councils have in terms of the money provided, and although the amount spent on the council newspaper is probably around £20,000 a month, overall spending for the communication side of the authority is now £2 million a year. That is a substantial amount of money, which might be better spent on the campaign currently being run by the council—in close conjunction with the Conservative parliamentary candidate—calling for extra police officers in Croydon. That is rather surprising given that the Conservatives are in control both at County hall and in Croydon.
We must think carefully about how the intervention of local authorities in newspaper production can be particularly dangerous in communities that are smaller than Croydon. The economies of scale are being increased by such intervention and if we end up with only two journalists on the newspaper, as that is all that can be afforded at local level, the newspaper might go out of business. Many communities to the south of my constituency could face that difficulty.
We often criticise local newspapers for being sensationalist, and that is particularly applied to the Croydon Advertiser. However, we must recognise that they do many good things, and I underline the point raised earlier about the advantages of newspapers investing in regions and little parts of their communities. In my local area, New Addington is a satellite estate and somewhat isolated, so it is great news that the Croydon Advertiser continues to publish the New Addington Advertiser, and the good work done by Joanne Charlton.
Local papers support communities by covering local sports. I primarily read my local paper not to see what unpleasant things have been written about me, but to learn what has been happening to Croydon football club. Only about 60 of us actually go to watch the matches, but it is still important for people to know what is going on. The Croydon Advertiser has done good things in terms of transport for young people who need to be taken for kidney treatment, and in supporting the Chase children’s hospice, which is outside Croydon but looks after young people from Croydon.
Although there is a need to communicate basic public information, it would be possible to have legislation that stopped the marketing of the political views of parties. That is something that one would have expected the local soviet to have produced in Russia, and I agree with the implication of the right hon. Gentleman’s question. I support that approach—£2 million could be much better spent elsewhere.
There must be value in seeing both points of view. In the previous speech, a point was made about the lack of investment in training and in staff. In my local newspapers, many staff probably earn between £12,000 and £16,000 a year, but have the prospect of doubling their pay if they become the equivalent of a junior reporter on their local government newspaper, and that situation is extremely distorting.
None the less, good things are done, and I want to mention two examples of the dedication shown in local journalism. First, my local authority gave an award to a gentleman called Ian Austin, who has been covering local government in Croydon for 40 years. Without him, it would not have been possible for people to have had a balanced view of what was happening.
Secondly, I want to mention a lady called Aline Nassif, who is a campaigning, social issues journalist. I am sure that she will go on to rival the pay of Polly Toynbee, or perhaps a local government press officer, because of her pursuit of important social issues. Work such as hers also informs Members of Parliament, who benefit from what the local media have to say, and one attraction of her work is that she has campaigned on important social issues, such as the very real weaknesses at Mayday hospital. However, I have already taken too much time, and I apologise to other hon. Members. I will make way for others to speak.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) on obtaining a debate on an extraordinarily important issue. There is no doubt that local newspapers face a crisis, which is why the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport is conducting an inquiry into the future of local and regional media and why we have received a lot of evidence. In our first session, Claire Enders, who is one of the most respected industry analysts, told us that half the country’s 1,300 local newspapers will be out of business within five years. We then heard from the chief executives of Johnston Press, Trinity Mirror and the Guardian Media Group, all of whom agreed that the crisis is the greatest that the industry has faced.
This is not just a UK problem, but an international one. I have with me a chart showing the number of people employed in newspaper publishing in America. In 1947, the figure stood at about 240,000 and it grew steadily until about 1992. It peaked at 460,000, but in the 15 years since then it has fallen to 260,000, and it is still plummeting. All of us know of local papers from around the country that have closed, but even where papers have not closed, their offices on the high street are being shut, the number of journalists is falling and the number of photographers is no longer the same. As a result, the quality of local coverage is diminishing.
The first question to address is whether that matters. When the Minister gave evidence to the Committee a few weeks ago, he rightly pointed to the quality of some online content. I think that he mentioned a website called Pots and Pans—
I apologise. The Minister highlighted an example of a good local website, and there is no doubt good local provision.
