(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport if he will make a statement on the impact of Johnston Press going into administration.
As the House will know, on Friday Johnston Press confirmed that it was going into administration. Johnston Press has debts of £220 million that were due to be repaid in June next year. It operates, as the House knows, titles at local, regional and national levels. It has explored a range of refinancing options over the past 18 months, including a debt-for-equity swap with bondholders. In October, it entered into a formal sales process, but no suitable buyer was found. On Saturday, it was announced that the newspapers and assets owned by Johnston Press would be acquired by JPI Media, a new consortium established of Johnston Press creditors. JPI Media has said that the operation of the newspapers and websites will continue. It has also said that the debt will be reduced to £85 million, repayable by the end of 2023, and that it will be injecting £35 million into the company to help it operate, including supporting the transition to digital. It has also released a statement saying that the situation will have an impact on employees and pension holders on the defined pension scheme, and that it is working through what this will mean for about 250 current members of staff who are impacted. The Pension Protection Fund has been notified. As the House knows, this is a fund set up by the Government to provide pension benefits to members of defined-benefit schemes whose sponsoring employers have become insolvent. The PPF, with the assistance of the trustees of the scheme, will assess whether the scheme needs to enter the PPF.
Over the weekend, I spoke to David King, formerly the chief executive of Johnston Press and now the chief executive of JPI Media, and today I spoke to its head director. They set out that they believed this move was the best course of action for the long-term future of their staff and titles and that the only alternative would have been liquidation and redundancies. Like Members from across the House, I am committed to a vibrant and free press. Johnston Press, with more than 200 titles and 2,000 staff serving communities across the UK, plays a significant part in that—three of these titles serve my constituency. Its future sustainability is therefore very important to us all.
My deepest sympathies are with anyone who is facing uncertainty as a result of the changes. However, it is important to note that the takeover may come under the rules as set out in the Enterprise Act 2002. Under that legislation, where it appears that a relevant merger or takeover situation arises, the Secretary of State can consider, in a quasi-judicial capacity, whether it raises media public-interest considerations. As such, I am sure that the House will understand that at this stage I will not set out any views on the impact of this specific transaction.
What is clear is that this is an example of the challenges faced by the newspaper industry more broadly and in particular of the challenges faced by local papers. Such papers help to bring together local voices and shine a light on important local issues, in communities, courtrooms and council chambers. It is clear, though, that such papers have to make difficult decisions to try to adapt to the changing market. At this challenging time for print journalism, we are working hard to ensure its sustainability. In March, we launched an independent review, chaired by Dame Frances Cairncross. It will look into how the production and distribution of high-quality journalism can be sustained in a changing market, with a particular focus on the online space. Dame Frances’s report and recommendations will be published early next year. Next week, the Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries will host an open session with Dame Frances, so that Members of this House and of the other place can share their views on these important issues.
At national and local levels, a press that can hold the powerful to account remains an essential component of our democracy. That is what this Government are working to support.
I, too, spoke to David King this weekend. Like many right hon. and hon. Members from Government and Opposition parties, I was alarmed at the plans for Johnston Press to go into administration. This centuries-old British company has more than 200 newspapers that report vital local, regional and national news and hold the powerful to account. Although, as the Secretary of State says, the buy-out by JPI seems to have averted the imminent closure of those publications, their long-term future, and that of hundreds of jobs, is far from certain.
This is part of a bigger, long-term global strategic question: in this digital age of information abundance, how can local democracy be preserved through quality local journalism? Since 2005, 200 local newspapers have closed and we have lost half all local journalists. For 10 years, we have seen the impact of digital disruption on local journalism. After eight years of the current Administration, all we hear is the Secretary of State referring to a process that they currently articulate as the Cairncross review.
Whilst Ministers prevaricate and hold open sessions, the tech oligopolies have consolidated their media advantage by dominating digital ad revenues. They continue to avoid fair taxes and will pay less once the Government’s corporation tax cuts are introduced under the Finance Bill. Some have even allowed criminal data breaches on their platforms. Worse still, they sneer at Parliaments around the world that try to hold them to account. I remind the House again that even Rupert Murdoch showed greater respect for our democratic institutions than Mark Zuckerberg, who refused to appear before our Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.
