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Local and Regional Media

Volume 512: debated on Monday 21 June 2010

1. What plans he has to support the activities of local and regional media providers; and if he will make a statement. (2994)

13. What representations he has received on the future of local and regional media; and if he will make a statement. (3006)

It is a fundamental priority for this Government to reform the regulatory structure to allow the emergence of a new generation of local media companies, including high-quality local TV companies, which we have never properly had in this country, and I have already taken steps to make that happen.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to focus on local media. We have a great tradition of local newspapers in this country, including in my constituency the magnificent Selby Times, and not forgetting The Press and Wetherby News. Does he see such local papers playing a role in the development of local television stations?

I welcome my hon. Friend to his position, particularly given his background in the telecoms industry. I hope he can contribute to a discussion of that policy area, given his understanding of convergence between telecoms and broadcast technologies. He is absolutely right that this is not simply about the future of local television, but about the future of our struggling local newspaper sector. He mentioned in glowing terms his local newspapers, but the truth is that for everyone in this country local newspapers are incredibly important as a focus for community activities and in holding locally elected politicians to account. I hope that by relaxing the cross-media ownership rules at a local level, local newspapers such as the ones in his constituency can develop into multi-media operations across different technology platforms.

What the Secretary of State just said flies in the face of the fact that one of his first decisions in government was to scrap the independently funded news consortiums that STV was depending on to deliver its news, which it finds increasingly expensive. STV is now very worried about the future of news, as are the people of Scotland, because we might be left with the BBC as the only pan-Scottish news deliverer on terrestrial television. What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that STV can continue delivering news, and to ensure that a plurality of news is provided through terrestrial TV in Scotland?

I entirely agree with the hon. Lady that it is absolutely essential that we have a plurality of news provision. However, the previous Government’s policy in that respect was to have two state-funded regional news broadcasters in every part of the country, which I think is the wrong way to ensure plurality of provision. What has worked very well in British broadcasting is that we have some broadcasters funded by the licence fee, others by subscription, and others by advertising. That is what we need to look at, which is why we have a much more ambitious model. STV is obliged to continue broadcasting in Scotland under the terms of the licence until 2014. We need to make sure that new models are up and running by that time so that it is possible to go forward with proper plurality of news provision.

Thousands of my constituents watch BBC’s “Midlands Today” and ITV’s “Central Tonight” news, and indeed, they read the most successful regional paper, the Express and Star. Given that the Government have scrapped independently funded news consortiums, what guarantee can the Secretary give me that ITV will continue to provide a quality regional news service for the west midlands?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her position—I believe that she also name-checked the Express and Star in her maiden speech. If we had Wolverhampton TV, she could name-check that as well, which she should welcome, because that is very much a part of the Government’s vision. ITV news providers are obliged to continue under the terms of their current licences until 2014, as I told the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Miss Begg), so we have a window between now and then in which to allow for the emergence of a new generation of strong, profitable, ambitious and successful local media companies. We are doing that by modernising the regulatory framework, which unfortunately was not done by the previous Government, and which was set up in the pre-internet era. That is why so many local papers are struggling. I hope the hon. Lady supports our plans, because I think that they would be good for local papers in her area and for a new generation of TV companies.

May I welcome the Secretary of State and his Ministers to the Front Bench? As everybody else is doing this, may I also name-check my local newspaper, the Huddersfield Daily Examiner? As someone who used to work in ITV regional news, I know the importance that Ofcom attaches to vibrant local and regional media for local democracy. Bearing in mind the current economic climate, what definite plans does the Secretary of State have for ensuring that ITV regional news provides strong competition for BBC regional news?

I also welcome my hon. Friend, and particularly as someone whose background includes working both as an ITV broadcaster and as a BBC journalist, because BBC journalists have often tended to be represented more on another side of the House. The answer to his question is that we have to ensure that BBC news provision has competition. That is essential, although it is not necessarily the case that that competition must come from ITV; it might come from more local news providers. That is why the plans that we are putting forward will be so significant.

I give a warm welcome to the Secretary of State and his colleagues in their new posts, but could he please explain to the House why he has allowed his Department to be downgraded, in that we have lost 15 minutes from our previously hour-long Question Time?

On regional news, is the reason why the hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster), who is an excellent Member of this House, has been excluded from this Front-Bench team—indeed, why all Liberal Democrats have been excluded—that they agree with us on this question and not with the Secretary of State?

I thank the shadow Secretary of State for the courtesies that he extended to me when I was in his position and he was in mine. He will be amused to know that local newspapers from his area are still being delivered to my private office, because it takes some time to cancel the subscription. I would like now to give him a copy of the Western Morning News, in case he is missing it. Let me tell him that under this Government, my Department has not been downgraded; it has been upgraded, because we are now responsible for the Olympics, which we were not before.

The right hon. Gentleman might like to know that tickets to the Royal Opera House for him and his wife have been delivered to my home in London—tickets that I have been foolish enough to send back to the Department. However, given what he has just said about local and regional news, can he point to a single other European country—not America, where market conditions, including in the advertising markets, are completely different, as he knows—where his model flies?

I cannot, because no other country in the world is trying to allow the emergence of truly cross-platform multi-media local media operators in the way that we are envisaging. If we look at countries such as France and Germany, we see successful local TV stations in places such as Paris and Lyon. I would ask him why, when he was Secretary of State, he did nothing to progress proper local TV in this country, when it is something for which communities up and down the country are crying out.