Thursday 19 March 2015
[Sir Hugh Bayley in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Damian Hinds.)
This is a very important debate about the future of local newspapers, and I am pleased to call John McDonnell.
Thank you, Sir Hugh. I am very pleased with the turnout. I thought that there would be only a few of us, because of the nature of today. I know that some Members have constituency duties and may want to intervene and then leave. I completely understand that, given that we are only a few days from Prorogation.
Let me place it on the record that I am the secretary of the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group. It is a cross-party group of MPs who have raised issues on behalf of the union and journalists generally over a number of years. It is chaired by my hon. Friend and comrade the Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell). His speech today may not be his last in the House before he retires at the end of this Parliament, but it may well be the last time that he speaks on this subject. He is leaving the House to take up a more productive and fulfilling life outside. I look forward to the articles, novels and updated memoirs that he will produce.
Does my hon. Friend share my distress at the departure of our hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell), because that will deprive the House of diversity? Our greatest problem in the House is in getting a House that is as diverse as the nation, and his departure will add to the terrible shortage of octogenarians here. Is that not a terrible shame?
It will be a great loss. I want formally to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby for his services to the NUJ in the House. He has championed a free and flourishing media in this country and the critically important role of journalists. I place on the record all our thanks for that.
As this will be our last discussion on this subject before the new Parliament, I also thank the Minister for having always been willing to engage with the union and the parliamentary group. He has always been accessible, co-operative and keenly interested in supporting the role of journalists. I am grateful for that. I wanted to place that on the record.
This debate was sponsored by me, the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell), the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), who chairs the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, and a number of others. I also place on record my thanks and the union’s thanks to the Chair of the Committee for the support and focus that he has given to the Committee’s work in seeking to promote vibrant media in this country and, in particular, for the keen interest that he has displayed in the role of the local press and its importance to our democracy. He has always made the Committee accessible to the views of the NUJ. He has enabled successive general secretaries to present evidence to the Committee and has met them when necessary. He has engaged in an ongoing dialogue on the issues facing the industry, and I want to say that I am grateful for that on behalf of the NUJ.
The NUJ parliamentary group has secured, with its allies across the parties, a number of debates in recent years on local media, and has met with some success, if I may say so. Some hon. Members may recall that we were in this Chamber—I think that it was two years ago—to debate the cuts to local BBC radio services, and we fended off the large-scale cutting of those services. Similarly, we have used Adjournment debates, parliamentary questions and early-day motions persistently to highlight the troubles visited on the local newspaper sector. We held a debate similar to this two and a half years ago, I believe. I recall that at that stage we were all hoping, on a cross-party basis, that the economic cycle would lead to an upturn in the prospects of local newspapers as they integrated themselves into the new world of digital media.
The reason why the hon. Member for Colchester, the Chair of the Select Committee and others supported this debate is that although there have undoubtedly been some positive developments, the plight of local newspapers has in many ways and in many areas worsened, and in some areas the position is perilous now.
The Library briefing pack has been circulated. I hope that hon. Members have seen it. The NUJ provided the Library with a detailed briefing setting out an analysis of what has been happening in the local newspaper sector in the two years since the debate. It is pretty grim reading. I will run through some of the main features, but more importantly I want to prompt a discussion about where we go from here and put forward some ideas on that. It is especially important in the light of yesterday’s statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which offered a possible lifeline to some elements of the local press, certainly if the measure is designed properly. I do not think it takes much forensic examination to discern the Minister’s fingerprints on the reference in the Chancellor’s speech, and I congratulate him and thank him for achieving this breakthrough in the recognition by the Treasury that something has to be done.
Let me put on the record again what the Chancellor said:
“Local newspapers are a vital part of community life, but they have had a very tough time in recent years. Today, we announce a consultation on how we can provide them, too, with tax support.”—[Official Report, 18 March 2015; Vol. 594, c. 776.]
The details of that consultation have not been released yet. I am told that it may not be before the general election, but I expect whoever is in government to pursue the consultation. I think that it will be a worthwhile exercise enabling us to have a wider dialogue on what sort of support can be provided to the newspaper industry.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in many respects the Chancellor understated the importance of local media? It is not just that they are important to community life and local life. They are an essential part of local democracy—of holding people to account in a politically neutral way. That is not always the case with other elements of the media. On that basis, does he agree that local councils sending out propaganda masquerading as independent newspapers will never be a substitute for a good local press?
The Government have taken action on that matter and introduced a code of practice, which they have also enforced in some areas, so in that debate, things have moved on dramatically. I am aware that the hon. Gentleman has in the past tabled early-day motions on the subject and participated in debates on it.
I want to focus on what is happening in the industry at the moment. Many of us have taken the view that we simply cannot go on the way we are, or we risk losing the local newspapers that, as the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) said, we all value as the bedrock of local democracy in many ways.
The Derby Telegraph, which is my local paper, is the midlands’ newspaper of the year and still sells 25,000 copies every day, but more importantly it has 71,000 unique users on the website every day. That is something that local newspapers are having to adapt to, and the question is how they fund it. The problem is that people will not pay for local newspapers, but they will go online—and there are adverts everywhere. I would like to see the end of adverts, and perhaps people subscribing to local newspapers on the web.
The important thing about the Chancellor’s statement yesterday was that it recognised that the local press is moving to a new model, exactly as the hon. Lady says, and it recognised also the need for Government intervention to support the transitional period. As I said, I think that that came from the dialogue and discussions that the Minister has had with the Treasury, and I welcome it.
Will my hon. Friend recognise that there are different models for local newspapers? In my area, we have the Gazette group, which is based outside London and covers a very large number of areas, and it is barely a local paper because of that. We also have the Camden New Journal group, which is a worker-owned group that grew out of a strike and provides excellent, high-quality free newspapers in Camden and Islington and has a good readership as a result. Does my hon. Friend think that that model could be developed in other parts of the country?
That is one of the issues that I want to raise later. If there is to be Government intervention and support, it has to be done in a way that maximises the public interest; it must not simply get swallowed up as a reduction in business rates and then be given out to shareholders or—as we have unfortunately seen happen in recent years—go towards the salaries of some chief executives, which are exorbitant to say the least, and which many of us have criticised.
I want to reinforce the point that hon. Members have made about the importance of local newspapers to democracy overall. The reporting of the activities of local politicians, local councils, local Members of Parliament, NHS bodies, the police and others in the local community is important to hold them to account. It is critical to have a local newspaper that will shed light on their activities.
Let me briefly explain what has been happening in recent years. The NUJ has published a chronology of closures and job losses in local newspapers over the past nine months. It is a shocking roll-call of cuts on a significant and worrying scale. I will not go through it in detail now, but I will place in the Library, for Members’ information, the short report that the NUJ has provided. It illustrates the range of titles that have gone in the past nine months, and the scale of cutbacks of journalists, sub-editors and photographers. It is worrying that the trend that we discussed in this Chamber only two and a half years ago has continued at such a pace.
I will draw in the key elements of the briefing that the NUJ has provided to Members. Between 2005 and the start of 2012, 242 local papers were shut. The NUJ’s detailed roll-call from the past nine months confirms that that trend has continued with the loss of further newspapers. Whole areas of the country are local news-free zones. There are hon. Members from Wales here; Port Talbot, which has a population of 50,000, has had no local newspaper since 2009.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about the closure of newspapers; I want to give an example from my area. Before the Medway News closed, there was talk of merging it with the Kent Messenger, which is a brilliant paper. However, the burdensome regulations surrounding the merger prevented that from happening. The Office of Fair Trading stated that the Kent Messenger would have an unfair advantage on advertising, which is complete nonsense because people can get advertisements online as well. As a result, the merger did not go ahead. Medway News closed and jobs went, and people were left without a brilliant local newspaper. The situation could have been different if the regulations had been designed properly. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that needs to be looked at?
There is a whole range of such anomalies, which we need to inquire into. That is one of the reasons why the NUJ is promoting the idea of a proper inquiry—it does not have to be a long-winded one—into some of the details of regulation. That might assist in protecting titles and protecting jobs and services.
As I said, some areas of the country have become local news-free zones. The staff cuts have been staggering, and the NUJ’s survey concerning Trinity Mirror and Newsquest revealed that the lack of staff meant that basic services were not being provided. Council meetings and court cases were not being covered. Local businesses were not being held to account.
Some Members may recall that some time ago, we expressed our disappointment about the decision by the Press Association to scrap its “Lobby Extra” package, which provided a House of Commons service for 15 regional titles. Many of us thought that that service was vital, because it covered regional newspapers such as the Liverpool Echo, the Manchester Evening News and the Express & Star, many of which no longer employ staff Lobby correspondents. If newspapers are unable to report on our activities, they will not be able to hold us to account and our democratic links with constituents will be undermined.
The number of job cuts in some areas has been extremely worrying. Johnston Press annual reports from 2007 to 2012 revealed that the number of full-time journalists fell by 44% from 2,774 to 1,558, and the trend has continued this morning. The Daily Mail and General Trust has admitted that half its 4,200 staff in the Northcliffe Media regional newspaper division have been cut since 2008. As we have heard in our discussions elsewhere, local and district offices are being closed, so reporters are working much further from their local communities. That issue was raised at our cross-sectoral seminar with the Minister some time ago.
We also find that papers are being edited in hubs. I agree wholeheartedly with Michelle Stanistreet, the NUJ general secretary, who has said:
“Readers are not stupid. They can tell when their newspaper is being produced from a different county—and in some cases country. They can tell when they are served up rehashed, reconstituted fare. They feel robbed when they can no longer speak to the local reporter on their patch and when their voices go unheard.”
We should be concerned about the fact that that has become a common phenomenon. We should also be concerned about the fact that regional newspaper group publishers have significant local monopolies. The resulting lack of competition may undermine standards and the quality of journalism.
As we have discussed, the decline in the sector has been blamed on the transition to the internet, with a lot of content being made free. Another problem is the drop in advertising revenue, which has been caused by the recession and falling circulation. As many of us have argued for some time, it is not as simple as that. There is a depth of anguish about what has happened to local newspapers over the past 20 years.
Throughout the ’90s and until about 2005, local newspaper profit margins ranged from approximately 20% to 35%. Between the start of 2003 and the end of 2007—I am sorry to pick on Wales all the time—the profit margin of Media Wales averaged 34%, and it peaked at 38% at the end of 2005. In a normal business, profits on that scale would be reinvested in the industry long term. As the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) said, such reinvestment would fund the transition to the new model. That did not happen, unfortunately. I hate to say it, but some of the company results make it clear that instead of being reinvested, those profits were creamed off and used for sizeable shareholder dividend pay-outs. In addition, the pay of newspaper executives was enormous, and I will give some examples later.
Another issue that has affected the sector over the past 10 years is the rapid closure of local presses. Johnston Press in the north has closed presses in Halifax and Leeds. As a result of such closures, any new entrant to the regional newspaper market is forced to choose between bearing the virtually prohibitive expense of a new press, entering into contract arrangements with potential competitors, or printing outside the UK and building import costs into their overheads from the outset. That is a dangerous pattern. That all happened while profits were at a high level. In any other sector with profits of more than 30%, it would be almost unthinkable not to plough that money back into the industry. I do not want to use phrases such as fixing the roof when the sun shines, or having a long-term economic plan, but we would expect someone somewhere in the sector to wake up to the need for such things.
Some of the examples have been absolutely staggering. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) and I have waged something of a crusade with regard to Trinity Mirror over the past 10 years, and I have looked back at some of the interventions we made in Adjournment debates and so on. Trinity Mirror covers a whole range of titles from the Liverpool Echo to the Oldham Advertiser and the Rossendale Free Press. What did Trinity Mirror do with its profits during the good times? It appointed Sly Bailey as chief executive in 2003. In 2005, if I remember rightly, we raised concerns about her management skills. When she left last year, she was given a £900,000 payoff. She pocketed more than £14 million during her time at the company, despite the fact that the work force was cut in half and the share price plummeted by 90% during her tenure. That is absolutely extraordinary. To quote Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the NUJ:
“Trinity Mirror owns some of the best-known and respected newspaper titles in the UK. In 2003, when Sly Bailey took over as chief executive, it was a FTSE 250 company worth more than £1 billion and with a share price of 380p. Now, less than ten years later, the same CEO presides over a company that is a shadow of its former self—with a share price of 30p.”
Despite that, Sly Bailey received the £900,000 payoff on leaving. That is simply payment for failure. We can see why journalists on the front line who are losing their jobs are so angry about what happened during that period. Half the jobs have gone, and the company has been driven into the sand. Her successor has just had to announce £10 million-worth of cuts. The company is currently losing another 92 jobs. Fifty-three new jobs have been created in its national and regional titles, but the company is moving towards a shared content model of producing material that is not local, which will start to undermine the quality of the press.