However, it was pointed out to the Committee that the media industry is a pyramid, with local newspapers at the bottom, forming the base or the widest part. Much of the journalistic investigation and news content that filters up to the nationals, to radio and even to television and the BBC starts with investigations carried out by local newspapers. Furthermore, online provision is largely parasitic. That is a slightly emotive word, but how many journalists does Google employ? Most such sites reproduce content from local newspapers. If we lose those newspapers, the bottom of the pyramid will be removed. I agree with all that has been said about how important it is for democracy and local accountability that local newspapers survive.
One point that we have not mentioned, and which I am keen that we should, is that local newspapers also do local court reporting. If we did not have that, the only court reports would be about celebrities appearing in court. Promoting an orderly society often involves people realising that others who live on their doorstep, on their estate or on their street might be held to account and punished for what they do. People can then comment on the punishment and on whether it works.
I very much agree and I will mention that issue briefly in a second.
However, we need to look at why these things have happened. The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) is right that the principal cause of the problem is the growth of the internet. That growth has come at the same time as a recession, which has led to a reduction in overall advertising spending. However, this is not just about the recession; there is a migration of eyeballs and advertising expenditure away from traditional media and towards online provision. To cite one example, the value of regional newspaper advertising fell from £2.8 billion to £2 billion between 2002 and 2008. At the same time, the value of internet advertising grew from £0.2 billion to £2.8 billion in real terms. As a result, local newspapers are in a double squeeze and are seeing their advertising revenue fall, with all the consequences that have been described.
In the brief time available I shall focus on one or two things that we might do to address the problem. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam is right: local authority newspapers are not helping. There is undoubtedly competition—some might say unfair competition—from many local authority newspapers. Authorities no longer place advertisements in local newspapers, with the result that newspaper revenues are declining. At the same time, local authority newspapers are taking advertising revenue. The Committee had some concern about that when we took evidence, and it may be necessary to take action.
However, there are other elements in the problem. The present crisis faces not only local newspapers, but local radio and regional television. The Government have come up with the interesting idea of using part of the licence fee to fund independently financed news consortiums, and that might help local newspapers, which could play a significant part in such consortiums if they go ahead.
We could also do something about the competition regime. The Committee was told to expect that almost every area of the country would be served by just one local newspaper in the future. That should not necessarily worry us, because there is competition from a lot of different sources, so it is not a case of allowing a monopoly to develop. We need to look at the competition rules again to take account of alternative news provision.
Interesting experiments are taking place with paid-for online content. Like the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, I will watch with great interest how News International gets on if it seeks to impose pay walls on its content. There are two villains in the piece, particularly in this country. The first is Google, which aggregates content and allows consumers to bypass pay walls. Google’s UK managing director assured us that Google was a beneficial influence and that it strongly supported local newspapers. If that is the case, it needs to do more, although it has begun to take steps to address the problem.
The other villain is the BBC. As long as it provides online content for nothing, it will be difficult for local newspapers or, indeed, any news organisations to charge for content. I am not necessarily suggesting that the BBC should charge for all its online content, but the current situation is an obstacle, which will make things hard for other providers.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that another way forward might be to enable the BBC to go ahead with its original plans for local websites, but to populate them with news gathered by local newspaper and radio reporters, who would then be paid for their work?
Like me, the hon. Gentleman will remember local newspapers’ fury at the suggestion that the BBC should provide local news. He might be right, but such an arrangement would be regarded with huge suspicion. It was suggested at the time that the BBC would use material gathered by local newspapers, but the proportion was likely to be small. The local newspaper industry is likely to regard such an arrangement more as a threat than an opportunity. However, it may be that we should at least consider it.
I am conscious of the number of people who want to speak, so I want to raise one final point. I do not fully share the view of the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, who mentioned the interesting principle of public service reporting. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) mentioned the court service, which is just one example. It is terribly important that we know what is going on in our courts, health authorities, police authorities and local councils—in all the various institutions that underpin local government and local democracy. The truth is that local newspapers no longer cover those things. We no longer see someone from the local paper sitting in the corner at every meeting of the local council or its sub-committees or in meetings of the health authority. That coverage is disappearing from local newspapers, and we should at least consider whether there is a case for public service reporting to be made available to anybody who wishes to carry it, be that local newspapers, local radio or local TV.
