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Local Newspapers

Volume 543: debated on Wednesday 25 April 2012

I note that we have a full Chamber. The hon. Member for Corby (Louise Mensch) has indicated that she will take interventions, but may I ask that they be kept brief, or I will ask for them to be curtailed?

Thank you, Mrs Main. It is a delight to see this debate so well attended by hon. Members from all parties. Although this is a particularly heavy news day, it is nevertheless appropriate that we debate local news, because local papers remain, despite not grabbing the headlines, the single most popular print medium in the UK. They are read by almost 70% of the adult population and have a cumulative readership of some 33 million readers per month.

In 2009, Ofcom noted that local newspapers were, far and away, the most trusted news organisations in the country.

Local papers are essential for local democracy. Members might all like to think that people with concerns come straight to us, but they often go to the local paper, which they trust. We often read it and that enables us to do our job. I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and for kindly giving way. In Harlow, we have gone down from three local newspapers to one in the past few years. Unlike the BBC, which has the licence fee, local newspapers do not have a compulsory subsidy. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be fair for the Government to continue to put transport and traffic notices in local newspapers to ensure that they survive?

I agree. Later, I will mention substantively the remedy for falling circulation and the lack of a good business model for local newspapers.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. Does she agree that papers such as the Redditch Standard help our elderly people, who do not have e-mail or other access to local news?

Indeed. If hon. Members will forgive me, I will make a tiny bit more progress. On that important point, Johnston Press, which manages a large group of notable newspapers throughout the country, recently cut a handful of its titles. The Corby Evening Telegraph is one of those titles and is moving from being a daily to a weekly paper. That newspaper group runs more than 1,000 titles throughout the land.

The threat to our local democracy is severe. Often, only the local press will hold an incumbent Member of Parliament or a local council to account, because only the local press and only local people really care. We all support our local radio stations, both commercial and BBC, but as all hon. Members in the Chamber know, five minutes is an eternity in broadcast terms: local papers can really go into a story.

The history of the local press is illustrious. In 1965, The Northern Echo successfully campaigned for a posthumous pardon for Timothy Evans; in 1977, the Lancashire Telegraph successfully exposed the corruption of chief constable Stanley Parr; and in my constituency, the Corby Evening Telegraph led the way on the attempted suppression of a local report.

Although I agree that it is always sad when a local newspaper goes from daily to weekly, as the Exeter Express and Echo in my constituency has recently, does the hon. Lady also accept that sometimes the economic reality means that if that does not happen, there will be no quality print journalism sustained in that community?

I agree that half a loaf is better than no bread, but an important part of my speech is to ask the Minister to assess, in his reply, whether direct or indirect Government subsidy ought to be given to our local press. In the Government’s plans for local television stations, for example, an indirect subsidy is proposed, whereby the BBC will be compelled to take content and pay for content arising from local television stations.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has rightly cracked down on local free sheets that, for so long, have been cannibalising at tax and rate payers’ expense the markets for our local papers. Unfortunately, that might have come partially too late to save some papers. The question for the Government is this: is the local press worth having; is the local press worth saving; and can an iPad app ever be a substitute?

I thank my hon. Friend for being so generous in giving way on a very popular topic. In Great Yarmouth, we have a local newspaper, the Great Yarmouth Mercury, but we also have a daily regional paper, the Eastern Daily Press, that is the biggest selling newspaper—in fact, it outsells all the national dailies. The EDP is a campaigning newspaper, so it clicks in with what the people of Norfolk and north Suffolk are interested in. That is a good example of how a newspaper can move forward without subsidies.

The Eastern Daily Press is an absolute star and gem of a newspaper. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that what he mentions is not a substitute for a properly localised paper that can address the concerns of local people. In my constituency, the glories of Corby and of east Northamptonshire are very different and the concerns of people in east Northants and Corby are extremely different. It is wonderful that we have local papers that cover both areas.