It just goes on. Newsquest publishes 200 newspapers, and audit figures show that its circulation dropped by 10% in the last round. Roy Greenslade, the expert commentator on the press industry, argues that that drop is partly due to short-term thinking. Newsquest has increased the price of its papers, and the result has been an immediate sales plunge. There is a real management issue in this sector. Newsquest is owned by an American company called Gannett. In February 2014, Gannett issued one of the biggest shareholder payouts that we have seen. Gannett’s chief executive said:
“We remain on track to return approximately $1.3 billion to shareholders through dividends and share repurchases by 2015.”
Yet staff on the company’s papers have had a pay freeze for four of the past five years. A typical Newsquest journalist earns about £21,000 a year, but Newsquest’s outgoing chief executive, Paul Davidson, was paid £0.5 million in 2012 and his fellow directors took a performance-related payment of nearly £300,000. Understandably, there is phenomenal anger among staff. The company has cut 5% in the past year, which includes compulsory redundancies. That cut was driven through by abysmal management. Newsquest has also moved paper production from the north down to Newport. The Northern Echo will now be edited 270 miles from where it is distributed. It just goes on and on, and I worry about what is happening generally.
Johnston Press is an example of catastrophically bad management. The company publishes 200 titles, and its chief executive has announced a new project to produce a paper with 75% of its content provided by readers, not journalists. Chris Oakley, a former editor of the Liverpool Echo, says:
“In the boom years, the Stock Market valued Johnston Press at more than £1 billion and investors and analysts applauded as the company ran up nearly half a billion in debt.”
Johnston Press, relatively speaking, is now more indebted than Greece. Between 2005 and 2007, the company spent £1 billion on acquisitions, including £250 million for 11 paid weeklies and 10 free sheets in rural Ireland. Two years later, after spending all that money, the best offer when it tried to sell those titles was £40 million. That is a scandalous waste of resources that almost destroyed the company overnight.
Last year, Johnston Press made an operating profit of £57 million, but its debt is now £360 million. That debt is owed, among others, to RBS and Lloyds, which are charging a 13% interest rate compared with the Bank of England rate of 0.5%. The company could be destroyed purely and simply because of the punitive interest rates charged by those publicly owned banks. The NUJ has been campaigning for the banks to renegotiate the terms, otherwise the company will fail and everyone will lose out—not only the journalists who will lose their jobs but the banks that will have to try to retrieve the money they paid out.
The next member of the big four is Local World, which was created in November 2012 by the merger of Northcliffe regional newspaper group and Iliffe News and Media. Northcliffe’s owner, the Daily Mail and General Trust, was paid £52 million and took a 38.7% stake in Local World. Iliffe’s owner, the Yattendon Group, has a 21.3% stake in the business. Trinity Mirror paid £14.2 million for a 20% share. Local World has no presses and no pension fund liabilities, but it has 110 newspapers. It is the new kid on the block, but its founder, David Montgomery, is an old hand who has been around a long while—he was previously at Trinity Mirror. He is reinventing the model so that it is virtually without journalists. He has already got rid of sub-editors. Barry Fitzpatrick, the NUJ deputy secretary who negotiates on behalf of the workers, says:
“This is a very dangerous vision. What he appears to be suggesting is that the police, schools, Tesco and other organisations can put their press releases directly into the local paper, without verification or comment.”
That undermines the very product that Local World is trying to sell, which is extraordinary.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. His speech makes me realise that the Derby Telegraph is a fortunate paper and that my area has been lucky with Northcliffe Media. In recent years, the Derby Telegraph has become much more of a campaigning newspaper. It has uncovered stories such as the Al-Madinah school scandal, which it broke. The newspaper has also campaigned to keep train making in this country, which was a big, cross-party campaign. Recently, the Derby Telegraph helped to raise a lot of money in the name of a BBC Radio Derby journalist who has malignant melanoma—the campaign by the radio station and the newspaper is raising money to fight melanomas. The sort of things that the Derby Telegraph has done has brought in more readership, and more people are getting involved. Working with the local radio station, the newspaper’s numbers have been boosted considerably.
Individual newspapers and managements attended the meeting that the Minister convened with different sectors of the industry. The meeting demonstrated that, with good management, it can be done. An element of creativity and community engagement is needed, but the core of success is always quality journalism. If a company undermines the quality of its product, the whole operation will eventually be brought into crisis, which is what has happened as a result of short-term profiteering by poor management. Greedy executives have walked away with packages of hundreds of thousands of pounds while their workers on the front line have been sacked.
The hon. Lady makes a good point that quality journalism has exposed local scandals. We spoke to Shaun Lintern, the journalist who broke the Mid Staffs hospital story. He basically said that such a story could not be broken with the resources available now because there are not enough staff on the ground.
I have demonstrated what has happened in recent years. Wages on local papers are now extremely low. Newsquest has had a pay freeze for four of the past five years. Typically, a journalist now earns £21,000 a year, but trainee journalists in Yorkshire are earning 7p above the minimum wage. Journalists in Cheshire and Merseyside earn as little as £14,500. Traineeships are one way in which people get into journalism, but trainees who have worked at one newspaper group in London for years earn some £16,000. That is in the capital, and it is just above the London living wage at best. Those trainees do not receive London weighting. Another high-profile paper in the capital now pays journalists £18,000, which is a scandal. It undermines the quality of the job, professionalism and the workers themselves if they are not paid properly.
The hon. Gentleman is highlighting the brilliant work of local journalists such as those on the Medway Messenger. The chairman of the Kent Messenger Group, Geraldine Allinson, told me that where local journalists have done a brilliant job and their story has been used by, say, the BBC or other nationals, they have not been credited. When the BBC’s charter comes up for renewal, it might say, “Yes, we’ll do it,” but when charter renewal goes away, there has not been such collaboration with local newspapers to ensure that journalists get the credit they deserve.
The BBC has entered into relationships with the local press in some areas, and the dissemination of information in that way has been fairly constructive. The NUJ is calling for a short, sharp inquiry on the future of local newspapers because we want to look at the whole architecture in which local media operate.
I repeat the statement in the NUJ briefing, which was sent to all of us. It believes that journalists should be at the heart of local communities, speaking and listening to readers. It believes that there is a strong future for local papers that enjoy high levels of trust among their readers, but the sector is in a precarious position. That is why year-on-year cuts, pay freezes and increased work loads are creating low morale among journalists at local papers and undermining the product that companies are seeking to sell. Professional journalism, community journalism and investigative journalism could be casualties in the coming years if we do not act soon.
The NUJ has been running a country-wide campaign with Co-operatives UK and the Carnegie Trust to consider how good journalism could be funded. An issue that has come up, including at our seminar, is that the NUJ believes that this Government’s Localism Act 2011, which we supported, should be amended to give local newspapers protected status as community assets to prevent newspaper titles from closing overnight and allow new owners—including, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) said, co-operatives and other community initiatives—time to put together bids for the paper. Newspaper groups should not be allowed to close a paper and lock away a title that has resonance in the local community. Legislation is also needed to prevent newspaper owners from refusing to offer titles for sale before closing them. They should at least be offered to others who might want to make them a going concern.
The NUJ asks the Government to open an inquiry into the future of local papers to explore how Government could support new models of ownership, such as co-operatives and community ownership by readers, and investigate how Government subsidies and tax advantages could work for local newspapers. I welcome yesterday’s statement, but tax concessions and reductions in business rates should not be allowed to go towards featherbedding companies with increased shareholder dividends or into high salaries for executives.
We should consider how local papers could be funded or part-funded, as others are, on a public service model. If local papers receive public subsidies through tax concessions or otherwise, there should be a public benefit test. Do they report council meetings? Do they report what is happening with local statutory agencies, and hold them to account? We have also been proposing for a while that the use of industrial levies should be investigated: for example, a 1% levy on pay TV operators such as Sky and Virgin Media would bring in about £80 million a year to fund the development and transitional costs of the local newspaper sector. A 1% levy on the five big mobile phone operators could generate £208 million a year. On boardroom greed, one proposal that has been debated is to link chief executives’ and executives’ pay not just to performance but to their employees’ pay, and to ensure trade union and proper representation on remuneration committees, so that there is more transparency and openness.
As we have seen today, despite all the travails of the local newspaper sector, the recognition of its importance is prompting Government and all parties to consider seriously how we can intervene to support it in this period of transition into the new digital age. It will survive and thrive only on the basis of preserving and promoting quality journalism. Without that, a local paper is undermined as a product and will wither on the vine. I urge whoever is in government next to seize the NUJ proposal of an open and engaging inquiry involving all stakeholders into delivering a way forward to enable an essential public service to flourish once again.
As 10 Members are trying to catch my eye and we have just under two hours until we start the winding-up speeches, that makes something like 11 minutes each.
I apologise to you, Sir Hugh, and to the two Front-Bench spokesmen; as I have said, I will have to leave before the winding-up speeches due to a prior engagement. I thank the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for the detailed way in which he presented the case, and the National Union of Journalists and the House of Commons Library for all the background provided to this debate.
I declare that I am a former secretary of the north Essex branch of the National Union of Journalists. Some 51 years ago—I know you will find it hard to believe, Sir Hugh—I was a trainee reporter for what was then called Benham Newspapers, which included the Tuesday Colchester Gazette, long before it became an evening and then a morning paper, and the Friday Essex County Standard, which I am pleased to say is still going. When I hear stories about news-barren areas of the country, I think that perhaps north Essex has been spared the worst. I shall come to that in a minute.
The East Anglian counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, as I understand it, still have a locally owned newspaper group, Archant, which runs the Eastern Daily Press, primarily in Norfolk, and the East Anglian Daily Times, primarily in Suffolk but also in north Essex. The Saturday edition is the one to buy, because page 41 features Sir Bob’s diary recounting what has happened in the last week.
As has been pointed out, local government, local magistrates courts and local community activities are going unreported. It is bad enough that social historians will have less to dip into. I cut my teeth on those things; in fact, I can probably blame Brightlingsea urban district council for my interest in local government and for my ending up here in Westminster.
At the age of 21, having become a qualified journalist through the National Council for the Training of Journalists, I became news editor of the Braintree and Witham Times, which was part of the Benham Newspapers group and known affectionately as the “Brainless and Witless Times”. Just before my 22nd birthday, I became editor of the Maldon and Burnham Standard, in which distinguished organ some of the parliamentary activities of my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) are covered. Mrs Russell, as she was in those days, our infant twin sons and I lived in a flat above a shop at 107 High street, Maldon, long since gone.
Benham Newspapers then merged with another group to become Essex County Newspapers, which was then acquired by another group. That was acquired by another group, and it is now under the American-owned Newsquest. I can vouch for the fact that capital asset stripping has taken place. I pay tribute to the journalists who still work on those local newspapers, but they are few in number, and not so long ago there was another cull and photographers were made redundant.
To me, the local newspaper is a key ingredient in telling people what the local council and local democracy are doing, but it is not unknown now for a council meeting, let alone a committee meeting, to go unreported. For a journalist to turn up at a court hearing is a rare occasion. To my mind, a newspaper cannot be replaced by electronic media; the internet and social media should be in addition to it, not instead of it.
Fifty years ago, in virtually any town—it was certainly the case in Colchester—the number of front doors was smaller than the number of newspapers sold. I will not say that there was 100% penetration, but it was in the upper 90s, because some people bought more than one paper. Today, it is about a quarter of that, if we are lucky. What has made it worse is that when we go around knocking on doors, we find notices saying “No junk mail”. Not only are people not buying local newspapers, they do not want to receive communications from their local councillors or Members of Parliament, irrespective of which party they are from. We will now have a few weeks in which candidates from throughout the spectrum will be trying to get their message across, and residents will be saying, “I don’t want any of this rubbish, because you’re all the same.”
We have a serious issue. A large part of the population are cutting themselves off from the community in which they live. The community is no longer what it was. We must go back to education to find out why schools are not engaging sufficiently to get families to buy newspapers. Compared with the cost of other things, local newspapers are still relatively cheap.
Clearly, I am concerned about the loss of titles and the loss of jobs, and not only editorial jobs but printing jobs. The Colchester Daily Gazette was started in 1970 as The Colchester Evening Gazette. Like many other evening newspapers, it is now a daily newspaper and it is no longer printed in the town; it is printed elsewhere in the country and then driven into Colchester.