Specifically on the Johnston Press, which is a victim of the long-term strategic changes in the media market that the Secretary of State’s colleagues, including the Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie), who is chuntering from a sedentary position, seem to think are funny—
Or the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), sitting next to him, then.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that no one currently on a pension from Johnston Press will receive a shortfall in payments? Will the Government step in if they are going to? Will the pension regulator assess what obligation the new entity has to those employees set to lose out?
I understand that JPI Media was apparently established back in September. When was the Secretary of State made aware of that, because, clearly, the writing was on the wall for Johnston Press when the new entity was established, and what meetings has he or his ministerial team had since the creation of JPI Media, to protect the interests of Johnston Press workers?
There is a crisis in local newspapers that we have known about for many years and that, whatever our politics, it is all our civic duties to address. The Secretary of State has been in post for only 134 days. In that time, he has overseen the resignation of a respected Minister, made an obvious and humiliating policy climbdown on fixed odds betting terminals, while ignoring what everyone knew would be the inevitable crisis in local news. He should have given a statement to the House today, not been dragged here to give a woeful answer in an urgent question. After 134 days in post, he needs to wake up and stop sleeping on the job.
Let me start by agreeing with the hon. Gentleman that this is indeed a long-term problem that requires some long-term solutions. As he rightly says, local papers have been closing since 2005, but, if my memory serves me correctly, it was not my party in government in 2005; it was his. It really will not do for him to bring what is a serious issue—and a long-term one, as he says—to this House and try to make it into a bit of political point scoring against the current Secretary of State. I do not mind, but those who are affected by these changes will want to hear something a little more constructive from him and the Labour party.
Let me answer the pensions question. The hon. Gentleman asks me about current pensioners. As far as I understand it, they will not be affected. Anyone in receipt of their pension now will continue to be paid. The changes will affect those who are currently in employment, and we believe that there are 250 or so in total.
The next point that the hon. Gentleman makes is that this problem was apparent for some time. He is right, of course, and, as I said in my response to him, the problems affecting local media have been apparent for some time. They are structural problems, which is precisely why we believe that the right approach to take is to ask for an independent assessment of those structural problems, which Dame Frances Cairncross is carrying out and which will be completed shortly. When it is, we have asked Dame Frances to give clear indications of what she believes the answers may be so that we can consider what action a Government can properly take. That is the right approach to what is a structural and long-term problem, as he says.
In answer to another of the hon. Gentleman’s questions, I indicated to him in my initial response that I have had a conversation with David King, as he did over the weekend, and I spoke to JPI’s lead director today. Those are the conversations that I have had since this announcement was made on Friday. He seems to suggest that the Government should do more. He will be aware that, in addition to the Cairncross review, we have made concessions on business rates for newspapers, and we have looked at other ways in which we can help. He will be well aware that local papers were very clear that if the Government had brought into force section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, they would be significantly affected by it. Indeed, Johnston Press itself responded to the consultation on this matter. The hon. Gentleman may have seen what it said, but, in case he missed it, let me remind him. It said that the impact of section 40 could cost its business £6.7 million. It went on to say that it would force many of its papers that operate on the slimmest of margins to become unprofitable and that they would therefore have to be closed.
I respect the hon. Gentleman’s position on section 40. It is long held and, by him, deeply felt. What he cannot do is come to this House and accuse the Government of doing too little to help local papers when he himself would take action that would profoundly damage them.
I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s recognition that the economic difficulties facing Johnston Press are the same ones that are now affecting all local newspapers, and that this situation is contributing to a real threat to the proper functioning of local democracy. Will he consider that one way of addressing this is to build on the BBC’s local democracy initiative, which is already funding 150 journalists? The obvious people to make an extra contribution towards this initiative are the internet technology giants, which are responsible for at least some of the problems now affecting newspapers.