The Guardian—the Ballymena Guardian—and the Times—the Ballymoney Times and Ballymena Times—are some of the most important papers in my constituency. They attract a readership of more than 80,000 people each week, yet our daily papers—the Belfast Telegraph, The Irish News and News Letter—attract half that readership. The best way for the Government to assist such papers is to make sure that all their advertising goes into our weekly papers instead of our daily papers.

It would not be for me to propose a knee-jerk solution to the problems of local papers and their declining readership. It is a fact that local newspaper readership has been declining and that big newspaper groups cannot make this work. I only ask the Minister in his reply to announce that the Government will have a review into local democracy and the local press. I ask the Government to look at what they can do—whether, indeed, the placing of advertisements to support local papers or whether we can look at community models of ownership, such as those successfully trialled in football supporters’ trusts, for communities that wish to take over and run their local papers.

The best brains in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport ought to turn their talents to addressing this problem because, otherwise, the greatest winners will be incumbent politicians. We campaign in our local papers and those of us who took seats at the general election remember how important it was whenever we managed to get a story into the local paper and whenever our opponents did. I will be generous enough to mention the name of my opponent, Andy Sawford, who was Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Corby and east Northamptonshire. It is only right that he should be able to publicise his campaigns in the same way that I publicised my campaigns against my predecessor, Phil Hope, when I took the seat from him. That is a vital part of our local democracy. We do not wish to entrench incumbency.

Of course, as a Conservative, I am naturally suspicious of subsidies. However, let us consider the narrow interests that are subsidised by the Government, the broad range of funds to which national lottery funding is supplied and the indirect subsidy in the case of the licence fee, such as that proposed to support local television stations. We need to ask ourselves whether we wish to support a level playing field for local press. If the BBC is supported by taxpayer-funded subsidies, council free sheets are supported and local television stations are indirectly supported by a compulsion for the BBC to buy their content, why should local newspapers posses none of those advantages when they offer an irreplaceable function?

Does my hon. Friend agree that, in marginal seats such as mine, The Argus and the Sussex Express serve the very purpose that she outlines in making sure that incumbency is not too strong a factor? Such papers hold MPs to account and ensure that they do a good job.

I am very proud to have in my constituency the oldest continuously running newspaper in the world, Berrow’s Worcester Journal. The editor of that newspaper has urged me to make the point that it is not only a question of the value for money that the Government get out of their advertisements in the press; it is also a question of trust. As my hon. Friend pointed out, people have greater trust in what they read from newspapers.

I agree completely. If we agree that, in some cases, state subsidy—whether direct or indirect—is justified, we need to ask ourselves whether newspapers along with other organs are a worthy recipient of that at local level. I come again to the irreplaceable point that local democracy is best served when there is an organ that can hold local politicians to account in a thorough way. At the same time, when we consider our local papers and their value to the community, it is not merely the fact that they hold our feet to the fire in our constituencies; it is how keenly they are at the heart of rural and urban life in our communities.

Local papers clearly have a contact with each of the villages and hamlets in my constituency. My local paper, The Newtownards Chronicle, contains local stories for people who live in the area. Does the hon. Lady feel that it is important not just to have local stories, but advertising? That is the success of a local paper—its interaction with the community.

Yes, I do indeed. When part of that advertising comes from Government and the local council, it is important to create a level playing field over various forms of media. The BBC is a national treasure, but when it goes to hyper-localism in its websites and reporting, it creates a very difficult behemoth for local commercial papers to compete against. Council free sheets have been the single biggest cannibal of the markets of local papers. Research sent to me by Retail Newsagent Magazine states that more than £5 million will be wiped off local newsagents in the future. It is not merely the 10,000 journalists that local newspapers employ, but the subsidiary trade that they bring to their areas and to newsagents that rely on passing trade and footfall, as people come in to buy their local paper every day.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. Does she agree that the local economy of towns such as Halifax will suffer another blow when they are already suffering from job losses in the banking sector and the public sector?

My hon. Friend is being most generous. As everyone knows, she is prolific and effective in her use of new media. It is wonderful to see that she also supports traditional media, too; papers such as South Hams Gazette in my constituency, which does a fantastic job. I agree with her completely that this is not about subsidy. Supporting advertising through our local press is the best way to support democracy.