I used to be a sub-editor, but now the sub-editorial side of things is quite often done—not always, but quite often—as a production-line job many miles away. We see that when we read the local newspaper. We find that villages and roads have been put in the wrong place, and if someone knows that those things are wrong they then start to doubt and question the accuracy of other things. So, we have an issue in that regard.
Following on from a point that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington made, where does the legal buck stop with those newspapers that do not have sub-editors or, seemingly, an editor? I ask that because one day something will go seriously wrong and somebody will be held accountable, but I am not sure who that person will be. Presumably, it will be the managing director, because the editorial control will not be there.
Eventually, I ended up working in London, first at The Evening News, which is no longer with us, and then at the Evening Standard. Today, more people read the London Standard than at any time in its history, but nobody pays for it. It is all free, but of course somebody has to pay for it, and obviously that is the advertisers. In a huge city such as London, that can be done.
I can remember the time when many of our provincial cities had not one but two evening newspapers, as well as the morning newspaper. Norwich and Ipswich have bucked the trend in that sense, so something has happened there. However, there is often a lack of local identity within our newspapers. I am not criticising that; I am just making an observation. It used to be that advertising revenue was coming in, which meant newspapers could employ journalists to cover the council, the courts and all the other things. The pagination of the newspapers was such that they could cover lots of social “good news” stories as well as the day-to-day things.
In summing up, I look to the two Front-Bench spokesmen, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and the Minister, to see if there are any solutions. We will not get back to where we were 50 years ago, when we had 100% newspaper penetration, but something has got to be done because we have a disconnected community. Those who buy and read their local newspapers are clearly much better informed than those of their neighbours who do not do so, and all MPs will have constituents who raise issues with us not knowing that we have already taken those issues up, dealt with them and sometimes even solved them. Nevertheless, we then get a letter saying, “Why don’t you do something about so-and-so?”, and it has been widely reported in the local paper.
I end with a plea to both Front-Bench spokesmen—there must be a coming together to see how we can help local newspapers. They are a vital part of our society, they are crucial to democratic accountability, and we are all the poorer when the circulations of newspapers fall and, even worse, when titles go.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak, Sir Hugh. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on his excellent and eloquent speech, which has covered many of the points that many of us will want to make today.
I am particularly blessed in south-west Wales because we have a number of newspapers. We have the Llanelli Star, in my own town of Llanelli, and its sister papers, the Carmarthen Journal and the South Wales Evening Post, which also cover my constituency. We also have the South Wales Guardian, which is another completely independent newspaper and it, too, covers my constituency. We also have the Carmarthenshire Herald, which has just started up and which offers yet another perspective.
Nationally in Wales, we have the Western Mail and I will begin my comments today by talking about the whole issue of devolution and local newspapers, because it is quite apparent to me that the more that devolution progresses and the more that policy differs between England and Wales, the more difficult it is for people in Wales to get information about the policy in Wales, so that they can hold to account the Ministers in the Welsh Government in the same way that other Members today have talked about local government being held to account by local newspapers. That role of newspapers is extremely important.
For example, if someone reads any of the UK national newspapers, they will see extremely little reference to the policy differences that exist in Wales. To take one fairly “hot” subject for debate, there is the issue of student fees. When the Conservative and Lib Dem coalition chose to charge university students who are domiciled in England fees of £9,000 a year, the Welsh Labour Government decided to peg fees at £3,500 per year for those university students who are domiciled in Wales, regardless of which university they go to. Consequently, the issues of funding of universities are very different in Wales, and they need to be discussed in a different context and in a different way from the way in which they are discussed in England. There is a debate as to whether the level of fees is affordable, about the effect on the institutions themselves and, obviously, about the effect on the students of any change in that situation. That is typical of the type of issue that we will just see disappear altogether, and there will not be quality debate on such issues, if we do not have a plethora of local newspapers that are able to promote that debate.
Likewise, as other Members have already referred to, there is the local council. As we see a greater extent of devolution in different ways in different parts of the UK, it is ever more important that people who hold the purse-strings and who make policy decisions are held to account locally. Sometimes that can be very uncomfortable, but it is extremely necessary.
That process may not necessarily be simply about the local council. We have bodies and individuals such as local health boards, the police commissioners and the fire authorities. All of those are partly covered by some elective democratic control, but very often they are perceived by the local population as not necessarily responding to local need. Again, it is often local newspapers that can uncover, perhaps through freedom of information requests, some uncomfortable information about the way that those bodies or individuals spend money, or it may be that local newspapers will champion campaigns, as we have seen locally in my area with support being expressed for keeping services in our local hospital. All those democratic and semi-democratic institutions need to be held to account, and the loss of local newspapers, or the loss of the quality from local newspapers if they simply regurgitate pre-prepared articles from miles away, will of course have a very detrimental effect on that democratic process.
I support the idea of a short, sharp inquiry into what can be done, because I do not think that we have all the solutions ready straight away. We need to have that inquiry, but I do not want it to be a way of kicking things into the long grass.
Obviously, we have seen a dramatic decline in the number of journalists and quality journalists who are able to work in full-time employment on these papers, and it is absolutely no good thinking that the resulting gap will be filled by lots of people with the time and inclination to write that sort of stuff. There are just not that many people out there who want to do that, and the danger is that they can simply be used by those organisations that have the necessary capacity and that do not really reflect the interests of local people.
This is an urgent issue, which we need further investigation into to see whether financial help can be given, or whether a break can be allowed to enable community groups to take over newspapers. However, it would be a terrible shame if we saw our papers disappear.
It is all very well to talk about things going online, but if we consider some of our constituents, we would all recognise that there are older people who go online but they do so for a specific purpose—perhaps to e-mail their friends, children or grandchildren who live far away—and they are not “grazers”, as perhaps some of the younger generation are, who “graze” continually. Indeed, many of us here do that, as we are continually on e-mail or websites. However, many older people do not find that a natural way to access their news; they much prefer to have it in a written format, which they can pick up and buy.
Hon. Members mentioned archivists. I am worried—I think many of us have noticed it—that with the change to digital cameras a whole chunk of our lives, or our children’s lives, is no longer recorded because we lost our first digital cameras or lost or moved on from the computer we downloaded the images on to. There is a danger that, with the move to the web, we do not have the same quality of archive material that we find in a printed archive.
We elected Members are sometimes uncomfortable with newspapers, because they pinpoint things that they disagree with us about or hold us to account, but that is part of the democratic process and I welcome that dialogue. The more we devolve power to the Welsh Assembly and the more that we ask local councils to take on, the more vital it is that we have quality local journalism, not simply something regurgitated and sent down the M4. For example, there was an article in my local paper not so long ago about driving down the M4 and seeing Castell Coch on the right hand side, but when driving from my constituency Castell Coch is on the left hand side. That article had clearly been written on the other side of the Severn bridge and was in no way reflective of local journalism.
We really need people who have the proper training—proper, qualified journalists—who are able to delve and look, find and sort things out, and really put people on the spot, asking them pertinent questions to make sure that local people have the opportunity to see that in print, so that it informs their decision making.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on obtaining this important debate. I thank him for his kind words about my chairmanship of the Select Committee.
This matter has caused the Committee considerable concern for quite a long time. We carried out an inquiry on the future of local and regional media in 2010 and were alarmed by the number of closures and job losses, of which there was a steady stream. At that time, there were 1,300 local and regional media titles. Claire Enders, of Enders Analysis, told us that she expected half of those to close within five years. It has not been quite as bad as that, but we are down to about 1,000 and the closures are continuing, as the hon. Gentleman said.
It is not just closures. We have seen steady reductions in the number of staff; the journalists are often young and low paid; there have been relocations away from high streets; and there has been a reduction in the number of photographers. What Nick Davies, in The Guardian, has called “churnalism” is becoming ever more obvious, with local newspapers taking press releases and reproducing them without any attempt to establish whether facts within them are correct, or whether there is an alternative.
Investigative reporting has also declined. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Mid Staffordshire inquiry and investigation, which was a shining example of investigative reporting. We in the Committee heard from the journalist responsible for that. It is interesting to note that the Rotherham scandal was exposed not by the local paper, but by The Times, which allowed Andrew Norfolk, one of its journalists, to spend four years investigating that story. He rightly received commendation and awards at the Society of Editors press awards a few days ago. That was an extraordinary commitment to pursuing a story on the part of a national newspaper. It is possible that a local paper simply would not have the resources to do that.
In my area, as we have already heard to some extent from my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell), who is a distinguished former editor of my local newspaper, we have two local newspapers—both weeklies—the Maldon and Burnham Standard, which he mentioned, and the Essex Chronicle. Both do their best. The Maldon and Burnham Standard used to have an address on the High street, which my hon. Friend described, but is no longer there, having moved to Braintree. The Chronicle is now based in an industrial estate on the outskirts of Chelmsford. The Standard is still performing well. The editor tells me it has one of the highest year-on-year ABC sales figures and that its decline is around 1.8%, which is considerably better than many others. I am going to see the editor, Andrew Bennett, tomorrow, and his two young, extremely hard-working and excellent reporters, Nina Morgan and Ally Grainger.
When I was first elected, the Chronicle had a veteran local government editor called Kathleen Corby and the Maldon and Burnham Standard had a deputy editor, Geoff Percival, both of whom had been there for years and had a breadth of experience. I suspect that my hon. Friend remembers both of those characters. One problem for young journalists working at local newspapers is that there is no longer an upward career path, so it is difficult for them to get promoted to achieve higher earnings. The consequence is that they go into other areas, such as public relations or public affairs. It is understandable. However, that is a worrying development, because most journalists acquire their training on local newspapers. National newspapers, television channels and radio stations depend on local newspapers to train the journalists whom they will one day employ.
I apologise for not being here at the beginning of the debate. The hon. Gentleman is right. The Stornoway Gazette, in Lewis and the Hebrides, employs local people in the local community and provides a service that would be sorely missed if it were not there. There is not enough appreciation of what the local press is doing. What are the hon. Gentleman’s views on what we can do to support the local press more and ensure that we have a local press in years to come? There is a feeling that it will always be there because it has been there in the past. Local papers are under great pressures, as the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. What does he think could be done to support them?
The turnout in this debate reflects the concern felt throughout the United Kingdom, which is replicated in every community. I will answer the hon. Gentleman’s question in a moment. I do have some suggestions about what can be done to assist, which I will mention shortly.
The decline of local newspapers has been attributed to many causes that have undoubtedly played their part, including: the growth of local authority free sheets, which sometimes masquerade as local papers and are not obviously publications of the local authority, although they are, of course, paid for by the council tax payer; the decline in public service notices and public service advertising, which has removed some revenue streams; and competition from the BBC, which I will mention. Many local papers resent the fact that not only is the BBC competing with them by providing online news reports free of charge, but frequently those news reports are taken from local newspapers without proper attribution. The attitude of the competition authorities is another concern; they have adopted a very narrow definition of competition, which has in some cases prevented consolidation, which represents the best chance of creating viable local media companies.
The internet has changed everything. More and more people are accessing their news online and not paying for it. Local newspapers have rightly followed that trend and almost every local newspaper has developed its own online distribution, but it is still provided for free, and therefore revenues have declined. At the same time, the advertising on which local papers depend has migrated away from them, and to the internet.
On the way here this morning, I bumped into Mark D’Arcy, the BBC’s excellent parliamentary correspondent, whom I suspect will be familiar to all hon. Members in this Chamber. He told me that he began his career on the Leicester Mercury. At that time, the paper had a section for property advertising that was a couple of centimetres thick. “Now, of course”, he said, “it is all on Zoopla.” That is reflected right across the board. Classified advertising has been in steady decline as ever more is done online. That is another source of reduction in revenues.
Local newspaper groups are seeking to adapt to this new world. I heard the critical comments of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington about David Montgomery’s company, Local World. I have to say that I spent a morning sitting in on its news conference and was impressed with the way that he is trying to ensure the integration of the online news coverage with his local newspapers. There is no question but that the business models have to change. In this world, the old business model is simply not going to work. David Montgomery is making a valiant attempt to develop a viable news model when other former newspaper group owners have withdrawn, as the hon. Gentleman knows.
The decline has left some areas with just one paper, and some with none at all. I will not repeat what has already been said about the dangers that that holds for accountability and democracy. In five weeks’ time, we do not just have national parliamentary elections; in many areas of the country, including mine, we have local elections that in some ways affect people’s lives more than whom they elect to send to this place. How are they supposed to reach a judgment on the performance of local authorities if that is no longer covered in detail by the local paper? That is why local papers matter so much.