I will first address my right hon. Friend’s second point. He is right that we need to consider the impact on local news of the increasing transfer of particular advertising to online platforms. Of course, it is also important to consider how we ensure that content is properly paid for when it is used. He is also right that local democracy reporters have a part to play. It is important to note that the content they produce is made available to local newspapers, and I am sure that this assists those local newspapers in producing copy.
Local journalism and local journalists are the lifeblood of our media. I welcome much of what the Secretary of State has said, although we have not heard enough about the guarantee for pensions, workers’ rights and jobs, and I have spoken to a number of journalists who are deeply concerned. He will know that the National Union of Journalists has voiced significant concerns about the long-term intentions of the company’s new owners, amid fears that it has been purchased with a view to asset stripping. Does he believe that it would be prudent for the new owners to make a commitment to staff regarding their motivations for taking over and to offer assurances about their long-term plans for Johnston Press?
Much has been said about what can be done, and the demise of Johnston Press has largely been put down to the rise of digital media, so I am sure that the Secretary of State will find it more than passing strange that the previous chief executive will be the new chief executive in that new company. A company has failed, and I think we all find it very strange that it has shut down, moved on some of its debts and pension liabilities, and popped up with a shiny new name. We must be sure that the workers’ rights and pensions are protected.
The Secretary of State may know that Norway has the strongest penetration of digital news subscriptions of any country, as almost two thirds of Norwegians mostly find news by going directly to traditional news providers. He may therefore also find it strange that one of the major shareholders—the Norwegian investor, Christen Ager-Hanssen, who is in Parliament today—has been shut out and that his shares are now valueless. Will the Secretary of State meet me, the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson) and Mr Ager-Hanssen to discuss the issues? I recommend Lesley Riddoch’s film, “Nation”, which looks at Norway’s model of funding the second newspaper in every region of Norway. Will he look at that model and compel Frances Cairncross to include it in the review in order to look at the options available for workers, who we think of today?
Let me pick up three of the hon. Lady’s points. First, she mentioned pensions. As I said, the Pension Protection Fund is now engaged with this, and the action it now takes is a matter for that body. It is important that the fund and the Pensions Regulator have the chance to consider this properly, as they are now doing.
Secondly, the hon. Lady asked about the long-term commitment of the new owners. Again, that is a matter for them. What I should have said is that, as she will appreciate, the headquarters of Johnston Press are in Edinburgh, so it is of course necessary for us to work with the Scottish Government to ensure that, if further actions are necessary, we take them in conjunction with the Scottish Government.
Finally, the hon. Lady invited me to meet her, the shadow Secretary of State and a shareholder. Earlier, I mentioned the risk that there is a quasi-judicial role for me to complete in this process. We do not yet know whether I will need to do so, but I think it best that I am prudent about that at this stage so, if she will forgive me, I will not accept her kind invitation at this point.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, in case it is relevant. I am well served in my constituency by an excellent local paper, The Herald, and an excellent local radio service, provided by BBC Oxford. We have done a lot to try to support local newspapers, not least through the BBC reporting initiative and the alleviation of business rates. Can the Secretary of State comment on whether local councils and, indeed, Government will continue to place statutory advertising in local newspapers, which is a source of valuable income?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. He has personally done a great deal in this space, which the House should note. He makes a good point about what local government in particular can do. It is important that, in addition to putting pressure on central Government, as the House is doing now, we also seek to speak to our respective local authorities, to ensure that they play any role they can in the preservation of our important local newspapers.
We do not need a review to tell us that this is a story of pure greed. A handful of people have creamed off huge profits and left a debt-laden struggling company in the hands of hedge funds, with staff yet again paying the price. That hedge fund rescue package will be of little comfort to smaller titles like the Wigan Evening Post and the Wigan Observer that will not prove lucrative for asset strippers and face a very uncertain future at best. Will the Secretary of State intervene to ensure that long-term guarantees are provided for those smaller titles? They are not just the lifeblood of local democracy, as he rightly said; they are also the only talent pipeline left for young working-class people to break into journalism, and those young people are today left wondering what on earth the future holds for them.