Yes, indeed. There are direct and indirect forms of subsidy. The Government should be considering that, rather than writing out a cheque to local newspaper groups, which is not at all what I propose.

I am not deviating from what the hon. Lady and other hon. Members have been saying about the need for advertisements—my local paper, the Cambrian News, will be very glad to hear about that—but will she not leave the issue of subsidies completely? We have a system of Papurau Bro local Welsh language newspapers that have been in receipt of funds from our National Assembly Government, so there is a precedent in Wales.

Yes, indeed, but that is slightly different because the preservation of the Welsh language and culture is an overriding national concern. Just as we subsidise Welsh television channels, it is quite right and proper that Welsh language outlets should be subsidised—it is a slightly different matter. I repeat that indirect subsidy is already there for a number newspapers, outlets and organs that compete with our local press. I am concerned that the Government should provide a level playing field. I will give way to my hon. Friends, and then, I am afraid, I must conclude my speech.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and bringing to us the parliamentary equivalent of speed dating. She will know that I am lucky enough to have that august newspaper, the Burton Mail, in my constituency. It is not only a centre of information, but a great champion for my local community. It has raised with me the concerns that my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) raised about the impact of the Department for Transport withdrawing its advertising in newspapers. That will force newspapers to close. Should it not change its mind?

It should indeed change its mind. There is absolutely no justification for the Government withdrawing advertising support when they provide subsidy for various other types of media.

Does my hon. Friend agree that a free press is the hallmark of a free society? Councils may be looking to save money, but starving newspapers of that will be worse for democracy rather than better.

I agree with my hon. Friend. We have to look at the press as a special case. Local newspapers, as I said at the beginning of my speech, perform an absolutely irreplaceable function in our democracy. Nobody else will be interested in the malfeasance of our local councils. Few people will be interested in the expenses scandals or otherwise of those of us who are on the Back Benches and not of ministerial rank—I almost said “fodder” but, fortunately, I stopped myself. I have every sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby), because I took a marginal seat from Labour at the previous election and, in those marginal areas, it is absolutely vital that both the candidate and the challenger can put their case in the local media.

We have not had much time in the debate, because many hon. Friends and hon. Members wanted to intervene and to praise their local papers, which are at the heart of their communities. We all grew up with the softer, nicer stories and the pictures of schoolchildren celebrating St George’s day, of country fêtes or of town centres cleaning up after riots. All those sweet little stories might not grab national headlines, but they are nevertheless—I say this with complete sincerity—at the heart of our national life and our national communities, and they deserve preservation as much as an arts or theatre group or anything else that the Government are prepared to subsidise directly or indirectly. I ask the Minister to give every hon. Friend and hon. Member in the Chamber some hope that the Government will look again at the plight of the local press, at the creation of a fair level playing field and at the indirect subsidies proposed for local television stations, which will be a further competitor for local newspapers, with the BBC required to buy their content. In particular, can the Minister press colleagues in other Departments to continue advertising in local newspapers?

At the same time—not that one usually ever has to press the great and wonderful Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to any kind of action—when he is stamping down on council free sheets, I hope that he will look again and do it with ever more vigour, because it is completely unfair and wrong for ratepayers to be asked to subsidise something that puts their local paper out of business. All we ask for is a little fairness to preserve something that is so important in our national life. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Louise Mensch) on securing this important debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) compared it to speed dating but, as I heard the various interventions, it seemed more like the parliamentary equivalent of “Just a Minute”. The great deal of interest in the debate on the part of colleagues might not be unrelated to the fact that, last time I debated local newspapers, I managed to secure half a page on page 7 of my excellent local weekly, The Didcot Herald.

There is often good coverage in my local newspaper, the Wigan Evening Post, but it is not always comfortable, as should be the case. As the Minister knows, Johnston Press, which recently announced huge losses, employs people in Wigan and elsewhere. Can he tell us whether he can get some assurances from the management of Johnston Press for staff who are obviously concerned about their future?