Similarly, we no longer have every newspaper represented in the Gallery of the House of Commons. Papers rely on the Press Association to supply them with independent and objective content and to tip them off if anything dramatic happens in the Chamber. There may be a case for considering whether the same kind of service should be extended to local council chambers and the other local institutions that are so important. How that would be financed is a matter for debate. There is a case for it to receive public support, and if so the licence fee is an obvious source. We need to have that debate. I agree with the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam that if we allow local newspapers to continue to close and to withdraw from their terribly important local role in sustaining our democracy, we shall all suffer.
I am pleased to speak again in the series of debates that have taken place in this Chamber on this subject. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) on securing the debate. What gives me particular pleasure is the fact that on each occasion the number of hon. Members who attend grows, and the penny appears to have dropped on all sides that the issue is not party political. It is an issue on which all three parties are guilty, at local level, and which is a serious threat to local democracy and perhaps wider democracy.
I can do no better than to use a quotation to sum up where we are in the borough that may suffer most from the problem—Hammersmith and Fulham. Andrew Gilligan wrote in his blog last week:
“One of the biggest threats to journalism is the growth of Britain’s new state press—free propaganda papers, either weekly or fortnightly, produced at great public expense by local authorities and delivered to all homes. The idea is to destroy the independent local press, thus ensuring that the only news you read about your local council is written by your local council…The frontline of the struggle is the Tory flagship borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, which looked like being the first place in Britain where official news became the only news. The council’s propaganda organ, H&F News, is a brilliant facsimile of a proper local paper—unless, of course, you are looking for any mention of the Labour Party, or any criticism of the council, the police, the NHS or any other branch of officialdom. The local independent paid-for paper, the Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle, meanwhile, was on its last legs, with a circulation of 1,500.”
Now, however, the Chronicle”—
as the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam mentioned earlier—
“has decided to fight back. It too is going free—boosting its circulation to 72,000 with no loss of editorial jobs—to take the fight to H&F News.”
The blog also praises the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) for his robust comments on the matter in the Select Committee and says that some councils are already closing their newspapers. I shall be asking Hammersmith and Fulham council why, from next week, it will not close its newspaper, as its only excuse for publishing one was that there was no independent local paper in circulation.
The other unusual thing about the debate is that it gives me an opportunity to praise Trinity Mirror, of which I have been somewhat critical in the past. I hope that its ambition in this case—clearly it has the necessary resources—will be followed throughout the country. Clearly it recognises a commercial threat, because although a minority of local authorities may be affected at present, you can bet your life—it is human nature, is it not?—that all those councillors sitting in their offices would love a completely supportive and uncritical press. I am concerned about what will happen if we do not tackle what is happening and nip it in the bud.
What action do the Government intend to take to stop politicisation through the council press, and the destruction of the independent local press? We will shortly need action at national level. This cannot be left to Trinity Mirror and the other newspaper groups. Let us make no mistake: the problem goes further than the watering down or manipulation of news. Very large sums of money—millions of pounds—are involved. Hammersmith and Fulham admits to spending £750,000 on the newspaper; but that is only the cost that it admits. It is the tip of the iceberg. There are magazines, newsletters, banners in the streets, poster vans driven around the borough, whole tube stations kitted out with advertisements, and online material, all advertising the Conservative party, in effect, in all but name.
I shall give two examples of what I have described. One was a letter sent to tenants and leaseholders in response to a Labour party publication, directly criticising the Hammersmith Labour party. I feel sorry for the Conservatives. They had only £200,000 to spend politically in my constituency last year. Clearly they were a bit short with regard to what the council could provide in subsidy by putting out that material. Just before Christmas a glossy six-page brochure went out about Building Schools for the Future. I could find no mention of its being a Government-funded scheme, but I found a half-page picture of my opponent saying that he had been invited into schools to talk to pupils, with a hagiography of him and an account of what he did.
I received an e-mail today from the borough solicitor, about that picture and publication:
“We recognise this is a sensitive political period and we regret the final sentence of the article we published. The council’s normal procedure for vetting potentially controversial publicity did not work properly on this occasion and I apologise for this and for any dissatisfaction you feel as a result. The newsletter has been removed from schools, libraries and the council’s websites, and no further copies of the article will be distributed.”