The same thing applies in the court system. It is a fundamental principle that justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done. That means that the proceedings of courts need to be reported, as do those of health trusts, education authorities and the new local enterprise partnerships. The hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) was absolutely right: as we devolve more power out to these different institutions, we have to ensure accountability by having coverage of them.
To go back to the points made by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, one or two things can be done to help. First, I congratulate the Chancellor and thoroughly welcome his announcement yesterday on the possibility of business rate relief for local newspapers. There is no question but that that will help. It is gratifying that the Treasury has listened and acknowledged the importance of this matter, but more needs to be done. In 2010, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee welcomed a proposal put forward by the Press Association on what it called public service reporting. The idea is that journalists sit in the local council chamber or the local court and make factual, independent content available to any news outlet that wants it. Those journalists would be funded by a public service fund. There was a pilot to introduce that, and it offers a potential way forward.
There is an additional element to that proposal, which I press on the Minister. In the Committee’s recent inquiry on the future of the BBC, we received evidence from the chairman of the KM Group, Geraldine Allinson, to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) referred. She suggested that the BBC should commission content from local media. Rather than just taking it and not paying for it, the BBC would commission content and so support local media. We received an excellent submission from the South West News Service, which extended the idea with an interesting suggestion. The BBC has an independent production quota for drama. It has to place 25% of its commissioning outside the BBC with independent production houses. SWNS’s suggestion was that we should consider extending that measure to local news, so that the BBC would be required to contract out part of its local news coverage to outside media groups. That could be done on a competitive basis and would be a way in which the BBC, which is extremely well financed by the licence fee, could be part of a solution, rather than being seen to undermine and damage newspapers.
I worked as a journalist at the BBC—it was more than 20 years ago, I have to be honest—but does the hon. Gentleman think that the BBC should name-check and credit local media? The BBC picks up a lot of stories from local newspapers, and they go UK-wide and worldwide, but the credit is never given to papers such as the Stornoway Gazette or the Oban Times or whatever.
I agree that the BBC should do that, but it should not just credit stories. I hope that the BBC will, when it takes a story from a local newspaper, not only attribute it, but include a direct web link on the online report, so that someone can go straight across to the original article on the newspaper’s website. That is beginning to happen, but our suggestion goes a bit further than that. It calls for the BBC to buy in content as part of a quota.
I have been encouraged by the response we have had. James Harding has already made a speech in which he emphasised the importance of local media and the need for the BBC to try to support local media. I have spoken to James Purnell about the idea, and he was also receptive. I hope that the Government, whichever colour they are after the election, will examine that when they come to look at the charter review. The BBC does and will continue to play an extremely important role in this country, but it could also provide a vehicle for supporting local media, which, as every speaker in the debate will agree, is of vital importance to the democracy and accountability of institutions and the governance of this country.
It is a pleasure to stand here as the chair of the NUJ parliamentary group, but to crack a Ken Dodd joke, it is a pleasure to be standing anywhere at my age. I am delighted to support the secretary of the group, my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), in his efforts today. He has given us a litany of decline that is striking in its impact. It has hit journalists particularly hard. Journalists are central to this institution. We want to encourage good journalism and good local journalism and we want to raise standards. Instead, it is all being cut back. We have had a 10% fall in the paid sales of local newspapers in the past year and a 20% reduction in the number of local papers over the past 10 years. We have a situation where a fifth of local government units have no local paper to carry on a critique of the local authority and its activities. That is tragic when we consider that all politics is local politics. Everything is local, in fact. Our roots are local, and we need local discussion and active journalism to keep us on our toes and to provide proper effective scrutiny of local government.
There are cheering parts in the story. I was talking to the editor of the Grimsby Telegraph just this morning. He pointed out that it is a recession and everyone has had to cut back and look at new ways of working. I accept that, but a recession will lift. According to the Chancellor, it has lifted already and we are walking towards a glowing future, but that glowing future is based on promises that are mainly specious, as far as I can see. I do not attach all that much hope to the prospect of recovery and the turning around of the newspaper situation. We have a dynamic of cuts to increase dividends, and the executives are rewarded with high pay.
I have a number of excellent local media outlets in Oldham and Saddleworth. The Oldham Evening Chronicle in particular is keen to promote the importance of local media in helping accountability and democracy. What is my hon. Friend’s take on what the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee proposed on public sector reporting and the BBC contributing by commissioning some of that support?
I shall be coming to my comments on the BBC very shortly. I apologise for not responding immediately to my hon. Friend’s question. I have to have a translator, not to translate things from English into Yorkshire dialect, but because I am stone deaf.
I was going to argue that there are more cheering points. Grimsby and north-east Lincolnshire, because it is a real community—unlike most places, which are just slices of somewhere else—has a great interest in its history and politics and has been more supportive. The Grimsby Telegraph has had one of the lowest falls in circulation of any paper. It is making a profit from selling its own past in the form of “Bygones”, which sells well and helps to support the newspaper. The number of people who see the newspaper—the number of eyeballs that read it, whether in digital or print form—has actually increased over the past 20 years.
The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) has an outstanding example of enterprise in his constituency in the form of the Cleethorpes Chronicle, a local success story that was started from scratch. That is cheering, and the hope of recovery as the economy recovers, very slowly, will keep us going, but we have a real problem that affects the quality of debate and politics and the sense of community in our societies: the decline of journalism—the decline in the number of journalists and their training—caused by newspapers’ financial problems.
I have envisaged the forthcoming election having to be covered by Members sending in reports of our own speeches—they will not be published as they were previously —and taking selfies. That is how David Montgomery’s vision of a digital future will end up: idiots writing rubbish for electronic forums and sending in photographs of themselves as the authors of this gibberish—[Laughter.] But not me.
Think what our communities would be like without trenchant and active local journalism to cover community and council events, court proceedings and local functions, as opposed to asking people to send in their own photographs, as is increasingly the case. Think of Bradford, where the Poulson scandal was exposed by Ray Fitzwalter at Bradford’s Telegraph and Argus, who later went on to work for Granada. Think of the various problems unearthed by that paper’s competitors in the northern region. Think of the ability to discover who is getting what out of council deals, and any scandals that emerge. All that would go.
National journalists’ training is based on the local papers—they are the training grounds for quality journalism. That is where journalists learn their craft. If the functions are to be shifted from the local paper to a hub somewhere else in the country, the all-round experience of producing a newspaper, producing and editing news and developing the argument is going to be gone, and gone from a diminished number of journalists. There was a well-beaten track from local journalism to Fleet street. It provided the training ground for the quality journalism in Fleet street, but that is going to be undercut and will disappear.
This morning, the editor of the Grimsby Telegraph argued with me that at least her journalists are now more multi-skilled. Well, they can take photographs, deal with websites and upload news—that is certainly true. That could not have been done by my generation of journalists. I was at the glamour end of the profession, not the literate, intelligent end. Nevertheless, although they are more multi-skilled, there are fewer of them and they have less ability to inquire into what is really going on behind the scenes.
All that is easy to describe, and I have just done so, but in a debate such as this we must ask: what is the alternative? What do we do about it? That is the singular deficiency of all the debates on this issue that I have heard, read or seen over the years. That is why we want, and the National Union of Journalists is demanding, a short, sharp, quick and strong inquiry to discover the roots of the problem and offer solutions. We cannot develop them here and now, although the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) has tried to offer some, but we must have an inquiry into the whole issue.
That brings me to the BBC. I do not and cannot support, and I do not think we should support, any proposal for top-slicing the BBC. Everyone wants to top-slice the BBC: ITV wants a bit, local media want a bit and local television stations want a bit. The BBC licence fee must be there to support quality production in this country. That is its purpose and that is what it should be devoted to.
The Select Committee had two potential solutions, one of which was top-slicing the licence fee to set up public service reporting. The hon. Gentleman is right that the BBC was opposed to that. However, the solution I was setting out was not top-slicing. I was talking about the BBC itself commissioning content. The BBC would continue to use the licence fee for itself, without giving it to any other body. As long as it remains within the control of the BBC, I do not think that there is an objection.
There are alternative ways for the BBC to help out the newspapers financially. It now observes a requirement to buy stories from the local television stations—indeed, it has begun to buy stories from Estuary TV in my constituency. That is a good thing. There is no reason why the BBC should not buy stories from local newspaper journalists, provided that the money goes to the journalists, not to the directors and chief executives of the newspaper.
Also, provided that it is additional, because otherwise it would be effectively top-slicing.
Yes. That is the argument. It must be an additional subsidy. I must admit that when I was a television journalist, my first recourse was to steal stories from the local newspapers. There is no reason why such stories should not be developed and sold by local newspapers. We have had too great a website imperialism by the BBC. It might provide competition, but it is also taking viewers, readers and news stories away from local newspapers. I agree with the need for a degree of co-operation with the BBC.
In a previous debate, Ms Mensch, the hon. Member for Corby at the time, spoke of subsidising local newspapers. I would be in favour of subsidising local newspapers, as they do in Sweden, but I do not think that that would be a politically acceptable way to finance them. We must look at alternatives. One that has been mentioned since the Government have begun to take action against council free sheets, which were a problem and were unreasonable competition, would be subsidy from local government for advertising and carrying news information, not only provided by but paid for by local government.
Another option would be Departments. The Department for Work and Pensions publishes a lot on its website. People without internet access are penalised in their relations with the DWP. Why should not that Department pay for the material to be published in local papers? We could and should treat local papers as community assets under the Localism Act 2011. That would give them a degree of protection and might stop decisions such as those of Local World to turn daily papers all over the country into weekly papers, in order to generate a higher rate of profit. We could put restrictions on the pay of the chief executive, because many of the attempts to move to weekly rather than daily papers are simply to generate more profit, and the rate of profit of local newspapers is, frankly, obscene—we are talking about 20% to 30% profit to pay higher salaries to chief executives and higher dividends to shareholders at the expense of the journalists, who are being fired and losing their jobs. That is damaging.
I have a press release with me, which I received only today from West Yorkshire about an argument of local journalists with the Johnston Press, which runs weekly and daily papers in Yorkshire and is proposing to fire 19 more people from editorial jobs. The chapel for the weekly newspaper says:
“Our members believe passionately in the importance of local journalism but are being prevented from giving readers the level of news and sports coverage they deserve because of a lack of staff and investment in our papers—and any further jobs cuts will only add to this problem.”
Nineteen job cuts are proposed by a group whose chief executive is on a salary of £400,000 and whose chief financial officer is on £250,000. They used to have their bonuses capped at 100% of salary, but the bonus cap has now been lifted, so they will be eligible for bonuses of up to 180% and 150% of their pay, respectively, simply for closing down journalists’ jobs in future.
We have to look at every opportunity to restrict the ability for newspapers to be turned into weeklies or, more importantly, to be closed. There should be a period in which they can be offered to alternative community groups, perhaps even based on crowdfunding. And while I am on the subject, why can we not also look at tax incentives? We give tax incentives to people who invest in films, even if they are sometimes used as a tax avoidance racket, so why can we not give tax incentives to invest in newspapers, in particular newspaper start-ups or community newspapers? Indeed, why can we not look at an industrial levy on Sky, Virgin or the mobile phone operators? Small levies on those companies would produce a major subsidy for the newspapers.
There are 100 ways to skin a cat and it is not beyond the wit of man or Government—perhaps it is beyond the wit of Government, but not of man—to devise ways in which to help papers through their financial situation. To conclude, therefore, it is important for us to have an inquiry to look at the various ways in which we can stop the decline in journalist training, pay and numbers.
We are down to about 11 minutes each now.
I will not take up my full allotted time, Sir Hugh.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on initiating the debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy for taking a real interest in this aspect of his portfolio. Few Ministers have had the length of service in one job and have therefore come to know a great deal about their subject; I am grateful to him for that. I also thank the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), who has brought great wisdom and knowledge to this subject, as we have witnessed today.
One of the dangers that I will relieve the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington of having to face is my being here for the entire debate—as he anticipated, a number of us cannot stay for its full length—but there is still danger that we will appear to the outside world as a collection of retired colonels, regretting the past. If we give the impression that the newspaper world should never change and that it is immune from the ordinary laws of economics, we are doing it a disservice, just as we are doing ourselves a disservice.
I have an interest to declare in that, for the past 40 or so years, I have been a member of the Bar who specialises in newspaper cases—newspaper and media law. I have acted for and against many local newspapers and I have understood, both as a consumer of the product and as a person being paid by them, the value that they provide throughout the country to local communities. It does not matter whether one is in Scotland—the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) mentioned his local paper in Stornoway—Northern Ireland or any part of England and Wales; there is no community that has not over the years benefited in some way from its local press.