These titles are important, for the reasons that the hon. Lady gives. As I have explained, there are good reasons why I must be cautious at this stage in what I say about this particular transaction, but she has my assurance that I will be looking for the new owners of these titles to give what assurance they can that they recognise what she has said, what I have said and what we have all said so far in this exchange about the importance of these local titles and the need to maintain them where we can.
May I first pay tribute to my two local newspapers, the Hunts Post, whose editor is Daniel Mansfield, and the Peterborough Telegraph, which is now owned by JPI Media, and in particular the editor, Mark Edwards, and his staff, who do a fantastic job serving the local community?
My right hon. and learned Friend spoke of the need to reduce debts by £85 million and the possibility of job losses. Will he give the House an assurance that the next time he speaks with Mr David King, he will press him not only to do the statutory minimum to help these people, but to do anything else that can be reasonably expected to help those who are unfortunate enough to lose their jobs?
Following the news, there was widespread public support for the Sheffield Star, the Sheffield Telegraph and the excellent Yorkshire Post, and particularly for the staff who work for those papers. The Secretary of State said earlier that he believed that all those in receipt of a pension would be protected. There is concern that those in receipt of a final salary pension will not be protected when they move over to the new company. Can he provide clarity on that?
My understanding is that all those currently in receipt of their pension will not be affected by this change. As the hon. Lady will see, the Pensions Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), is sitting next to me, and if that is incorrect, one of us will write to her to explain, but that is my understanding.
Having worked in the media for a great part of my life and for many years as a freelancer, I really understand the importance of our local newspapers and the type of publications that Johnston Press publishes, for not only disseminating news but training journalists. It is a place for people to start learning their trade, and they then go on to national papers. We need these people. Can the Secretary of State give an assurance that he is taking high-quality journalism to heart and that the review will look at the balance between traditional publications and online publishers? We need balance and fairness.
Yes, I am happy to do that. In fact, the first newspaper I ever appeared in was my hon. Friend’s local newspaper, so it has a particular place in my heart. She is right: one thing that we expect Dame Frances Cairncross to do, and upon which we will wish to act, is to preserve good-quality, well-sourced, authoritative journalism at local and national levels. It is fundamental to the way in which we hold power to account, and it is an important part of the antidote to so-called fake news, on which my hon. Friend’s Select Committee has done such good work.
I refer to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
May I pick up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), who asked what will happen to people who are currently in receipt of pensions? I do not think it is correct to say, as the Secretary of State has said, that their pensions will not be affected, because they will be uprated in line with consumer prices index inflation rather than retail prices index inflation for years to come. If someone expects to carry on taking a pension for 20 years, they will lose out on thousands of pounds if their pension is uprated at this lower rate. Will the Secretary of State confirm that people who are currently in receipt of final salary pension schemes at JPI Media, to which they have now been transferred from Johnston Press, may indeed lose out to the tune of thousands of pounds because of these changes?
Again, I must I am afraid remind the House of what I said earlier. There are good reasons why, at this stage at least, I need to be cautious about what I say about the detail of this transaction and the background to it. What I would say to the hon. Lady is that it is very clear that this business was having significant difficulty before this transaction was carried out over the course of the weekend, and were these businesses to have been liquidated there would have been very serious consequences for all concerned. As I say, it is important that I am cautious at this stage about what I say.
I am occasionally able to write in a local newspaper, and such newspapers occasionally write about me.
May I put it to my right hon. and learned Friend that Sir Ray Tindle, the founder and president of the Tindle Newspapers Group, is right in saying that from daily national newspapers we expect speed and from local newspapers we expect detail? As well as our concern for the journalists and the pensioners, should we not be concerned for local communities? Local papers cover catastrophe and they cover celebration, and they provide the details of ordinary community life that matters so much to so many of our constituents.
Yes. My hon. Friend puts it extremely well, and that is exactly why we are all concerned for the future of local journalism. We are concerned about the titles that we are specifically discussing this afternoon, but also for the broader future of local journalism. That is precisely why the Government are taking the actions I have laid out.