They must think I was born yesterday. Such things happen on a regular, weekly basis. Hon. Members may regard it as a warning if they will.
In the hon. Gentleman’s area, as I understand it, the cost is not the big issue. My understanding, from what the local authority says, is that its publication does not lose money, because of the advertising revenue that it brings in. However, does he agree that it is not just propaganda that is a problem with local council newspapers? It is the fact that it is propaganda masquerading as independent news. Whereas real, independent news will expose wrongdoing in the local authority, such publications merely highlight all the supposedly positive news stories that they want to get out.
The hon. Gentleman is right. I shall finish by responding to that point. The cost is an issue, because the admitted cost is £750,000 and some of that—about half—is subsidised from advertising, a large chunk of which is advertising by the council itself, or its mates in the public sector; the rest is taken from the local newspapers, to help run them down. However, the actual cost, when one considers the on-costs and hidden costs that councils provide, runs into millions of pounds. With the other advertising that is an issue. However—I direct this comment to those who are fortunate enough not to suffer from the problem at the moment—I agree that at root the problem is that however much the Conservative party or, indeed, any other party spends on party political material such as glossy leaflets or DVDs, at least it is clear where the money comes from. The pernicious nature of the material we are discussing is that it suppresses any news hostile to a particular political party—whichever it is—and exclusively promotes its interests. That is what is happening in local authorities throughout the country.
Yes, the issue is one of press freedom and of support for our very good local newspapers, which I want to praise—particularly the Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle: I wish it success in the first issue on Friday. However, the matter goes deeper—to the root of local democracy, and if we are not careful, because national and European elections are targeted as well, to democracy generally. I have said this previously, and am glad to say it before a larger audience today: I ask hon. Members to be warned—the threat may be the most serious we face. We would not tolerate it at national level. We resile from regimes around the world that suppress a free press in such a way, to promote state propaganda. Why should that attitude not apply to our town halls?
I shall not keep hon. Members long at all.
In my borough of Hillingdon the demise of local papers has been going on for some time. I recognise the problems that have been discussed: the rise of the internet and of council publications—we have had one under both Conservative and Labour councils and I do not think that it interfered with the circulation of local papers. I would probably put it down mostly to something else. I agree with the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner), who is not now in his place—and I am not a businessman who knows that much about the press—that one of the problems has been chronic lack of investment in local newspapers.
Large multinational or national companies have come along and diminished the number of journalists, and diminished their skills, to the point where the Gazette series, which is the one we have in the London borough of Hillingdon, has its offices in Chertsey, which to all intents and purposes is a million miles away. The people one talks to—the reporters, of whom there are one or two on the ground, operating with a laptop and a digital phone—tend not to understand the area, so people are not interested in what is in the newspaper. Advertisers like me do not think it is worth while to advertise, so things go down the pan.
The local newspaper is a fundamental part of the whole. The internet will never replace it, because many people, including many of the more vulnerable people, do not have the internet. The local newspaper is a very important thing, and we must do something, but it is no good just blaming one set of things.
This is about the sixth debate that we have had on local newspapers in the past two years. May I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt), on the proposals that he made, that actually the Government have listened. When we had the debate about 18 months ago, proposals were made that the Secretary of State should convene a meeting of all sides of the industry. He did that last April, and there was a summit at which a number of us from the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group were present, along with representatives of newspaper conglomerates and other representatives of the media. My hon. Friend’s exact proposal that there should be a form of public funding to support local news and local quality journalism was taken on board. A presentation was made by Ofcom, and the Government have introduced the Digital Economy Bill, which includes the proposals on independently financed news consortiums.
I hope that that will provide part of the solution to the problem that we have been trying to address during this series of debates. I agree with the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) that part of the problem has been both a lack of investment in the good times, when companies such as Trinity Mirror were making significant profits, and management not looking to the long-term future.