Of course we regret the demise of the local press and the way in which it has changed. In my own county and constituency, the Harborough Mail, a weekly paper that has been going for more than 100 years, is now running from a hub—to use an expression used earlier—and is using shared content. It is no longer based in Market Harborough. It is part of the Johnston Press company, and our editor is now the editor of a number of local titles and he is based in Kettering, so we do not have that immediate local connection. Although Kettering is only 15 or so miles down the road, there is a psychological gap that has been created by the rationalisation—to use that awful expression—of the newspaper world.
My local daily paper, the Leicester Mercury, which was mentioned a moment ago, is in the same group as the Derby Telegraph. At one stage the whole production of the Mercury and all the journalists, as well as the outlying offices, were connected into the main office on St George street. When I first became the Member of Parliament for Harborough, the newsroom was noisy, bustling, full of paper and all that sort of stuff. Now, the newsroom is quiet, not only because everyone is typing on word processors and not the old Imperial typewriters, but because fewer people are in there, and as someone has mentioned, they are drawing on press releases, cutting and pasting.
I do not ascribe that problem only to the Leicester Mercury. When I worked in Fleet street newspapers—I am talking about the late 1970s—I remember listening to a City journalist on The Guardian complain that all he was doing was cutting and pasting or reproducing company press releases. He said, “That’s not journalism. That’s just copying.” If we do not get the training at local level for the journalists who translate to Fleet street and become the great national names of journalism, we will lose something, but I do not think that we will repair that loss by getting the state to subsidise the press, as I think the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) might have been implying. The press should be utterly free of Government interference. Yes, the Government—Parliament—should regulate the world within which we all operate, but the day that we get the Government paying for the production of newspapers is a day that I think we would regret.
[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]
I do not want to belabour the point, but we cannot constantly regret the past. We need to come up with innovative and practical solutions. In his brief remarks, my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon offered a few suggestions that he and his colleagues in the Committee of which he is Chair came up with. We need to ask the Government, whether this one or the next, to think carefully about what they can do without sitting on the press and the news media. What can they do to help them flourish?
One thing that I would urge the Government who are in charge of this review to look at is the way in which we regulate the acquisition and merger of local titles. That idea is not original to me; it has been suggested to me by the News Media Association and I am happy to repeat it. The association asks that we
“Reform and liberalise the local media merger and transfer regime so that more titles are not closed down because their sale to a willing buyer is blocked by the competition authorities.”
It tells me that
“In 2011, Northcliffe Media’s attempted sale of seven weekly newspapers to KM Group was aborted after the Office of Fair Trading referred the sale to the Competition Commission, leading to the closure of some of the newspapers.”
Ofcom has since endorsed the industry’s position, suggesting that the media merger regime needs to be modified and local media excluded from its plurality review, but there is no evidence that that new approach has been adopted. Through the Minister, I urge that the review consider that position.
Johnston Press is a large organisation. It owns the longest continuously published local newspaper, the Belfast News Letter, which has been published daily since the first half of the 18th century. I do not know who owns The Oban Times in Scotland, to which the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar referred, but it is the most widely read newspaper throughout the English-speaking world.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman has referred to long ownership of titles. One of the things that have happened when large conglomerates, such as the ones mentioned in this debate, close titles is that they have refused to allow anybody else to use the titles. Might there not be an advantage to making it possible—after a moratorium of, say, two or three years—for others to take on such titles, so that they can maintain the tradition, albeit under a different model?
That is a very sensible suggestion, which I hope the review can take into account. Of course, the owners of the intellectual property in a title may want to resurrect it in some other form, or to restart the newspaper when times get better. For example, the Evening Standard and the Evening News here in London are now merged into one paper, but who knows whether the current owner of the Evening Standard may not one day wish to revive the Evening News? I do not know where the ownership of that title has gone. However, the hon. Gentleman’s point is worthy of consideration.
I urge that we behave in a positive way and do not constantly doomsay and give the impression that the problem is completely insoluble. It is not, if there is the will and if there is intelligent and appropriate management of the finances of these companies—although some of the stories told by the hon. Members for Hayes and Harlington and for Great Grimsby about the movement of money within them were surprising, if not shocking. None the less, it seems to me that the newspaper industry has it within its resources to do a lot to help the local press. For example, why do not The Daily Mail or The Sun, both immensely successful newspapers in their own right, adopt a local paper outside the family tree of Northcliffe Media or News Corp, so that both can flourish in their different markets? No one would suggest that the Leicester Mercury is competing with The Sun or that the Harborough Mail is competing with The Times, but there are commonalities of interest that could be explored, to help little local newspapers.
My constituency has lost the Harborough Herald & Post. I have no idea who owns the title now, but there was a reasonably well read local newspaper that has gone and will probably never come back. I want the Harborough Mail and the Leicester Mercury still to be there in 50 years’ time. I am sure many other hon. Members would like a good local voice operating loudly and disinterestedly in each of our constituencies.
Diolch yn fawr, Mr Rosindell; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on securing this debate and on his excellent opening remarks.
Against the better judgment of my agent, who, when he heard that there were no votes this afternoon, wanted me back home campaigning in west Wales—especially as the weather happens to be sunny at the moment—I wanted to be here today to show a degree of solidarity with local newspaper journalists, because I think they are vital to the work that we do as elected Members. They are often the link that communicates the work that we do here in Westminster to our constituents; they are also often the forum in which our constituents hold us to account between elections.
Before I go on to discuss local newspapers, in Carmarthenshire in particular, I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), who mentioned the incredible contribution of the national print media in Wales. I will take this opportunity to mention two journalists in particular. One is Martin Shipton, who has made a huge contribution to Welsh public life in his work with the Western Mail. He is currently that newspaper’s chief correspondent and also serves the NUJ in Wales with great distinction. The other is David Williamson, who is the parliamentary correspondent for three titles: the Western Mail, which largely serves south Wales, the Daily Post, which serves the north of my country, and the Liverpool Echo. I pay tribute to his incredible work in reporting on events here in Parliament.
In 2012, I was elected the first secretary of the all-party group on the Welsh media. The group was set up following a crisis in the local newspaper industry in Wales, with the closure of a series of titles. The group has not been as active as we should have been, although I am glad to see two members here, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who is the group’s chair, and the hon. Member for Llanelli. Perhaps, following the election, we should reconvene and take up the task once again.
In June that year, I spoke about the need to expand the scope of the Localism Act—I believe it was in a question to the Minister here today—to protect newspapers by giving them community asset status, a position that was supported by the NUJ. Giving newspapers that protection would mean owners could not close a paper down overnight, as happened to the Neath Guardian. A consultation on a newspaper’s future would have to be held, allowing potential new owners—perhaps even a co-operative—time to bid for the paper.
As has been said already in some excellent speeches, local newspapers are vital elements that bind our communities together. They are also vital for local democracy. Not long after my contribution on the subject on the Floor of the House nearly three years ago, my local newspapers, the South Wales Guardian and the Carmarthen Journal, were holding Carmarthenshire county council to account about what were, according to the Wales Audit Office, unlawful payments made to the authority’s chief executive by the Labour and independent executive board. Those local newspapers were instrumental in the sharing of information with local residents and in holding local politicians to account for their actions. The South Wales Guardian was threatened with having its advertising withdrawn if it continued to publish stories that were critical of the council, but I am pleased to say that under the strong editorship of Mike Lewis, the paper held its nerve and did not give in to the bullying. The conviction of local editors such as Mike demonstrates why local newspapers are the most trusted source of news. Democracy cannot survive without effective scrutiny and accountability. At local level, local newspapers are key players in the democratic system.
Today, the South Wales Guardian and the Carmarthen Journal have new editors—respectively, Steve Adams and Emma Bryant—who have brought new and exciting ways of delivering local news to their readers and maintain their papers’ position at the heart of the community. In my discussions with the editors, what I have found most interesting is how they have to work to very tight revenue deadlines. The primary role of an editor is to raise revenue for their newsgroup rather than to work on editorial content. That puts huge pressure on them as news editors.
The Tivyside Advertiser, which has been the pillar of communities in the Teifi valley, has regrettably abolished its editor’s position due to increasing financial pressures and is now being edited outside the county. The former editor, Sue Lewis, was a huge asset to the newspaper and I wish her well in future. Just two weeks ago, my local newspapers were joined by a new kid on the block, as the hon. Member for Llanelli mentioned, the Carmarthenshire Herald. From its initial editions, it seems the paper will be pulling no punches in holding local politicians to account, which might worry us slightly on the eve of an election.
Unfortunately, those vital publications continue to find themselves under threat for a number of reasons. First, an all-powerful BBC, via its website operations, is trampling on the traditional territory of local newspapers. Publications trying to embrace the new opportunities of the internet have undermined themselves by providing their content for free, hence hitting circulation. The ideas put forward by the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), on how local newspapers and the BBC could work together were therefore quite interesting. Despite being pure propaganda sheets for senior directors and ruling councillors, local authority publications that are paid for by the public directly undermine local newspapers by sucking up vital advertising revenue. One of the welcome steps the Government have taken is to ban council propaganda sheets here in England; unfortunately, they are still available in Wales.
Local papers in Wales are owned by three large groups based outside our country, including Media Wales, which is part of the Trinity Mirror group. As the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington outlined, Media Wales is financially very well resourced and hugely profitable, but the number of its journalists has been cut drastically. The centralisation of the newspaper industry has led to a higher percentage of turnover being demanded in profit for shareholders, and that is often achieved by putting huge pressure on local news teams’ human resources, with a direct impact on content. Essentially, the model for our local newspapers is one of asset stripping, and that is what is being rolled out across the sector in the UK.
Yesterday’s announcement by the Chancellor that the Government will consult on ways to support local newspapers via the tax regime is to be welcomed, and I look forward to the consultation. While we await its terms of reference, I hope the Government will take the opportunity to look at all ways to support local newspapers, including taking action to stem job cuts and attacks on journalism, especially by public bodies threatening to remove advertising if publications criticise their actions; looking at new models of community journalism; and looking again at my 2012 proposal for protecting newspapers as community assets.
Newspapers in Wales are a treasured part of our heritage, reflecting a mix of local news, views and sports coverage. They are a place where many excellent journalists work and become part of their communities. They are, in every sense, community assets, and they should be considered as such in law. Diolch yn fawr.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your guidance, Mr Rosindell. I thank the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for securing the debate. His comments were very thoughtful and collegiate.
I attend the debate at the request of my local newspaper editor, Nicola Adam, who has asked me to express her team’s views. In my constituency, we have two local newspapers, which cross-cover both parts of it: The Visitor, which comes out on a Tuesday evening, and the Lancaster Guardian, which comes out on a Thursday morning.
Despite the doom-and-gloom reports we hear of decline, my local papers’ readership is ever increasing. That is because The Visitor and the Lancaster Guardian have embraced the new online audience in the face of the decline in physical, printed copies. Both versions have an audience in my constituency. Anyone who has ever been to Morrisons in Morecambe at 5 pm on a Tuesday will almost have been mowed down by the stampede of people trying to get hold of The Visitor. Some 22,280 people in my constituency read the paper copy each week, while there are 60,843 unique users online and 133,133 views on mobile devices. That shows that the audience for local news is still there, but that people want to access news in a different, instant, digital medium. For local news to survive, newspapers need to embrace the online market and not rely solely on paper circulation figures. The digitalisation of the local press, far from meaning that fewer people are engaged, has actually shown that there is a greater demand for local news, insight and opinion.
Local newspapers are champions of democracy. Nicola and her team work hard to ensure that the things I do in the area as the Member of Parliament are covered in a fair and balanced way. In addition, I have a weekly column in both papers, which also appears online as a weekly update to my constituents. Some more elderly constituents read my column every week and enjoy being updated about positive things that are happening in the area. If the local paper covered a wider area or multiple constituencies, residents would miss out on getting a personalised update every week. Instead, they would get a more general update on the whole area, some of which would not be relevant to the area in which they live.
Nicola has passed me research showing that, contrary to popular belief, there are no major gaps in the UK in terms of areas that are not served by a local paper, and we are lucky enough to have two covering my area. It is clear that, at a time when the market is struggling, free newspapers have declined, but the net reduction in the number of local papers in the past 20 years has been a mere 1.6%.
One of the main concerns expressed by the editor of Morecambe’s The Visitor, and by Johnston Press more widely, is that there could be a knee-jerk decision for the BBC to step in and save local newspapers. That would be misjudged and have a negative impact. More generally, there seems to be a feeling that the BBC could change and have a commercial and complementary relationship with its competitors, instead of undermining them. The BBC often covers a much larger area than the local newspaper, so local newspaper teams who live in the area they report on can sometimes handle local knowledge and interests better.