I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution, and I should also mention the excellent contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Harlow (Robert Halfon), for Redditch (Karen Lumley), for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby), for Worcester (Mr Walker), for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) and for Burton; of the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw); and of the hon. Members for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero), for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Halifax (Mrs Riordan). As Minister for fashion, I normally go out of my way to praise the sartorial elegance of my hon. Friend the Member for Corby, so I hope she does not think me ungallant if I make the point that today she is eclipsed by my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow who, in the parlance of fashion, is wearing a powder-blue corduroy suit with a rainbow accessory tie.

The issues are important and, as the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) indicated, local newspapers are under significant pressure. I was in touch with Simon O’Neill, the editor of The Oxford Times in my constituency, and he pointed out that between 2006 and 2011 the turnover of Oxfordshire publishing businesses halved, they closed their district offices and editorial numbers declined by 40%. He is also a man whose glass is half full, however, and he made the point that his own newspapers between them employ more journalists than all the other media outlets in Oxfordshire combined.

I make it clear that I will happily accept as many interventions as hon. Members wish to make.

I thank the Minister for his kind comments about my suit. The Harlow Star is delivered to almost every home throughout Harlow free of charge, and it and many other local newspapers depend on traffic notices. Many old people—we have 11,500 pensioners —do not use the internet and depend on traffic notices from their local newspaper. Will he lobby the Department for Transport to ensure that traffic notices are kept in local newspapers?

I hear what my hon. Friend says. Obviously, I was going to cover the consultation on traffic regulation orders conducted by the Department for Transport. The consultation opened in January and this is the second time we have debated it in the House, which is a reflection of the importance that hon. Members attach to this subject. When we debated the matter previously, I urged all hon. Members to make their own submissions on behalf of their local newspapers.

The consultation closed last Monday. I understand that last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), met representatives of newspaper groups. The Department for Transport is taking this seriously. I would not like to pre-empt the conclusions of that consultation. I made the frank points in the previous debate that there is a balance to be struck between saving the taxpayer money, effectively, by not having a statutory requirement and by deregulating, and recognising that local newspapers in particular depend on statutory notices for part of their revenue.

This Government have pioneered transparency in local government finances with a requirement to publish such information. Anyone who has waded through it will see reams of pages. If the local press are not around to do that, few others will. Does the Minister agree that this is a real threat to local democracy and transparency, as wonderfully exemplified by the Enfield Independent and the Enfield Advertiser?

As I said earlier, we should recognise that local newspapers take their responsibilities in this area seriously. The editor of The Oxford Times, Simon O’Neill, made the point that, although it has had radically to reduce its headcount because of commercial pressures, nevertheless it has tried to do that in the back office. I regret anyone’s losing their job, but that paper has focused on maintaining the quality of its journalism.

On the point made well by my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Louise Mensch) about the uneven playing field in terms of council so-called free sheets, might it help the market to require councils to charge for each free sheet and thereby see how many they sell? That would bring competition back into the local market.

As my hon. Friend is aware, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government made it one of his priorities when we came into office to consider council free sheets. We introduced a code of recommended practice a year ago, at the end of March 2011. Local authorities have to take account of that statutory guidance, restricting the number of newsletters that local authorities can issue quarterly. For example, I know anecdotally that Hammersmith and Fulham now produces its own free sheet as part of the local newspaper, the Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle. So in effect, rather than being a competitor of the local newspaper, the council has ended up subsidising it, if one wants to use that word.

Does the Minister agree that a fully independent, strong local paper such as the Congleton Chronicle, the strength of which is in its independence, makes a unique contribution to strengthening community life—in many ways acting as its glue—for just a few pence a week? Will he join me in congratulating the paper, which is bucking the trend that we have heard about today by having not only three long-running titles—the Congleton, Sandbach and Biddulph Chroniclesbut this year launching a new title, the Alsager Chronicle, which is proof that a well-resourced and supported independent local paper can flourish in the internet age?

I happily join my hon. Friend in congratulating that newspaper on its success. Well-run local newspapers producing content that local people want to read will be successful.