As we all know, it is the pensioners and the workers whom we care about, as well as the communities and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) said, the pipeline of journalists, with people from ordinary backgrounds getting into journalism. However, if we are looking at this whole media area, will the Secretary of State bear in mind the question whether the Cairncross review is broad enough, and as other hon. Members have said, the remit is right for looking at something like taking money from the BBC, to which another Member referred? I do not want us to take money from the BBC; I want to take money from Google, Facebook and all those people who do not pay their taxes.
We certainly expect Frances Cairncross to talk about online companies, too. That is a very important part of her remit, and she will look very specifically at what they do, particularly with regard to online advertising, which is a major component of the issue we are discussing. I can give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance. We will of course await what she says. I commend to him the opportunity next week, which I described earlier, of going to talk to her himself and to express his views directly.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we must look carefully at the impact that online platforms are having on these titles, such as the Arbroath Herald and the Brechin Advertiser? What role can his Department play in trying to underpin a sustainable model for local news?
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. As I have said, the online presence of different kinds of news and different kinds of advertising is a structural challenge to the way in which local papers are operating. That is precisely why we have asked Dame Frances Cairncross to do what she is doing, and I very much look forward to hearing what she has to say.
Is the Secretary of State happy with the policy that is developing of companies running up a white flag, dipping into administration and then very quickly reappearing minus their pension duties?
No, if that is the intention I am certainly not happy. The right hon. Gentleman will know that the PPF and the regulator will need to look at this transaction and decide what they make of it, and there may come a time when I need to do so too. We will wait first for the PPF and the regulator to make their judgments.
The first page that many of my constituents turn to when they open their Whitby Gazette or Scarborough News is the family notices—the births, marriages and deaths—if only to check that they are still alive themselves. Does the Secretary of State recognise the importance of that element of local newspapers, particularly for those who do not have access to digital media?
Yes, I do, and that is one of the many reasons why we are all concerned to ensure that local papers have a presence in the media landscape and a long-term future.
May I stress to the Secretary of State the importance of regional newspapers? The Yorkshire Post, founded in 1754, has been essential in making the case for Yorkshire and the north in the latest rail timetabling shambles. It is important that we have regional journalism that allows pressure to be put on the Government, so what does the Secretary of State think he can do to ensure that there is strong, independent regional journalism in this country?
I rather agree with the hon. Lady that there is a significant role for the regional press as well as the local press. It is a part of the landscape that we need to consider carefully. She will be aware of the Hull Daily Mail, which does good work online. That is an important point, because we must accept, as the local press does, that people are increasingly consuming their news online. Local papers need to be able to adapt to that. Some, such as that paper, are doing so very successfully, and others need to learn similar lessons.
Does the Secretary of State agree that we should be celebrating a good news story today, in that all operations have continued and will continue in the future? Does he agree that the company has spoken clearly about both keeping employee rights and ensuring that the newspaper titles continue to be printed?
My hon. Friend is right—the alternatives available to Johnston Press at this stage were immeasurably worse. As I set out to the House at the outset, a number of steps were taken to seek an alternative course, none of which was successful. He is right to recognise that, at this point at least, all the titles continue and all jobs have been retained, but of course, as we have discussed this afternoon, there are many long-term challenges facing not just that company but others in the same space.
I declare an interest: I write a weekly unpaid column for The Scotsman, which despite its troubles is possibly still the proudest title among daily newspapers in Scotland. Along with its sister the Edinburgh Evening News, it is one of the titles affected by the changes. I have had communications over the weekend from executives of the former company and from the new owners, and from former colleagues, now constituents, who are concerned about exactly the issue that has been raised today. They fear that they stand to lose tens of thousands of pounds from their pensions now that they have left the company, because under PPF rules they could lose 10%. I appreciate the Secretary of State’s possible quasi-judicial position, but can he assure the House that he will bear in mind the position of both the staff and former staff of the titles affected?