To sum up, the local newspapers in my constituency professionally represent local people’s views, and Nicola and the team are adapting to the increased digitalisation of their product. Local news teams must see that the future is digital, but I believe that local newspapers, if not always in print form, are here to stay for a long time to come.
It is a pleasure to serve under you as Chair, Mr Rosindell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell), who is not here, and the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) for going to the Backbench Business Committee to secure this important debate.
I also pay tribute to the previous Chair, Sir Hugh Bayley. I wanted to make these remarks while he was here, and I told him I would be making them, but he has now left. This may well be the last debate he chairs—it is certainly the last debate in which I will appear before him—because he is retiring. I pay tribute to him for all his efforts in the House. He was actually in the Speaker’s Chair when I made my maiden speech, and it would have been nice to complete the circle, but that is not to be. However, I have you, Mr Rosindell, which is just as good.
I do not know whether hon. Members are aware of this, but one of my earliest jobs, before I went to university, was at the local newspaper, the Richmond and Twickenham Times, which was run by the Dimbleby newspaper group. One of the major stories that broke when I was very young was by a reporter on the Brentford and Chiswick Times called Malcolm Richards, who went on to become the editor of the Richmond and Twickenham Times. It was about a new women’s refuge in Chiswick—the first ever women’s refuge, which was set up by Erin Pizzey—and there was a lovely photograph of Malcolm and Erin sitting on the refuge steps. However, that piece would not have come about had it not been for a local reporter. Malcolm could have gone on to become a very important journalist in what we then called Fleet Street. However, he chose to stay at the Richmond and Twickenham Times, and it remained a flourishing local newspaper.
That is why it is so important for young journalists to cut their teeth in local journalism and to find out what it is like. When I was at Cambridge for a short while doing some research, one of the local journalists at the Cambridge Evening News was Alan Rusbridger. He was a fine, outstanding journalist, and we know where he has ended up. It is important for young journalists to cut their teeth on local newspapers; writing a blog or writing for the internet are slightly different from the journalism we want to see. When people have time to get the facts right and to get the evidence, we get a proper, balanced article.
The Government have a role to play, not in interfering with, but in supporting the local newspapers that inform people. When I first came to the House, local newspapers contacted me to say they were alarmed by the fact that adverts had been pulled from them. That was a pity and a shame, because it is important to encourage and support local newspapers. Local people want to be informed.
Many people will know that young David Pearce designed the new pound coin that was announced in the Budget, and he is on the front page of the Walsall Express & Star because he is a pupil at Queen Mary’s grammar school. I am very proud of the fact; it is in my constituency. That is not major news to everyone else. David was given a small piece in some of the other newspapers—but local people want to know about that. That is the importance of local newspapers.
Another major event will happen on Sunday when for the first time in its history Walsall football club will go to Wembley, for the Johnstone’s paint trophy final. We wish the team well. There will be a souvenir edition of the Walsall Advertiser and the Express & Star. It is probably not of interest to everyone else, but it is very much of interest to local people. I wonder how someone could get a souvenir edition of a blog or something on the internet. Many people keep souvenir editions. I think I have kept one of The Times from when my daughter was born. It is wrapped up in a plastic bag, and I am keeping it for her. Many parents do that with announcements about their children, or items about things that happen to them—particularly people such as David Pearce’s parents.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington and support the call by the NUJ not just for Government consultation but a full inquiry. The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), who is not in his place, mentioned that it is important to ensure that there are different models and ways of working, and it is also important to enhance the quality of local journalism. That will be a help to local journalists and the national journalists of the future. We need thriving local papers to survive in a thriving democracy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. Like other hon. Members, I congratulate the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on securing the debate. He began with a reference to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell), who has been my Member of Parliament for 38 years, despite my efforts to dislodge him; so it would not be appropriate for me not to compliment him on those years of service. I am obviously the only one in the Chamber who was present on the night he won—against all the odds, so we were told, but clearly his natural charm and ability shone through.
I recall campaigns in which we have been involved—not only in the past five years, when we worked quite successfully together to achieve some much needed investment in north-east Lincolnshire, but also when I was a councillor. Together I think we contributed to saving Scartho infants school. I also recall a heated meeting at the Seven Seas pub with an understandably angry group of local residents, when it was proposed that the nurses’ home should become a hostel for asylum seekers. We have seen some ups and downs together, so I thank the hon. Gentleman for his service to the community. Despite our differences, there is no doubt that he has the interest of the people of Great Grimsby and the wider area at heart.
We have heard about the problems of the local newspaper industry, which are challenging. However, on the whole my constituents are extremely fortunate. We have a thriving array of local papers, of which the Grimsby Telegraph has already been mentioned. That is now Lincolnshire’s only daily paper, and has been delivering daily news since 1897—hence the fact that the “Bygones” edition has a lot of archive material to delve into. It is always worrying, of course, to see oneself in the bygones edition, but such is life. Sadly, its sister paper, the Scunthorpe Telegraph, has become a weekly edition, but the Grimsby edition circulates throughout my constituency, although in the Barton-upon-Humber ward it is the Scunthorpe edition that is a must-buy for most households every Thursday. We are also fortunate to have the Cleethorpes Chronicle, which is celebrating its seventh anniversary tomorrow. Certainly in Cleethorpes and the part of Grimsby where the Chronicle circulates the papers complement each other, and have some high-quality journalism.
The Telegraph is a greatly valued local institution. I recall a newly-arrived curate at the parish church telling me she had been confused when people kept referring to “the paper”, but had rapidly realised that in the Grimsby and Cleethorpes area, that means the Grimsby Telegraph. The Chronicle was launched six months before the economic crash, and it is a credit to Mark Webb and Nigel Lowther, the directors, that they have steered it through the choppy waters of the economic recession to the calmer seas that the coalition’s long-term economic plan has delivered. [Hon. Members: “Oh no!”] I get a bonus point for that.
Like me, Nigel Lowther, the editor of the Chronicle, is a Meggie, which means he was born in a certain part of Cleethorpes. He thinks he is probably the only newspaper editor in the country who can claim to be editing his home town newspaper. The Grimsby Telegraph is one of the best performing local papers in the country. Its print edition reaches 52,000 readers six days a week. The weekly readership is in excess of 82,800, which I am told means it outsells the Daily Mail in the constituency by two to one. Six out of 10 local people read either the online or hard-copy edition. I am sure that circulation must be higher on Mondays, as that is the day when the hon. Member for Great Grimsby and I share our weekly column. People queue up at the newsagents each Monday morning.
The online readership is between 30,000 and 40,000 unique readers a week. There is no doubt that one reason the Telegraph is held in high regard by the community is that it has championed many local causes, such as charities, and campaigns that I and other local politicians have been involved in—most recently to save the rail links between Grimsby, Cleethorpes and Manchester. It has been involved in fundraising for St Andrews hospice and for a Christmas outing to Lapland for desperately ill children. There are many other examples of its support for the community.
The Scunthorpe edition sells about 17,000 each week and 26,000 people visit its website each day. As with many local newspapers, there is a misconception that the readership of the online editions is made up of a distinct age group. In fact, 29% of the Scunthorpe edition readers are under 34, and 32% are in the 35 to 53 age group. The regional press, like many other industries in Britain, has had difficult times, but the birth and success of the Cleethorpes Chronicle and the continuing popularity of the Grimsby Telegraph and Scunthorpe Telegraph support what Michelle Lalor, the Grimsby Telegraph editor, said to me a day or two ago:
“I have been a local journalist for 26 years (all of it in the Humber region) and I see a local press in North East Lincolnshire today that is probably healthier and more exciting than it ever has been.”
There is no doubt about the challenges, and that fewer people are employed in the local press, but we are blessed in having had continuity. For the past 33 years there have been only two editors of the Grimsby Telegraph and many of the local reporters have moved on to higher things. There are quite a few around here, in Westminster, who started by being bored to death watching me in the Great Grimsby borough council public protection committee, or whatever, pontificating about some local issue or other. Although reports of local government meetings are fewer in number than they were in the 1980s when I was first elected, fortunately both the Grimsby Telegraph and the Cleethorpes Chronicle still report local politics. Local politicians can fear what the next edition may include.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby referred to local papers publishing press releases sent out by political parties, MPs and whoever, who do their own selfies and so on. It occurs to me that if they write the articles and take the pictures, that is a good way to get much better press—surely some decent coverage is guaranteed.
The Grimsby Telegraph told me that it would welcome plans to look at further models for local journalism. If that is to be done by way of the inquiry that has been mentioned, I am sure that many local papers would welcome the opportunity to contribute. However, we must face the fact that, as with all products, ultimately the customer will determine whether local papers will succeed as electronic, digital editions or as hard copies. I much prefer the hard copy, but that is probably more a sign of my age than anything else. I cannot stand all the pop-up adverts—I would much rather subscribe to an online edition to avoid all those adverts, but each to their own.
In these days in which many of the institutions that hold together local communities, such as the church, the pub, the post office and so on, are in decline, local newspapers are a glue for local communities and a part of our identity. We must do all we can to ensure the vitality and success of that industry. Local papers are valuable to our local communities. Long may they continue.
I am grateful to you for calling me at this point in the debate, Mr Rosindell, because as I reach the near halfway point of my parliamentary career, you have given me a special distinction. In the debate in the Chamber last Thursday, there were a great many speeches and I was the final speaker to be called. The Thursday before that I was also the final speaker to be called and I am the last speaker today. I know that this is meant kindly by the Speaker’s Office, because they want to ensure that I have the benefit of hearing all the other speakers so that I can make up my mind about what to say. I hope you will pass my gratitude on to those who have given me this rare but precious distinction.
I do not think that this debate will make the headlines, but if it does its headline will be, “No MP criticises his local paper 50 days before an election”. [Laughter.]
Does my hon. Friend share my alarm at being told, on a previous occasion when we discussed this very topic, that journalists were afraid to mention it in their local paper? They had been intimidated. Does he agree that that is utterly disgraceful?
I agree very much. I will tell a story about my local paper, I will play the game as well and say what I think about them. When I was first elected to this place, it was in spite of the local paper. The then editor made it clear to me many times. This was in 1987. It did an editorial on each constituency and recommended that its readers vote Labour in four constituencies, but when it came to my constituency, which was the only one that could possibly change hands, it invited and urged its readers to vote Conservative. The editor told me that that was because of a conversation that took place. Of course, local newspapers are subject to the same pressures as others.
I do prize my local paper for what it did last Friday, when it printed a tribute to a local politician who just died at the age of 92. He was a wonderful man, radicalised by the second world war to be a pacifist and peacemonger for the rest of his life. He was a great visionary and an accomplished poet who, as a councillor, valued the permanent treasure of the city, Tredegar house, which he ensured was preserved in its best form as well as the Transporter bridge, a wonderful piece of engineering that people wanted to destroy. He leaves a legacy to the city that is precious but forgotten. However, one of the journalists at the local paper, the South Wales Argus, did a tender, perceptive tribute—it was not just an obituary—that saw the fine qualities of Glyn Cleaves.
I am also grateful to the Leicester Mercury. I wrote a biography of one of our former colleagues, David Taylor. Of course, there is no interest in that nationally—there will not be anything in The Guardian about that—but he was a model, devoted MP. The Leicester Mercury was kind in giving that great coverage, which his family and admirers greatly enjoyed.
Local newspapers cover an area covered by no one else and I agree with everything that has been said about them. The Argus has had a long tradition. We went through a bad patch a while ago when printing, which had been done in Newport for more than 150 years, suddenly disappeared. We have compensation for that now in that one of the hubs referred to is in Newport. I understand the criticism of doing sub-editing from a distance, because that has problems, but 40 badly needed jobs have been created in Newport mainly because of that hub. There is a certain amount of rough justice involved in that.
The paper is more optimistic than has been heard in many of the comments made today. It claims, quite accurately, that more people are reading it than for many years because of the numbers coming online. Certainly there has been a serious loss in paper sales, but the online presence is powerful. That must be accepted.
It is clear that advertising has been eaten away from local newspapers. So much basic advertising for property, jobs and public notices has gone and, sadly, it will not come back to them. We have a crisis but, as everyone has said, local newspapers perform an irreplaceable service for democracy. We have a gap between national publicity for the great events that go on and the publicity given to what is done in local government and by the various other people who are responsible for their local communities.
We must say to this Government and the next Government that something must be done. We cannot talk about subsidies for local newspapers. We do not want them to be dependent on money from elsewhere, because that might affect their independence, as we have seen with other organs in the past.