I was interviewed recently by GQ Magazine, which my hon. Friend the Member for Corby is familiar with, about how to get elected to Parliament. I made the point, which I think hon. Members would agree with, that a page in a local newspaper is worth much more, still, than a Facebook campaign. That is worth remembering.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating my Herald Express, which won the national award for creative bravery when it converted from being a daily to a weekly? If he wants some advice and guidance about how to do it yourself and get it right, that is a good example: that paper did it, and kept the sales and circulation.

I join my hon. Friend in recognising the achievement of her local newspaper in receiving that award and in moving from a daily to a weekly. That echoes the point made by the right hon. Member for Exeter—that, although painful to say it, it is better that a newspaper survive and prosper, albeit in a different format, than close entirely.

All three of my local papers, the Blackpool Gazette, Lytham St Annes Express and the Lancashire Evening Post are Johnston Press papers. I urge the Minister to seek a meeting with senior management at Johnston Press to see in what practical ways we can help.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, which reminds me that I was remiss in not addressing the point put to me by the hon. Member for Wigan. I have called the managing director of Johnston Press and hope to have a meeting with him, simply to engage with him and hear his strategy. As a matter of principle, it is not the job of Government to tell a commercial business how it should be run or what its requirements are.

Ashley Highfield, the new managing director of Johnston Press—I knew him at the BBC when he was putting together the iPlayer, and he was then at Microsoft—has been hired because of an explicit recognition that we are moving into a digital age. Members will say that not everyone has an iPad yet, and it is still important to maintain the traditional format of a local newspaper, on which so many of our constituents still depend to get their local news.

Not only does not everyone have an iPad at this stage, but residents in my constituency of Corby were unbelievably insulted to be told that the Corby Evening Telegraph would be replaced by an iPad app, which excludes both people on low incomes and elderly people who are not familiar with the internet. I firmly agree with the Minister that a Facebook campaign is no substitute. He is, like me, a great lover of social media. Does he not recognise, as I do, that we will lose much photojournalism and in-depth coverage if we switch from true local stories to a couple of tweets?

Yes. I should say that I often get myself into trouble making offers to Members; but, as and when I am able to set up a meeting with the managing director of Johnston Press, I will issue an open invitation to that meeting to all Members who may or may not have had the opportunity to meet him, so that they can put their points to him. It would be useful for him to hear from the grassroots. We Members of Parliament can forget that we are the grassroots of our communities.

So far, no Member has mentioned the opportunities that come through local papers for those starting on the first rung of journalism. They go from local and provincial papers to national papers, and on to TV and radio. Many people in Northern Ireland depend on that. Does the Minister feel that that cannot be replaced?

The hon. Gentleman makes his point. Time and again, we hear about the much wider impact of local newspapers, not just in delivering news to their local communities but the tangential impact on skills and training. That is why, for example, to return to my own patch in Oxfordshire, I am heartened that there is a drive by the editor-in-chief, Simon O’Neill, to continue to invest in journalism because of the recognition that quality journalism sits at the heart not just of the success of local newspapers, but of media generally.

Does the Minister agree that local newspapers often create a fertile environment for other print publications, such as Love Brighton, What’s Happening and The Latest magazines in Brighton and Hove?

I have to inform the Chamber that, unfortunately, the long-established Woking News and Mail closed a few months ago, but a new Woking News and Mail, which started as a monthly publication, is now fortnightly and supplements the excellent coverage of the Surrey Advertiser. Surely, if the demand is there people will buy the local press.

I agree.

We have relaxed the media ownership rules to allow local newspaper groups to merge; we have conducted a consultation on traffic regulation orders, which has just concluded; we have restricted the use of council free sheets; we have introduced local television, which I think will supplement and support local newspapers; and we continue to support community radio. Above all, the message goes out from the House and from this lively, well-informed debate about the passionate support in this House and among our local communities for our local newspapers. I will happily organise a series of meetings with the managing directors of newspaper groups, whether Johnston Press, Newsquest or Northcliffe, if Members would find that helpful.