I was hoping that the question mark was approaching, and fortunately it did, just in time.
I entirely understand the concern that the hon. Lady and others have expressed. We are particularly concerned for those employed now and those in receipt of their pensions. As I have said, the PPF will need to determine its view of the transaction first, and then, in conjunction with the trustees of the current pension scheme, it will need to determine what action should be taken. She is right to express concern, and we have too. We will continue to pay close attention to what all the relevant bodies say.
The Hemel Gazette in my constituency is a Johnston Press paper. Although no people in my constituency work on it, my thoughts are with those who are concerned about their future and their pensions. May I ask about a group of people we have not heard about, the small suppliers and the small creditors? They will have heard about everything going on this weekend, with the big creditors taking over the same management team. That must be of real concern to the small creditor—whether that is legal. They stand to lose thousands and thousands of pounds and may well go under because the big companies will get all the money, while the company will operate in exactly the same way as before but under a slightly different name.
I hope my right hon. Friend will forgive me—I am going to sound like a cracked record by the end of this urgent question—but there are reasons why I need to be cautious at this stage about what I say about the transaction and the way it has been conducted. There will be inquiries made into the way in which this has transpired, including the effect on small creditors. At this stage, we must await some of those conclusions before taking matters further.
Johnston Press pursued a very aggressive acquisition strategy over the past 10 years, which has partly put it in this position. It has left titles such as The Scotsman and the Edinburgh Evening News operating on very, very small numbers of staff. Can the Secretary of State tell us whether there is any liability to the public purse and if so what he will be doing to pursue the new company to ensure that the public purse is repaid?
For the reasons I have just given, I will not comment on the nature of the transaction itself. The hon. Gentleman is right that over the preceding years Johnston Press has acquired a number of different titles. That, of course, is a matter for its judgment. In the process of looking at the transaction, it will have to answer for judgments and decisions it has made. At this stage, however, we must await what the various bodies I have described conclude.
The Ilkeston Advertiser, part of the JPI Media group, is the last remaining weekly local newspaper in my constituency. What more support can my right hon. Friend offer such local titles to help them to survive, because they play such an important part in our communities?
We can all do our bit to ensure we support our local titles. It is right that some titles move more online, as that is where the reader is going, and it is right that the Government do what they can. We have mentioned some of the financial incentives that the Government have already brought forward. Beyond that, I look forward to more structural and long-term solutions emerging from the Cairncross review and our considerations of it.
Mr Speaker, your encyclopaedic knowledge should include the Belfast News Letter, the longest continuously printed English language daily paper, printed from 1737. It notably revealed that America had struck independence in 1776. It is one of the titles under consideration with Johnston Press. I hope the Secretary of State understands that there is more to this than just currently employed staff and future and current pension holders; there is an historical legacy and a contemporary contribution to the principle of a free press.
It is a notably illustrious organ, I feel sure. I also feel sure that the organ concerned will get to hear of the hon. Gentleman’s intervention.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point—one that had not yet surfaced in this conversation. As he says, it is not just about those who work on these publications now, or even those who read them now; it is about those who have worked on and read them, over preceding centuries in the case of the publication he mentions. They are an important part of the fabric of our local communities. For that reason, we wish to see them preserved. As I have said, it may be that they are not preserved in quite the form they were in the 1770s, but there is an opportunity for local papers to grow with the times and for us to continue to support them even into the 21st century.
My constituency is served by seven local newspapers, all with separate circulations. Time means I cannot, like some colleagues, get them all into Hansard. However, five of them are owned by the Mirror Group. Last week, the editors of those five titles were made redundant. In the light of what has happened with the Johnston Press, will the Secretary of State say what conversations he might have had with the Mirror Group to check on its ongoing commitment to local newspapers?
I am now alerted to that. The process that we described—in the form of the Cairncross review—is designed to confront some of the systemic challenges that affect not just Johnston Press, but many other companies in this space. There is nothing particularly unique, I think it is fair to say, in the experience that Johnston Press has been having. It is a structural challenge for local newspapers and one that we must address in a structural way.