The Government have listened to those discussions and the debates here, and I welcome their proposals. My only reason for speaking in the debate is to ask the Secretary of State to give us an indication of the time scale now. We know that the tenders were put out for the pilots for the consortiums in November. It would be useful to know the time scale for the decision making on the process. That is also important for the sake of the staff, because we are worried about the loss of quality journalism, which was based on quality journalists. Assurances need to be given—for example, that existing staff within the area of the consortiums are protected by TUPE and will be transferred across into the new consortiums if they are established. In addition, an assurance is needed that there will be full involvement of the trade unions in the discussions on those proposals at the next stage. An assurance also needs to be given that in the next stage of the development of policy, we will keep in place the mechanism of the summit that we had last April, so that we can be ahead of the game, rather than continuously responding to crises.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) on securing the debate, which has demonstrated, for once, all-party concern about an issue—an all-party desire that action be taken. My hon. Friend described local and regional newspapers as the lifeblood of local democracy—words that echo those of the Secretary of State. They are also very similar to those of Lord Mandelson, who recently described local newspapers as the
“bedrock of local democracy and public life”.
That has been reflected by all hon. Members who have spoken. No one denies the vital importance of such newspapers in holding bodies such as local councils and primary care trusts to account, reporting from our local courts, as we heard, or simply providing local news and local information. We all agree that we need a vigorous local and regional press.
We also heard that there have been problems with the continued existence of local and regional newspapers. Threats have come particularly from structural changes as more and more people get their news and information from local radio and online. For once, we have heard a lot of praise for Trinity Mirror. We should perhaps reflect on the fact that it has seen huge increases in the profits that it takes from its online assets. In fact, in 2008, it spent £13 million acquiring new digital assets and, in the same year, closed 28 of its local newspapers.
We have seen, as a result of that problem, other problems coming along. We have seen a decline in advertising revenue. That is critical because local newspapers depend very much on local advertising revenue. We are also seeing the growing threat, as we heard, from the increasing number of councils producing publications that are newspaper-like and magazine-like. Some 90 per cent. of councils now produce such publications.
As a result, 60 newspapers closed last year. That is about 5 per cent. of the total. A number of daily newspapers have changed to be weekly newspapers. Hundreds of qualified journalists have lost their jobs, and many of the high street offices of our local newspapers have been closed. As we heard from the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), the situation seems destined to get worse.
That said, I was delighted to read in a briefing from the Newspaper Society that it thinks that there is an element of optimism: the decline in advertising has begun to stabilise, readership is currently being maintained, and local papers are availing themselves of opportunities in connection with the web and multi-media.
The reason for the threat continuing comes from three key areas. We have already heard about the first from my hon. Friend. It relates to the current requirement for councils to publish statutory notices—planning notices, compulsory purchase orders, footpath orders and so on—in a local newspaper. There was a real threat that that requirement would be removed. My hon. Friend rightly says that it was great to hear on 21 December the Government saying that that would not happen.
However, I say to the Minister that that threat may still be a real one, because my understanding is that a number of councils have now either had their local publications registered as a newspaper so that they can be the body—the organ—in which those statutory notices are put, or are considering ways of doing that. The threat has not totally gone and I would be grateful if the Minister responded on what the Government are doing about that.
The second cause of concern is the fact that some of those publications are being used for councils’ own advertising and therefore advertising is being taken away from local newspapers. The Minister might want to comment on what the Government themselves are doing, because the Government, too, have started to withdraw some of their own advertising opportunities from local papers. Perhaps there is a course of action that they could take in that respect.
My third concern is that council publications, as we heard, are accepting private advertising. For instance, 90 per cent. of the publications of local councils in London already accept or already contain private advertising, so there is real cause for concern.
The newspaper industry is arguing, rightly, that councils should be running core services, not newspapers, and certainly should not be producing propaganda. They should not be using council tax payers’ money for that purpose. The industry is concerned about local and regional newspapers being undermined by such organs taking advertising, and so on.
It is interesting to hear what each newspaper thinks. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for referring to my own local paper. The editor of that paper wrote to me only today saying:
“The aim of any local newspaper is to provide unbiased, balanced news. If we don’t provide it they won’t buy us. The local council meanwhile is there to provide services for residents. But if they don’t provide them, then who will let people know? It is certainly not the in-house council newspaper.
Local councils have a right, and indeed a duty, to inform their residents about what they are up to. However, without balance and independence, council newspapers can be seen as, at best, biased products and at worst simple propaganda. And that is why local newspapers are so vital for local democracy for giving people all the facts without the prejudice.