In Wales we have a particular problem, because national newspapers are dominated by the political agenda. For four days running, the Daily Mail had page 1 leads about the state of the health service in Wales. In no way were those front-page leads attributable to news values; they were purely political propaganda that did a great deal of damage by undermining the faith and trust that people have in the health service and their doctors, which is a crucial part of recovery and therapy. That campaign was completely irresponsible, but, sadly, the Daily Mail may be far more influential than all the local newspapers put together.
Local newspapers would not dare to give such a distorted view of the health service. Of course, health services throughout the United Kingdom have problems, but we know that the Nuffield Foundation, which looked into that, said that there are strengths and weaknesses everywhere. We know that the strengths of the health service in Wales include the fact that a cancer patient in Wales is likely to live longer than one in England. Also, there has been less use of the private finance initiative in Wales, thanks to the wisdom of the Welsh Assembly, and there will be fewer problems in future. However, the way in which the health service has been used by the national press—by these greatly influential bodies—has been a disgrace. Local papers certainly would not get away with that; they would be brought to book.
Local newspapers have to continue to provide the quality service that we have had for years. It is up to them to find a mechanism to do so, which may be a subscription system—people who value their paper might have to pay directly for it. However, the Government have a responsibility to come up with a formula through which local papers can survive, thrive and do the valuable the job that only they can do, but do it in a manner that keeps their independence and integrity.
It is always a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. In fact, there is a never a delight greater than serving under your chairmanship—and if you believe that, you’ll believe anything.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on securing the debate. I knew that he and other hon. Members were seeking it, and I am delighted that it has come to pass. Perhaps he thought that only a few of us would be here and that we would have to stretch our speeches out for hours to fill the allocated time—we know that the Minister finds that difficult to do—but what my hon. Friend had forgotten was that the debate has a subtitle, “How to get in your local newspaper”, and an awful lot of colleagues have come along to get in their local newspaper. We have heard an array of names of local newspapers and a great deal of name-checking, and we are all grateful for it.
It is a shame that the beknighted Gentleman, the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell), is unable to join us for the end of the debate. He has apologised, and obviously we understand that he has to fight off the Labour contender in his seat, so he cannot stay here for the rest of the debate.
I was delighted to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), who made extremely important points about what is happening in Wales, which I will refer to later.
It is always a delight to hear from the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), the honourable toyboy of Mrs Thatcher—[Laughter.] Well, that is what the press described him as, so we can only presume that it was the truth. Maldon, of course, has a great tradition of journalist MPs. Tom Driberg had quite a reputation, which the hon. Gentleman has not quite managed to live up to—or live down to, or live across, but I have never crossed Westminster bridge with him, so I do not know.
I am envious of my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell), because I think the Rhondda, too, should be the Great Rhondda. His constituency should not be the only one called “Great”. In fact, my constituency used to be the Great Rhondda, in that it was Rhondda Fawr and there was a Rhondda Fach as well. Perhaps we will return to the Greater Rhondda at some point.
It was a delight to hear from the right hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier). He also represents Oadby and Wigston, though he left those two bits out, and I see that he has departed this realm—or this room, anyway.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) has obviously gone off to his constituency as well. He referred to Martin Shipton and David Williamson as great scions of Welsh journalism. I would only say that Martin Shipton laid a bet with my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), when I was selected as the Labour candidate in the Rhondda in 2000, that I would lose the seat because of my sexuality. My hon. Friend said that I would win by more than 10,000 votes, and he had better political antennae than Mr Shipton, for which I am grateful.
We also heard from the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris), which is always a delight—oh, he’s gone as well.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) told charmingly entertaining stories of the various different careers that she has had in the past, and it was a delight to hear from her.
The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) referred to selfies, and as one of the early proponents of the selfie, it is a delight to hear that everybody has now come round to my opinion on this matter. I merely point out that further to The Mail on Sunday and The Sun advertising my selfie in November 2003, I increased my majority at the next election, so it pays to advertise—although perhaps not in quite that fashion, would be my advice.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) has been derided by the press in the past, in many different ways and in many different guises. He has the scars on his back and he is proud of them, as are many of us.
The truth is that, as many have adumbrated this afternoon, there are enormous problems in the local newspaper industry. As people have mentioned, first of all, there are the closures, with 150 titles gone since 2008. In November 2014, Trinity Mirror itself closed seven newspapers, losing 50 journalists. It does not feel as though the pace of those closures is slowing, and if anything, there is a danger that it will increase.
There has also been a dramatic fall in sales, not only in local newspapers, but in national newspapers: it has been 15% year on year for some time now. Last year, sales of the Bolton Journal fell by 39% in a single year, whereas for the Coventry Telegraph, they were down by 14.4%. In Wales, as we know even more keenly than I suspect many other places, sales of the Western Mail fell last year by 14%, and it is now down to just 19,654 copies. It does not feel like a national newspaper any longer, given that 3 million people live in Wales. The figure for the South Wales Echo is similar—20,634—and they are virtually identical newspapers now, with many articles repeated word for word from one to the other, or nicked from the Rhondda Leader.
As I have mentioned the Rhondda Leader—because I have to do my bit about getting into my local newspaper—it is a depressing fact that, when I was first elected, the number of copies sold every week was in the tens of thousands, and it is now 4,342. It is not a local newspaper any more, and frankly, that is partly because most of the news is not local news. It is published out of a hub. The paper is not published in the Rhondda and has not been for some time. It does not have its own distinct set of reporters and the inside pages often refer to all sorts of other places in south Wales that have nothing to do with the Rhondda. The fall even in the last few years, from nearly 10,000 copies in 2009 to 4,432 now, means that sales have halved in the period of this Parliament, and that represents a major problem.
There has been the collapse in journalism as well. In 1999, Media Wales had 700 journalists, but it now has 136. It simply cannot provide the same degree and level of expertise about a wide range of subjects—from agricultural through to politics, to broadcasting and so on—that the national newspaper of Wales really needs. Many local newspapers now have barely any truly local content, and certainly none with investigative reporting or fact-checking behind it, as many hon. Members mentioned.
Advertising revenue fell dramatically during the recession, but there have been further problems since then. The advertising revenue for local newspapers is still falling, in part because they used to rely on people selling or buying a car or their home, and many of these things are now done entirely on the internet. Some hon. Members have asked, “Would it not be a good idea if Government advertised more in these newspapers?” The legal requirements are clear, but I do not think that Government should advertise in newspapers solely to keep the newspapers alive. That would be inappropriate. Government have to decide what is the most cost-effective way of communicating with all the community.
I say gently to the newspaper proprietors that I think sometimes they have conspired in their own downfall with regard to local newspapers—I truly do. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington made extremely good points about boardroom pay and profits simply not matching, or being completely out of kilter with what was needed in the industry to invest for the future to make sure that there was an ongoing revenue stream. Therefore, to try to keep the figures up, companies ended up putting cover prices up. The Rhondda Leader now costs 90p—quite a significant sum if there is to be no local newspaper content. When The Northern Echo put up its price by 15p a little over a year ago, the number of people buying the newspaper fell dramatically. Fifteen pence may be nothing to Members of Parliament or to many people listening to this debate, but that just made it an unattractive option for many people in the north. Somehow or other, we have to deal with that vicious circle. Why does that matter? It matters for the simple reason that local newspapers are an essential part of local democracy and local culture—people understanding what is happening around them.
At the moment, there is a little story going on in my constituency. Maerdy surgery has decided to go part time on Thursdays and has threatened to close on Fridays. There is no means of knowing that from a local newspaper now. To all intents and purposes, it is barely reported at all. There is a grass fire going on in Porth this afternoon. I doubt whether that will get into a printed newspaper in any shape or form, and if the kids who probably started the fire got arrested, I doubt whether that would end up being in a newspaper, either.
This is a problem for us all, because local government is where most of the policies and most of the public services that we talk about are administered. If no one gets to find out what is happening in their local area, there is no true accountability. That is all the more difficult in Wales. Scotland has quite a substantial national set of newspapers. They compete with one another. There is competition for voice, political posture and quality. Very little of that happens in Wales, where virtually only one voice can be heard in any given area and many people simply do not understand the devolved settlement. Sorry, I mislead the House. It is not a settlement; it is the devolved process, which changes every year because some new Secretary of State for Wales comes in and decides, “Right, we’ve got to do another chunk of devolution that no one will end up understanding.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby referred to local newspapers as the breeding ground for this country’s great journalists. Nearly every journalist, whether on television, on radio or at a great national newspaper, started life on a local newspaper. But even in south Wales, which in Cardiff has one of the best schools of journalism in the land and in Europe—it is much respected around the world—those newspapers are finding it difficult to take people on. There will be a very significant problem in the long term for the whole newspaper industry if we do not manage to address that.
Of course we should not overstate the problem, because it is possible to find out what is happening with the Maerdy surgery on Facebook, and that is increasingly changing the pattern out there. Many local people will create a local Maerdy page, a Ferndale page, a Treorchy page, a Tonypandy page, a Llwynypia page and so on, and people go there and have great conversations about what is happening in local politics and so on. However, that excludes a significant proportion of the population, who do not have internet access or do not want it, and we need to be aware of that.
Of course we must have a plurality of voices. My particular anxiety in relation to Wales—this was mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Llanelli and for Newport West—is that the BBC could all too easily be the only news voice in Wales, providing news for S4C and deciding how much funding it gets, completely out-resourcing ITV and making it difficult for anyone to listen to anything other than one single voice. This has always been depressing to me. My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli mentioned the problem of a newspaper referring to whether Castell Coch was on the right or left of the motorway and revealing that the person had obviously been going in the wrong direction. In fact, it would be quite nice if BBC journalists could occasionally get north of the M4 to see Castell Coch. The problems with the BBC in London never managing to get any further than Camden are replicated elsewhere in the country because they cannot get any further than Llanishen.
I should say, however, that it is not only local newspapers that sometimes get things wrong. I remember that on one occasion the Daily Mail wrote that I was an ex-gay vicar, and it took me 20 minutes to explain that I am not an ex-gay vicar; I am a gay ex-vicar. There is a very significant difference between those two propositions—I have put aside one thing, but not the other.
The problem for us, of course, is whether this is all just a load of howling at the wind. Are we, like King Lear, finding it easy to spot the problem but not so easy to find the solution? That is a real question for the Government, because in response to many of the suggestions that have been made, other hon. Members have said, “Well, that doesn’t really work.” For instance, it was suggested that a bit of the licence fee might be taken to pay for local newspapers. I do not think that that is a goer myself. I think that any suggestion that there should be some kind of state subsidy for local newspapers is a major problem, for the obvious reasons about freedom of the press and so on. That leaves us with some difficult issues to address.
We need to hold on to some clear principles. The first is that in any given part of the country, there cannot be just one voice dominating what people hear. That applies to the whole country as well. A single person should not have so much power over the media that they can dominate—I hope that we will be able to say something about that in the general election—but it is also true for regional news and local news. I think that an important point to pursue is the one that I made to the right hon. and learned Member for Harborough in relation to newspaper groups that close a title but then are so jealous of their intellectual property that they refuse to allow anyone else to take over the title. I am sure that if the Rhondda Leader were ever to close, people in the Rhondda would want to take it over as a community venture.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) is not here now, but he referred earlier to the Camden New Journal, which is a completely different model of doing a newspaper. It has managed to survive through remarkably difficult periods, and perhaps others could, too. I gently say to some of the newspaper organisations that if they are closing down a title, they could look at handing it on to others in a constructive way. There are other models, and we need to pursue them.
I support the idea from the National Union of Journalists that there should be a short sharp inquiry. The hon. Member for Maldon is stepping down as Chair of the Select Committee—well, he does not have any choice, but he is leaving. He is departing from that Committee. Who knows? He may have more greatness thrust upon him. The point is that the Select Committee did a very good report in 2010. I think that the Select Committee is the right body to do the next inquiry, because it can bring people in; it can force people to come, and it can do it swiftly and relatively cheaply. I would very much welcome that, but it is not for a shadow Minister or even a Minister, were I to become one, to tell a Select Committee what reports it should engage in.
Finally, I want to ask the Minister a few questions if that is all right.
If you must.
The Kraken rises! The Minister is shuffling his papers and getting ready for the questions.
We were all intrigued by the Government’s announcement yesterday, but I am slightly sceptical about it. What is proposed might be a good thing, but I am nervous about how it will work. I say that because I blew a fanfare, as did the Cory band in the Rhondda—incidentally, it is the greatest brass band that Britain has had—when the orchestra tax relief was announced in December; but then of course we all discovered that it does not apply to most orchestras and it does not apply to brass bands, because of how the Government have drafted the concept of an orchestra. Not even the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is counted as an orchestra under the tax relief.
