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Local Media

Volume 542: debated on Wednesday 14 March 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I am grateful that the Minister is here to respond to the debate. He and I usually discuss high-technology issues, but today we will talk about low technology and local newspapers in print form. I am pleased to be able to talk about the importance of local media to small towns and cities.

Stevenage has a number of media outlets, including The Comet, the Stevenage Advertiser and Jack FM—a good local radio station on which I will be holding a phone-in surgery on Saturday, because it has a wide impact in the local community and reaches many people. The importance of local newspapers to small towns and cities lies in community cohesion. They are valuable assets to local communities. In my area, they report everything from Stevenage football club’s meteoric rise from non-league football two seasons ago to league one and its furthest ever placement last week against Tottenham in the fifth round of the FA cup at White Hart Lane, where it unfortunately lost, to stories about the Rainbows, the Guides, grass-roots football and other small local charitable organisations that have no opportunity to put forward their message elsewhere. I am pleased to be able to support local newspapers and media outlets.

I want to talk about some facts. We know that 33 million people in this country read a local newspaper every year. We also know that there are thousands of titles—well over 6,000—that 71% of adults read a local newspaper and that 14 million more people read a local newspaper than read a national newspaper. Local newspapers have a huge spread in local communities.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I thank my hon. Friend on obtaining this important debate. Does he agree that papers such as the Redditch Advertiser and the Redditch Standard, which are local free sheets and the only newspapers that we have in Redditch, are vital to local people, especially the elderly who would otherwise be cut off from local news?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the valuable titles in Redditch. Local newspapers reach some of the most vulnerable people in our communities and push forward a positive message on everything: Government news, local authority news, planning permissions, charitable events and what is going on in the local community. The Prime Minister said that

“local papers are hugely important in helping to build a bigger, stronger society. There is a massive gap between the state on the one hand, and the individual on the other, and local papers help fill the space in between, galvanising readers into action.”

Does my hon. Friend agree that local media are vital to small towns such as Dartford and Stevenage, because they are often too large to have parish magazines dedicated to their area, but too small to have, for example, regional television covering just their area?

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

Before the Division, we were discussing what the Prime Minister said about local newspapers being a great vehicle for social change, and I want to refer to a couple of campaigns that I have run with local newspapers in my area. One campaign sought to bring the carnival back to Stevenage, and that had great success last year. We are currently running a campaign with a different newspaper to have a satellite radiotherapy unit based at the Lister hospital in Stevenage. Patients from Stevenage who undergo radiotherapy currently have to travel nearly 4,000 miles during the course of their treatment. We think that that is a little too far, and that treatment should be available somewhere closer.

That issue also affects my constituents in the neighbouring constituency of North East Hertfordshire. Does my hon. Friend agree that the local media have been extremely helpful in supporting that campaign and fighting to help cancer sufferers, who currently have a difficult journey, to receive treatment?

My hon. Friend makes a good point; he has been a great advocate and supporter of the campaign and has led the way in North East Hertfordshire. As he rightly says, without the support of local newspapers, the campaign would not have achieved such massive community penetration or have been mobilised into a big, cross-party issue locally. The campaign is going well.

We are also running a campaign to stop the expansion of Luton airport because, although Luton would get all the jobs, Stevenage and particularly North East Hertfordshire would get all the aircraft noise. If there are to be quieter aircraft, we are keen for them to turn up, and we would be interested in getting the truth about those figures. Local newspapers are a great vehicle for change and something that I support.

Local newspapers face great competition from new media, although many of them are embracing that competition and in many ways turning themselves into embryonic versions of the local multi-media companies that the Minister and I support so well. Local newspapers are trying hard to move forward by doing a lot of work on the internet, accessing a variety of other platforms and starting to move into radio and so on. However, they face a great deal of competition, and although they are tackling that head-on, there is concern over the behaviour of some local authorities.

I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views on whether local authorities should spend taxpayers’ money on advertising in local newspapers, as opposed to producing propaganda that a large number of local residents are not particularly interested in reading, so it quickly ends up in the bin. For example, the Stevenage Chronicle is not particularly well supported. The problem with such propaganda is that taxpayers have no interest in it, and given the choice they would scrap it right away rather than see other services reduced. The local media market is distorted because local newspapers come under severe financial pressure when local authorities—whether county or district authorities—produce their own material.

What are the Minister’s thoughts about the current Department for Transport consultation on removing the mandatory advertisement of things such as road closures and planning applications in local newspapers? It is very important that that is reviewed. I am interested in his views, simply because I think that such a move will undermine further the financial viability of local newspapers.