The Batley & Birstall News has been serving my constituency for 140 years and, with the Spenborough Guardian, is a much loved title. They have fantastic campaigns such as “Love Your High Street”. My concern about the reconfiguration is that there will be some asset stripping and only the most profitable titles will remain. While The Yorkshire Post is fantastic—I applaud it for its journalism, which is very rigorous and wide-reaching—my concern is that the smaller titles, which provide a counter-narrative to some of the harshest, most polarising voices elsewhere, will be lost to our communities.
Again, I understand the hon. Lady’s concern and her enthusiasm for her local titles. As has been said, it is right to point out that at this stage all titles are preserved by this move. The alternatives, as far as Johnston Press could see, were all immeasurably worse, but both she and I will want to hear from the new owners about their plans for the longer term. It is only fair to give them space to develop those plans, but once they have done so, she and I will wish to seek further information about what they intend to do.
The Johnston Press group has four titles in my constituency—The Southern Reporter, The Berwickshire News, the Hawick News, and the Selkirk Weekend Advertiser, which provide excellent local news to my constituents—but in an increasingly competitive environment, particularly with BBC local platforms, which I know cause them great concern, what more can the Government do to support local journalism?
We can do more and we seek to find inventive ways of doing more to account for the changing circumstances in which all these newspapers find themselves. If I may, I will make a conditional point that my hon. Friend brings to mind. Those observing these proceedings might be surprised that Members of this House, who are held to account by local newspapers, would mourn their passing, but it is credit to our democracy that all of us believe that it is right that those in power should be held to account. That applies not just to those in Whitehall, but to town halls up and down the country and, dare I say it, to local Members of Parliament, who are held to account in some cases by four publications at once.
Johnston Press at Dinnington in my constituency was a crucial part of a £163 million coalfield regeneration project under the Labour Government in 2006. It currently boasts The Yorkshire Post—I believe it to be a national newspaper—and prints many other national titles for the north of England as well. The Minister said what he would like to do to make sure that the jobs are there—that is right and proper—but will he tell us what influence he has on the Pension Protection Fund and the regulator?
As the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate, both are independent. They make their own judgments and we must let them do that, but the Government will want to consider the position once they have done so, and to seek to know whether there is further action we can take. The right hon. Gentleman is right, as was his hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), that there is an important regional component to our press. We might, as he says, argue that that verges on the national in some cases—[Interruption.] We should certainly not miss the argument that there is a regional layer to our press which adds considerably to oversight and scrutiny, and we must seek to preserve it where we can.
Torbay is well served by a mix of media, including a traditional newspaper, the Herald Express, a community-owned hyper-local newspaper, the Torbay Times, and the more citizen journalism-based The People’s Republic of South Devon, which is online—I suspect Opposition Members might prefer its editorials. Will the Minister look at how we can sustain local newsrooms by perhaps reviewing how local media operations can become more cross-platform, particularly by looking at such things as small-scale digital audio broadcasting?
Yes, we will look at that. We want to consider all possible ways of assisting the more general landscape that my hon. Friend describes. There may well be more that online companies can do to help, more that companies elsewhere can do, perhaps more that the BBC can do, and certainly more that local and national Government can do. We will look at all the possibilities.
This is just the latest example of what the Work and Pensions Committee described as “ripping off pensioners” using pre-packs. I understand that the Government announced they were holding a review into the impact on pensions of pre-pack administrations. Has the Secretary of State discussed when that review and its results are likely to be published, and when some of the pressure on the Pension Protection Fund will be relieved, as it is under enormous strain and going way beyond what it was intended to do?
The Pension Protection Fund has over £30 billion-worth of assets and can cover these liabilities. On the hon. Gentleman’s broader point, again I am fortunate that my hon. Friend the Pensions Minister is sitting along the row from me. I am sure he will write to the hon. Gentleman with the timescales he seeks.