I just want to be precise and pin the Government down. Why consider only business rates? Why have the Government gone for that angle? I understand, of course, that some of these issues are devolved, but a tax relief would not normally be devolved and would be available in Wales and in Northern Ireland and, for that matter, in Scotland, depending on how it was crafted.
What counts as a local newspaper? That sounds like a stupid question, because we have all referred to so many local newspapers, but is something that carries only advertising and no locally created content a local newspaper? Does something that is produced by a local council count as a local newspaper? If the Government stick with the business rate model that they have gone with, what happens if all the content of a newspaper is produced in England but the newspaper is distributed in Wales, or vice versa? I presume that the Government do not intend to legislate on that before the general election—if that is to be the case, we might have to meet rather more frequently than usual next week—but I wonder when the Government intend to publish their consultation on the matter.
With those comments, and with enormous thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington for securing the debate, I will close my remarks. I agree with the octogenarians who have spoken in the debate that there are far too few of them. I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby heard that.
I am genuinely grateful to be appearing under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. This has been a lengthy debate. At one point, I thought I was in an episode of “Doctor Who”, because the debate started under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for York Central (Sir Hugh Bayley), but the next minute—so absorbed was I in the speeches I was hearing—I turned around and it was you in the Chair, Mr Rosindell. I wondered whether the time lord had changed into a younger, more vigorous and, may I say, more handsome version. I am only kidding; I am a huge fan of the hon. Member for York Central, and I echo the comments that have been made about this being potentially his last chairmanship. I wish him well in the future.
I thank the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for securing the debate, and for his kind words, which I was not expecting. I am grateful for the kind things that he said about my work with local government. I am not entirely sure whether this is the last debate that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) will take part in. I gather that the Speaker is holding a special debate for retiring Members, in which they can reminisce—at length, we hope—on their time in the Chamber. I wanted to say, after hearing the hon. Gentleman’s speech, that it is a privilege to speak in a debate led by so many distinguished old warhorses. I should make it absolutely clear that I do not include in that the hon. Members for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) or for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz). I include everybody else, however, including the official Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant).
The partnership that I have built with the Opposition spokesman is pretty formidable. We are at the stage where we are beginning to finish each other’s sentences, and when he got up to speak, he nicked the line that I was planning to open with. There are many important reasons why Members participate in debates about local newspapers, but it should not go unnoticed that I made a note of every newspaper that was mentioned in the debate. Rather than mentioning every speaker, it is probably worth my mentioning the Braintree and Witham Times, the Maldon and something newspaper—I cannot read my own writing—the Llanelli Star, the Carmarthen Journal, the South Wales Guardian, the South Wales Evening Post, the new paper on the block, the Carmarthenshire Herald, the Western Mail, the Maldon Standard and the Essex Chronicle. My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) gets bonus points for mentioning two journalists, Nina Morgan and Ally Grainger, whom he described as “excellent”. It will be interesting to see the coverage that they give him in the next five weeks.
I should also mention the Grimsby Telegraph, the Cleethorpes Chronicle, the Leicester Mercury, Martin Shipton—he has had mixed reviews during this debate—David Williamson, the Liverpool Echo, Nicola Adam, The Visitor and the Lancaster Guardian. I give a special mention to the Richmond and Twickenham Times, in which I hope to appear tomorrow following my visit to the Orleans House gallery in Twickenham with the excellent Conservative candidate Tania Mathias; and to the Brentford and Chiswick Times, in which I hope to appear tomorrow following my visit to the Watermans arts centre this morning. Having grown up in Chiswick, I know all about the work of Erin Pizzey, and I used to read the Brentford and Chiswick Times regularly. I will also mention the Walsall Express & Star, the Walsall Advertiser, the Scunthorpe Telegraph and the Rhondda Leader.
What about the Islington Tribune?
The Islington Tribune and the Camden New Journal.
Disgracefully, the Minister has not mentioned the South Wales Argus. We should point to the vacuity of his contribution, however. We would like him to say something, rather than indulging in a shameless attempt to get mentioned in the papers tomorrow.
I quite agree. I merely mentioned the newspapers that exist in the constituencies of hon. Members and my hon. Friends. I would not indulge in this kind of thing on my own behalf, however. I would not mention the Wantage Herald, the Wallingford Herald or the Didcot Herald, which are three editions of the excellent weekly newspaper in my constituency. Neither would I mention the Oxford Mail, which sells 40,000 copies a day, prints 6,000 different Oxfordshire articles every month, has 670,000 unique users visiting its website and, importantly for the tone of this debate, has 17 reporters on the ground. I am told that that is more reporters than all the other Oxfordshire news outlets combined; I assume that that includes the BBC. I should also mention the Oxfordshire Guardian.
Unfortunately, I forgot to mention the Yorkshire Post, which is Yorkshire’s national newspaper, so I would like the Minister to include it in his roll of honour.
Before I move on to the meat of the debate, I would like to mention an excellent newspaper, the Yorkshire Post, which has a fine track record of many years.
We are speaking somewhat light-heartedly about a serious subject, namely the health and well-being of our local newspapers. I absolutely understand the points made by hon. Members and hon. Friends about the threat that local newspapers have faced. We have rehearsed many times in the House the reasons for that threat. We have discussed whether it has been caused by existential factors such as the rise of new technology and the changing way in which consumers access the paying parts of the media landscape, namely classified advertising, or whether it has been caused by bad management. Some hon. Members have referred to bad management in relation to bad investment decisions or what some might term asset stripping, which others might describe more neutrally as taking investment in different directions. When the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington spoke, I was reminded of our debates about football clubs. Local newspapers are community assets, in the broadest sense, with a huge following of loyal supporters. Most people want owners who understand the place of a local newspaper in a community, and who invest accordingly.
If I can say so without risking too much opprobrium, perhaps the death of the local newspaper has been exaggerated. It is worth recalling that there are still 1,100 local newspapers in this country with 1,700 related websites, and that 31 million people read them every week. The Johnston Press reaches 25 million people every week. A third of local newspaper readers do not read their national paper. Local newspapers have the distinct advantage that the advertisements that they carry are more likely to be trusted and acted on than those in other newspapers. The readership of the print edition of local newspapers is declining, but the readership of the digital edition is increasing. Some newspaper groups have seen a rise in readership of between 30% and 50% a year, albeit from a low base.
It is worth paying tribute to the hard-working editors, local directors and journalists who have kept local newspapers going, and who are going through the same kind of transition that has been seen in other areas, such as the music industry or film and television, as we move ever more quickly towards digital platforms. Those people continue to work very hard and to consider difficult issues to which there are no easy answers. If there were easy answers, they would have been implemented already.
The Government must do what they can to help, and part of that role is to get out of the way and clear away hurdles or, to put it another way, to try to level the playing field where there is unfair competition. I do not mean unfair competition in the sense of anti-competitive behaviour but in the sense of burdensome regulations on local newspapers that may not exist for other outlets. Let us start with the Chancellor’s welcome announcement on rates relief in yesterday’s Budget. The spokesman for the official Opposition ended his excellent speech by asking me detailed questions about that. We have held a number of meetings with local newspaper groups, which the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington helped to facilitate. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has also engaged with local newspaper organisations. There is an appetite to act.
Why focus on business rates? One reason is that it removes unfair competition. Local newspapers, by definition, often have large buildings with large numbers of staff, whereas smaller local newspaper websites have fewer physical overheads. Reducing business rates is an obvious way of targeting relief and reducing costs. The consultation will be published after the election, and I cannot say exactly how it will be framed, but the definition of a local newspaper might parallel the one set out in the requirement for statutory notices to be published in local newspapers. There are plenty of potential definitions, but it seems obvious to use an existing one.
When the next Government publish that consultation, it could form part of a more wide-ranging discussion about the future of local newspapers. The next Chair of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport may decide that it is worth holding an inquiry at the same time as that consultation. That gives me an opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon for his excellent chairmanship of that wonderful Select Committee over two Parliaments, and hon. Members will relish any opportunity to hear him tell a few anecdotes from those 10 years.
Levelling the playing field through targeted rates relief would be a good thing. Continuing on that theme, the Government have two other achievements. First, on the town hall Pravdas—the free newspapers effectively paid for by council tax payers that are often made to look very like a local newspaper both visually and tonally— we have published a statutory code of conduct to ensure that councils do not produce publications that compete unfairly with local newspapers. As the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington mentioned, the Government have acted, where appropriate, when councils have breached that code.
Secondly, as far as I can recall, statutory notices have been a live issue for this entire Parliament. There was a threat that statutory notices would be withdrawn from local newspapers, for which statutory notices are obviously an important source of income. That has not happened but, nevertheless, there is still a debate to be had on statutory notices. The debate is not binary in that we would either take away statutory notices from all local newspapers or simply keep the system as it is. The debate has become more nuanced, and the Government have provided £1 million to pilot new ways of publishing statutory notices, which could include using local newspaper websites more effectively to bring statutory notices to the attention of a wider public. We could even potentially issue e-mail alerts about statutory notices via local newspapers. We want to continue with statutory notices, but we need to modernise them. That should not be seen as simply cutting off funding for local newspapers.
At the moment, the Government do not believe that conferring community asset status would be easy, and it is obviously important to remember that local newspapers are still private organisations. We remain open to persuasive arguments about whether community asset status could be a route to save local newspapers. I note the shadow Minister’s comments on the hoarding of newspaper titles. When a newspaper closes, its title and the value of its brand are not made available for local communities. The door remains open on that, and the Government do not have a fixed view. We remain open to persuasion, but we can see no clear way forward at the moment.
Finally, the BBC charter review will sit firmly in the next Government’s in-tray, and it is important that work on that gets under way as soon as possible. The BBC is clearly making overtures to local newspapers. For example, the BBC has a local working group—the local live partnership—with newspapers in Leeds, west Yorkshire and the north-east. The BBC is considering the potential opportunities for sharing training resources, for example, with local newspapers, which is another way to alleviate costs. In another part of the country, I gather that the BBC is auditing how often it uses local newspaper sources to generate its own news output, which should give the BBC a clear idea of how much it depends on local newspapers, thereby providing a potential route for accreditation or click-throughs to local newspaper sites.
At the other end of the spectrum, many local newspaper groups would welcome the opportunity to use BBC content, particularly video content, on their websites. The relationship between the BBC, local newspapers and local newspaper groups should be explored in the next charter review, although I am aware of the caveats in effectively extending licence fee funding to local newspapers. That important and subtle debate will form part of the charter review discussion.
I am grateful for the extensive and learned contributions on local newspapers by so many hon. Members and hon. Friends. I am glad that we have made progress, albeit at the end of this Parliament, on making a potentially meaningful change for local newspapers. We need to consider a range of different issues, and I hope that local newspapers will be high on the next Government’s agenda.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for providing the opportunity for this debate. If nothing else, the debate has given hon. Members the opportunity to name check local journalists in a shameless attempt to ingratiate themselves with their local press, so this debate has made one valuable contribution to the next few weeks.
We have reached consensus on a number of points. First, there is consensus in this House on the value of the local press to our society. Secondly, there is cross-party commitment to support and assist the securing of the local press’s future. Thirdly, there is consensus that the next Government must act on this issue. Following the Chancellor’s statement yesterday, I welcome the Government’s first step in the direction of recognising the need to intervene and support local media.
A range of ideas have been discussed today, some of which the NUJ supports. Members of Parliament should recall that the NUJ represents members within the BBC and on local council publications, so we do not want to see anything that in any way undermines their position or their professional capacity to operate. With regard to the BBC, we do not want to see resources diverted; we want to see additional resources, which must take into account any future discussions on the licence fee and the charter. We want a discussion that enables us to discern a way forward.
A general consensus has emerged in support of some form of review.
The consultation that will be introduced, whoever is in government, on proposals for financial support, whether in the form of business rates or otherwise, could be expanded into a Government inquiry. I would welcome another Select Committee inquiry, but it is important that whatever review takes place does so alongside a Select Committee inquiry. There is a difference: a Select Committee brings forward ideas and views, while a Government-inspired consultational review leads to action with the Government imprimatur. That is absolutely critical.
Finally, whatever way forward is taken and however the Government intervene to secure the future of local newspapers, I think that we have all agreed that the future of the local press can be successfully secured only if it is based on an investment in quality journalism. I hope that we have framed the nature of the debate for the new Government when they come to power.
Question put and agreed to.