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. Just this morning, the editor of the Ipswich Star, Nigel Pickover—there is also the Felixstowe Star—raised that point with me. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees with me that local papers are very important for democracy and holding representatives to account and for conducting campaigns, which he has mentioned. Taking away some of their regular revenue puts more papers at risk.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point much more eloquently than I managed to. She got to the heart of the issue, which is that that revenue will be taken away from local newspapers and instead of our having the disinfectant of transparency and local communities being able to understand what is going on, much of that information will be hidden away on local authority websites and will not get the attention that it so richly deserves.

This is very important. It comes down to a simple point. I accept that we are not in the business of subsidising local newspapers and that taxpayers should not pay for advertising in that sense. However, we should not be in the business of encouraging local authorities to compete against newspapers by taking that advertising revenue away from those newspapers and putting things on their own websites, because as hon. Members know, very little of those savings will go to front-line services. Local authorities will probably spend the money on developing a newer and better local authority website or newer and better local authority propaganda. The local community does not want that. It wants access to transparent information. The key message is that if public funds are used, the money should be spent on advertising in local newspapers, not on simply producing propaganda.

I would be interested in the Minister’s views on the consultation that I referred to and the impact that the proposal would have.

Would it not be necessary to prove that the advertising that the taxpayer was paying for was actually being read by the taxpayer and was valued by the taxpayer?

That is a very good point. Many people will wonder how many residents read the traffic planning information on road closures in the back of a local newspaper. That is a key issue and no doubt the reason why the consultation is taking place, but I am concerned about the consultation’s adverse effects. I believe that most laws are made with the best of intentions across all parties and all Governments, but there is always the law of unintended consequences. My concern today is that the unintended consequences will simply be that more and more local newspapers end up going out of business. That will continue the removal of a vital community resource from our local communities.

I have tried to show, in the few minutes of my speech, how effective those local newspapers have been as a vehicle for change. As I mentioned, the Prime Minster supports local newspapers. We have to put our money where our mouth is on some occasions and actually invest in local newspapers.

My hon. Friend is making a superb point regarding local newspapers. In my constituency, we have the Buxton Advertiser and the Glossop Chronicle. People always read the notices in the back. There is also local radio. My local station, High Peak Radio, is widely listened to and, as my hon. Friend says, gets the message out better than many of the free sheets produced by local authorities.

I agree that radio is a very effective medium. As I mentioned, I will be doing a radio phone-in surgery on Saturday morning with my local radio station, Jack FM, to get that great penetration into my local community.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again; he is being very generous. Not long after I was elected to the House, my local radio station, High Peak Radio, came down and broadcast from the Lobby of the House for a morning. That went down extremely well and increased the perception and knowledge of Parliament throughout the constituency. I would recommend that to any colleague.

I thank my hon. Friend for making an excellent point, which I will make to the producer of Jack FM on Saturday morning before we go on air.

The key points for me are clear. We do not want to distort the media market. The number of hon. Members who have intervened on me and are present for the debate shows the interest in it. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) is keen to speak, so I will finish my speech shortly. The reason why I wanted the debate was simply that we have to understand the law of unintended consequences. I am very concerned that local authorities are using taxpayer funds—

I am very lucky in my part of the world—Colne Valley. The Huddersfield Daily Examiner is a fantastic daily newspaper six days a week, running community and business awards, which are very well followed. I have to mention Barry Gibson’s coverage of the local development framework controversy on our patch. He was in the council chamber for 10 hours and was tweeting. The newspaper also led an important community campaign to get people signed up to the Anthony Nolan Trust bone marrow register after one of its journalists died of leukaemia. I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of councils using their local newspapers for advertising. Does he agree that at a time when money is tight, that can also be very cost-effective?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I have experience of The Huddersfield Daily Examiner, as my wife went to university in Huddersfield and I have read the newspaper on one or two occasions. I do not know whether my hon. Friend has contributed many articles to it in the past, but it is an excellent newspaper. We come back to the point that local newspapers are fantastic vehicles for social change, and we need to be very careful about ensuring that they have the ability to campaign. On that point, I shall finish my speech, so that other hon. Members have a chance to speak.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) on initiating the debate. Its importance is shown by the number of hon. Members present. It could have been a longer debate had we had more time. It raises an issue that is extremely relevant to such localities as Stevenage, Carlisle and many other parts of the country—towns and small cities up and down the United Kingdom.

The national media are clearly vibrant and diverse. There are national newspapers, appealing to different sections of society; there is a plethora of TV channels and a large number of radio stations, both independent and through the BBC; and now we have the wonderful world of the blogosphere.

On the face of it, local media are also still quite vibrant. There are 1,200 regional and local newspapers. That is the most popular print medium; 33 million people read a local newspaper every week. Local media employ about 30,000 people and about 10,000 journalists. Local radio is also quite vibrant. Between independent radio and the BBC, it covers most parts of the country. In some cases, there is also local television.