As a newspaper we can reflect the good things that local councils get up to—and we do so, far more than we are often given credit for. But we can also be there to represent local people who don’t feel they have been well served and want their voices heard.”
The editor continues in a similar vein.
There are arguments on both sides. There is an argument that says that councils have a duty to provide information and so on, but equally there are concerns that we have got into a situation in which there is unfair competition that is damaging what my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam calls the lifeblood of local democracy.
What can we do? First, councils should be able to find ways of working more effectively with their local newspapers. They could take out longer-term advertising contracts. They could run long-term campaigns in their local press. They could distribute their product alongside the local newspaper, sharing the distribution costs. We could also be looking, as the Government already are, at the local authority publicity code to see whether we can firm that up.
The Government are doing that; they have 300 responses in. We await the outcome, which I hope will include council papers being required to concentrate on relevant local council information, not on general local news, and certainly not on sudokus. We should also reduce the frequency with which they are published. It is ludicrous to have cases such as those in Tower Hamlets, Greenwich, Hammersmith and Fulham, Waltham Forest and elsewhere that we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam. Those are the things that could be looked at. Codes are one thing, but what we need is real action. My biggest worry is that when the Government requested the independent bodies to look at the competition issues, they refused. We now have a situation in which they are looking only at whether the council papers provide value for money, and that is not good enough. It is absolutely crucial that the Office of Fair Trading now carry out an investigation into the competition issue.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs. Dean. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) on calling this excellent and important debate. As the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) indicated, this is the fourth time that I have participated in a debate on the future of local and regional news, and we may even have debated the matter on five or six occasions in the past two years. That is a reflection of not only the importance of the issue, but the keenness of hon. Members to suck up to their local newspaper editors to improve their local coverage. I sucked up like mad before the expenses scandal and a lot of good it did me—I can tell Members—with my local press.
It is important to start the debate from first principles. We are debating the importance of local unbiased news and of investigative reporting. To an extent, I take the remarks of people such as the editor of The Bath Chronicle with a pinch of salt. I am not sure that most newspaper editors would say that it was their job to provide unbiased reporting. There is a tendency in these debates to pretend that all our local newspaper editors are somehow the local version of Woodward and Bernstein, constantly uncovering corruption in high places. The business of a local newspaper editor is to sell the local newspaper, and local newspapers as much as national ones can distort or sensationalise the news to attract readers.
It is also important to put the situation in context. As the excellent note from the Newspaper Society that has been circulated to Members participating in the debate, points out:
“It would…be wrong to paint a picture of an industry in crisis”.
Many of the titles that have closed are free weeklies in a competitive local marketplace, and there is still a plethora of news sources, not only the 1,300 regional newspapers that have been referred to, but the 159 community radio stations, the success and vibrancy of which over the past five or six years the Minister and I were debating only yesterday in Committee, and of course BBC local news and websites and commercial local radio. Such is the proximity to power that the Conservatives now have that I have started to receive the Goldman Sachs media and telecoms daily update, and in between counting its humungous bonuses, Goldman Sachs has found time to put a buy note on Johnston Press and Trinity Mirror, which perhaps indicates that those news organisations are healthier than we had perceived.
We also have to acknowledge that technology is changing, with blogs and so on beginning to fill a back gap. On “The Westminster Hour”, an excellent programme that goes out on Radio 4 on Sunday evenings at 10 o’clock with some of the most talented hon. Members participating, I heard a report from John Beasley about a group in Lichfield that was holding its excellent local Member, my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), to account, although there is not much to hold him to account for apart from the excellence of his service. Local blogs and so on are therefore coming out; there is a technology revolution.