However, there are clearly increasing financial difficulties for local media, particularly for local newspapers, which have experienced a triple whammy. They have lost revenue from adverts relating to housing, car sales and, probably most importantly, job vacancies. They also now have competition from the internet, which makes it far more difficult for them to be financially viable. Even radio is experiencing difficulties. It has less advertising revenue, and the BBC, as we know, has made severe cuts in local radio output in recent times.

I want to highlight what I see as the two most important aspects of local media. My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage touched on the first one—the basic local news that is provided, information on events, simple local adverts, information on births, marriages and deaths—everything to do with normal everyday life. Quite often, they also cover the bigger stories, such as the success or otherwise of football clubs—I just note that Carlisle is above Stevenage at present in division 1.

Most importantly, local media hold institutions and individuals to account. I can give the best example of all. When I was a councillor, there were 52 of us, but probably the most important person in the council chamber of a night was the local journalist who reported the council’s proceedings to the wider public. Had he not been there, who would have known what was decided on that evening?

The hon. Gentleman rightly emphasises the importance of local media. In my city, the Belfast Telegraph plays a very important role in the way that he has outlined. Does he accept that one of the challenges in terms of costs is that many local newspapers are moving their printing works out of local towns and cities to somewhere else, so that they can do it more cheaply? That is happening with the Belfast Telegraph now. It is obviously a concern that these local institutions, which have been going for 100 years and more, are now moving their work forces out of the cities that they serve.

I completely concur.

We must remember that it is not just politicians whom local media hold to account. It is local business men, the police, the NHS and other organisations, including schools and colleges.

I commend those who arranged the debate, which is on a subject of cross-party concern. The hon. Gentleman is making a very important point about investigative journalism. Does he agree that under the pressures that local media—local papers in particular—face, especially the pressure of profitability or its loss, it is often the important investigative journalism that is hollowed out and lost? That is a real loss to local democracy. Happily, that is not yet the case for the Oxford Mail and the Oxford Times and the family of papers that serves my constituency and that of the Minister to an excellent standard, but it is a worry. Does he agree?

I could not agree more. The danger is that local papers just start to reproduce the press releases that everyone sends out rather than challenging what has been said. What can the Government do? Obviously, they should encourage and support a diverse local media industry, and I am sure that they will. We should restrict councils’ ability to issue free newspapers, which is often just political opportunism. We also need to ensure that statutory notices remain compulsory, and that it remains compulsory for them to be produced in the local media. Undoubtedly, that helps local newspapers financially and ensures that local people know where to go if they want to see notices about certain things, such as planning applications.

We must ensure that the BBC is also properly financed, so that we have high-quality local media. Where possible, I should like to see local TV stations reporting local news rather than national and regional news. If we can ensure that we have a vibrant local media, it will enhance our democracy.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) on securing this important debate. The subject of local media is one that is dear to all hon. Members’ hearts. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) mentioned the cuts to BBC local radio, as part of the BBC’s plan to deliver quality first. A debate on that subject in Westminster Hall attracted some 50 hon. Members. We also had a debate in the main Chamber. I was pleased that the BBC Trust asked the BBC to think again about the proposals for local radio. We will all have experienced the ways in which it plays an important role in our communities.

Local newspapers play a vital role in supporting local democracy. All of us know and love our local newspapers, no matter how badly they behave towards us, because we recognise their constitutional importance. I was hoping to make the point that only Conservative Members had turned up to the debate today and to send a signal to all local newspapers that they should therefore skew their editorial policies in that fashion. It grieves me, therefore, to have to acknowledge the presence of the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith), who is displaying the customary diligence for which he is well known, thus skewering my opportunity to make that particular point.

We take local newspapers seriously. One of the first things that the Government did after the election was to deregulate cross-media ownership rules at the local level to give individual local newspapers and local newspaper groups the opportunity to own radio stations and vice versa. It was recognised by the Government that consumers use a variety of platforms, whether the local newspaper, the radio or the internet. By allowing these different platforms to unite, there is more opportunity to create a critical mass to ensure that newspapers can be well financed in the future.

There is no doubt that newspapers will have to adapt to a changing world of technology. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle pointed out, it has been a triple whammy; I sometimes refer to it as a perfect storm. What has hit newspapers the hardest is the move of classified advertising to the internet. Such advertising was a source of guaranteed revenue for them. That was the most important first move that we made.

I am also pleased to say that a second move, which was made by the Department for Communities and Local Government, was to consult urgently on council news sheets. That consultation took place in 2010, and a new publicity code was issued on 31 March 2011, which makes it clear that councils have to think very carefully about how they use council tax payers’ money to fund what is known colloquially as propaganda on the rates. Those council free sheets should now be published quarterly and be accountable to local council tax payers. I am pleased to say that many local councils have now taken the view that they should publish their free sheets within their local newspapers. Therefore, as well as limiting the amount of money that they spend on those information documents, they are also ensuring that the money effectively gets channelled through the local newspaper by being part of the local newspaper. In the House, we have the opportunity to publish information about our activities. I hope that all hon. Members will think carefully about using their local newspapers to that end.

The second issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage was the current consultation on traffic regulation. Having already spoken on behalf of the Department for Communities and Local Government, let me now speak on behalf of the Department for Transport. Local councils spend around £20 million a year on advertising traffic regulation orders in local newspapers. I should add the caveat that local newspaper groups, such as the Newspaper Society, do not necessarily agree that that is the sum that is spent. I am sure that everyone in the House agrees with the efficient use of council tax payers’ money. Saving money by reducing advertising costs would be a good thing. My hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who is a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, might say that the money would be better spent on libraries—I was giving evidence to her on libraries yesterday. Incidentally, I was pleased that Desmond Clarke, to whom I referred yesterday, is now sending my hon. Friend regular e-mails, updating her on library policy, but I digress.

A consultation was issued at the end of January 2012 by the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). It has already generated 100 letters from Members. I am pleased that those letters went to the Department for Transport and not to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. I am also pleased to say that my hon. Friend will be meeting the Newspaper Society next week to discuss the issues. Clearly, there is a balance to be struck in achieving value for money for the council tax payer, but I am pleased that the Department for Transport has recognised, through the consultation process, the importance of statutory notices to a free and thriving local newspaper press. Obviously, I cannot prejudge the outcome of that consultation, but I know that hon. Members will be pleased that many of their colleagues have made representations on behalf of their local newspapers to the Department for Transport and that the Department is actively engaged in consultation.

I have covered both the Government’s action on the deregulation of cross-media ownership and our action to reduce the impact of council newspapers on local newspapers, and I have acknowledged the importance of statutory notices to local newspapers. Let me turn to a number of other issues that will provide opportunities for local media.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle referred to local television; he hoped that it would start to cover genuinely local news rather than regional and national news. The Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport shares that view; he has a vision to implement local television, which he feels is a media platform that has been neglected in this country. We often cite America as a country with a plethora of local television news stations, but many of our European counterparts also have very local television stations, so there is no reason why we cannot have a thriving and effective local television sector, despite the small size of this island compared with, say, the US.

To the end of promoting local television, Ofcom has conducted extensive consultation. Spectrum has been identified that will allow local television to broadcast. The most effective sites for a local television station to get up and running in the short to medium term have been identified. A licensing process is under way, and money has been secured through a partnership with the BBC to secure the establishment of local television stations and to guarantee the purchase of BBC content.

As there is only so much advertising revenue out there, how far does the Minister see that there is a danger that the growth of local TV will put more pressure on the resources, income and profitability of local newspapers and therefore put more of them at risk?

One of the reasons why we wanted to take forward local television in partnership with the BBC is that we recognise that it could potentially take a while for some local stations to attract the element of advertising that they need. It is important to stress that although we would not refer to local television stations as a shoe-string operation, it will be a pared-down operation; local television stations will not have the kind of bells and whistles that right hon. and hon. Members may be used to when they go into a television studio in Millbank. We estimate that the cost of running a local television station will be about £600,000 a year, so we are confident that advertising can support local television in the short to medium term.

It is important to stress that many local newspaper groups are looking at partnering with local television groups to create a local multi-media network. We hope that those partnerships will emerge. However, it is also possible that some quasi-national advertising will support local television; for example, a large supermarket group could still push out a national advertising campaign with a local flavour through local television. We do not anticipate that there will be an impact on local newspapers from local television, and indeed we hope that local television will support not only local news in general but local newspapers specifically.

Community radio continues to thrive in the UK; I always credit the last Government with supporting it. Despite the tough spending round, we secured continued financial support for community radio.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage for securing the debate. He opened it by referring to Stevenage’s successful run in the cup and their sad defeat at White Hart Lane. When I became a Member of Parliament, my local football team—Didcot Town FC —actually won at White Hart Lane, although they were not actually playing Spurs at the time. They won the FA Vase, were promoted and then relegated. However, my hon. Friend is quite right to draw attention to the importance of local newspapers, and I hope that I have reassured him that the Government are not only listening when there is a perceived threat to local newspapers, but providing important opportunities for local newspapers to thrive and grow in a complicated 21st-century technology landscape.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.