The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) and I have jousted before on local newspapers, and he has even had the temerity to refer to my contradicting him as somehow being churlish. I am sure that he would agree, if he were able to just step outside of himself for one minute and look objectively, that it is hard to take his remarks seriously, knowing that he was the local council leader who created HFM. That was a local glossy free magazine put out by the council; I have a picture of one of its covers here. The titles are “Cross Roads: Lollipop John waves goodbye”, with a picture of a nice lollipop man, “What’s on”, “News”, “My Borough”, “Interviews” and “Letters”. There is nothing to say that it is from the council. The only difference between the hon. Gentleman’s publication and H&F News is that his, because it was put out by a Labour council, lost £400,000 a year. The current publication put out by a Conservative council costs the council tax payer absolutely nothing. What else upsets me about the hypocrisy of some Members is that Labour Members voted themselves—
I think that that will appear as “interruption” in Hansard. Labour Members voted themselves a £10,000 communications allowance, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will now pledge to use that allowance to take a page in H&F News, which goes out free to every resident.
I promise to not hurt the hon. Gentleman’s feelings on this occasion, but I must defend the integrity of lollipop persons across London. I really thought that the hon. Gentleman was getting it at last—I sound like the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) now. There is a difference between council publications that are clearly council publications, giving lots of tedious but useful information to people in a non-political way, and what we now get which are things masquerading as independent newspapers. I think that the hon. Gentleman understands that, and if he wants to address that issue I am sure that we would all like to hear him.
I certainly shall. As I said, the Conservatives have pledged to abolish the communications allowance. I am a huge admirer of the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) and regret deeply his retirement, but it was astonishing to hear that his own website paid for by the taxpayer is now beginning to put local newspapers out of business.
Ah, I stand corrected. Let me get on to the substance of what I wanted to say. First, there is another element of hypocrisy that concerns me. We have talked about the code of conduct for publicity in local councils. Let us not forget that it was this Government in 2001 who relaxed that code and allowed councils to cover issues that—
I am afraid that I cannot take any more interventions, even from one of our most eminent independent Members. [Interruption.] Or is it UKIP? I cannot remember. The Government allowed local councils to cover issues that were not their core responsibility. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), in a typically polite Liberal Democrat fashion, gave the impression that the Government are on top of the issue. In fact, they announced a review of the code in December 2008, and the consultation closed in March 2009. We were promised the Government’s response in December 2009 and then on 7 January, but it still has not appeared. The Government are dithering, and we cannot go on like this; they must come out and say what they are going to do. We do not support independently-funded news consortiums, as that is the Government simply recreating the old analogue system of regional news that nobody wants anymore, particularly in this internet age, nor do we support the Government’s proposals to top-slice and undermine the independence of the BBC. We will protect the BBC from the Government, and work day and night to protect its independence from people such as the Minister.
What do we intend to do? Many Tory councils are already leading the way. Lancashire Tory council has closed down its newspaper. The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush will, of course, want to praise Mayor Boris Johnson for closing down The Londoner, as he wrote all the time to Ken Livingstone to tell him that he was wasting £3 million of council tax payers’ money.
I will not give way. We intend to review the local authority code and tighten it up. We also have campaigned rigorously for the relaxation of cross-media ownership rules, to allow media companies to build up across different platforms—newspaper, web, radio and local TV. We welcomed the announcement in November that Ofcom will recommend that relaxation, and we would support that in the Digital Economy Bill.
I am working up to our exciting proposals for a network of ultra-local television. That is what I call leadership. We have out for consultation Roger Parry’s document “Creating Viable, Local Multi-media Companies in the UK”, and I advise the Minister, who does not have a policy on that issue, to respond to that consultation, because he is clearly unable to publish the conclusions to his own. That proposal would put in place a network of 81 local television stations, combined with newspaper, web and radio, and provide the ultra-local news and accountability that local communities desperately need.
It is a tremendous pleasure, Mrs. Dean, to serve under your chairmanship again. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) on securing this debate, which has been widely attended and intelligently and cogently argued.
I shall begin with a jocular remark. I will then reply to points raised during the debate. I shall also take interventions from Members who have not already intervened. If I have any time left—
So that the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey), who speaks for the Tories, cannot be accused of hypocrisy, may I ask him to have a word with the local Tory-controlled council in my borough? It publishes a newspaper at public expense but refuses to give the contact details of the local MP. How political can it get?
The hon. Member for Castle Point is lucky that I am not doing the four Yorkshiremen skit.
My name is prohibited from appearing in the Hammersmith and Fulham News, even though, as the House will have heard, my opponent, a prospective parliamentary candidate, gets half a page to himself. However, I agree with the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey). I would like to praise Boris Johnson for cancelling The Londoner, but I do not need to because he is on the front of the Hammersmith and Fulham News, with a number of other Tory politicians appearing inside.
It is fair to say that everyone understands why my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) is unhappy.
I want quickly to get on with my jocular remark—although it may not be good enough to stand up to all this waiting. The hon. Member for Wantage talked about sucking up to local newspaper editors. Last week, in a debate on the Video Recordings Bill, he was extravagantly sucking up to Matthew Parris. This afternoon, he was sucking up to Polly Toynbee. I take the opportunity to salute Alan Watkins, the greatest living newspaper columnist, and to recommend his book “Brief Lives”, which is a masterpiece on the art of column writing. [Hon. Members: “What about the jocular comment?”] That is what passes for humour when I am on my feet.
To a large extent, the debate has been more about the rights and wrongs and abuses of council free sheets.
I shall take the right hon. Gentleman’s remark on the chin, with thanks.
The debate has tended to be about council free sheets rather than local newspapers and the tremendous pressures that they are under. The tendency has been to assume that free sheets constitute a serious pressure on commercial local newspapers. We clearly do not know to what extent that is the case. We do not know exactly how many, but 60-something council free sheets are taking paid advertising out of a total of 420 local authority newspaper areas. However, we do not have good evidence to show the prevalence of the practice.
That is the key point that I wanted to make today—we do not yet have a robust evidence base to allow us to be clear about the matter. There is plenty of anecdotal and other evidence of the sort that I mentioned earlier, and it makes a compelling case, but surely the Office of Fair Trading should consider the competition matters, as the Audit Commission will clearly not do so.
It has taken a while, but we are told that the Audit Commission is about to reach a conclusion on what has turned out to be a relatively constrained set of issues. Once we have those conclusions, the next step will be to present that information to the Office of Fair Trading and ask it, perhaps with Ofcom, to consider the question of competition and the potential impact on the paid-for newspaper market.
One point has not been raised. It is argued that we should keep profits locally, rather than nationally—across the width of the country—but it troubles me that more and more newspapers are being bought up nationally rather than by local people, yet it is the local people who should benefit most.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. One hopes that over time there will continue to be a blend between locally and nationally owned local newspapers. As the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) told us, Claire Enders says that the market will shrink by half. Any papers that exist in that market, whatever their ownership structure, can be considered a democratic good in the local community. For the moment, we will have to settle for that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush was right to raise the question of free papers potentially having their context changed as commercially owned papers go free. It will change the landscape. The hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) referred to a local authority newspaper that was costing some £700,000 a year. Given such sums, I shall be astonished if Trinity Mirror or any other commercial operator in this hard-pressed sector will invest for long at those prices.
I said that the disclosed cost was £750,000. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Minister that Trinity Mirror is taking a bold step. We will see how deep its pockets are when it comes up against state-subsidised competition that is completely bankrolled by the taxpayer. Does my hon. Friend not see that there is a role for the Government here? As I said earlier, we cannot rely on commercial companies to compete with people who are bankrolled by the taxpayer. What will the Government do about it?
As I said, the DCLG will imminently report its views on the matter.
There is another side of the coin, which is not represented by my Department and may not find great favour in the Chamber. However, it is important that councils communicate with their citizens—good information is vital—and that they do so in a way that represents good value for the taxpayer. The arguments that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush makes against propaganda are unanswerable. It is for the DCLG, in its revision of the code, to come up with convincing answers. However, it might be that the code needs not to be revised but adhered to.
On the point about value for money, does the Minister not agree that it would make sense for local authorities to be required to publish in a clear form all information about the costs incurred in the production of local authority publications and newspapers, so that people can see much more clearly whether the expenditure gives value for money.
That is something for DCLG Ministers to answer. They received 300 responses to the consultation, and they will reply imminently.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) spoke about a timetable for independently funded news consortiums. This morning, we announced eight successful bids for the three pilots. We intend to stick to our timetable. We will have reached a preferred bidder status in each of the pilot areas by March. It will be clear before the election who is to run the independently funded news consortiums in the English, Scottish and Welsh areas.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.