As a former journalist, it strikes me that the party that stopped section 40 and facilitated local democracy reporters has a great deal to be proud of in this House. On the subject of local democracy reporters, it occurs to me that the Cairncross review has a huge opportunity to propose far more of that sort of thing, and it would be much more profitable for all of us if we ended up with a set of measures that resulted directly in local democracy reporters, for instance, rather than a simple fund.
My hon. Friend speaks with considerable expertise, as he says, and I hope he will find time next Wednesday, or on another occasion, to come and speak to Dame Frances and discuss with her the matters he has raised.
I am very glad that neither the highly esteemed Northern Echo nor the excellent Teesdale Mercury is affected. Given that there is a structural problem, will the Secretary of State consider extending the Localism Act 2011 to local newspaper titles so that local communities and journalists can take them over, run them on a co-operative basis and protect them from this asset stripping?
That is an interesting idea. If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will consider it.
Although Johnston Press being in administration is a source of concern, will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming JPI Media’s statement that existing titles, such as the Crawley Observer, will continue? In his dealings with the new company, will he continue to press that point?
Yes, I will. As my hon. Friend says, those who work in publications such as the one he mentions could have found themselves redundant today, so this is a good start, but we will need to know a good deal more about the new owners’ intentions, and as I have indicated, I will continue to seek further reassurances from them.
The Yorkshire Post is a great example of the role that regional newspapers play in strengthening our democracy at all levels. What concrete steps has the Secretary of State taken to strengthen the industry, protect jobs and secure current pension rights at Johnston Press?
I have mentioned some of the things the Government have already done, such as introducing concessions on business rates and ensuring that section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 does not come into force and damage local journalism considerably, and we will do more. It is important that we consider these issues in the round, because they are structural problems that have been around a long time, as we have already discussed. I am sure that the hon. Lady will look carefully at Dame Frances Cairncross’s findings, as will the Government. We do not have long to wait, and when we have them, I think we will have a clearer idea of what the structural solutions might be to these structural challenges.
Like its Johnston Press stablemate, the Buckingham Advertiser, the Bexhill Observer hosts a fine selection of local contributors, as well as the occasional musings of its MP. I chair the all-party group on the BBC. What further steps can the Secretary of State take to discuss with the BBC how more content can be shared—not just writers’ content, but perhaps video packages as well?
In respect of the journals to which the hon. Gentleman referred, for personal and family reasons it is fair to say he has a foot in both camps.
My hon. Friend is right: there are further conversations that we can have with the BBC. Local democracy reporters have already been mentioned. I know that the BBC is very proud of what it has done in that regard and is keen to see what more might be done, and my hon. Friend’s suggestion is a very interesting and practical one which we will take up with it.
When I graduated from Edinburgh Napier university with a first-class degree in journalism, I was told that I would be hard pushed to find work in a rapidly declining industry, but I was lucky enough to get work experience at my local Johnston Press-owned newspaper, the Midlothian Advertiser. Such local titles are essential for young people starting out, particularly—as was pointed out earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy)—those from working-class backgrounds. What is the Secretary of State doing to support those young working-class journalists?
I agree with the hon. Lady. The point about the talent pipeline is very important. We all know, from our experience as constituency Members of Parliament, very good young journalists who are starting their careers on local publications, and who will hope and expect to move on to national publications thereafter. That is one reason why it is important for us to maintain a route through local journalism, which is what we seek to do. As I have said, we have already taken a number of measures, but there are a further number that we can take. It is important for all those journalists who start where the hon. Lady did to see not just a future for themselves in local journalism, but a real career path that will excite them and make them want to continue.
Do the Government think that social media giants such as Facebook and Google should do more to support local and regional journalism, and what action are they taking to protect the future of the local and regional press?
You will not forgive me, Mr Speaker, if I answer the second part of the question all over again, but in relation to the first part, the hon. Gentleman is right: we expect companies such as Facebook and Google to engage with this argument. They are not entirely separate from it. It is fair to say that both those companies have already taken some actions to support local journalism—quite right too—but we shall expect them to do more. We shall want, in the course of the broader review that we are conducting, to look not just at the effect of the prioritisation of news on digital platforms, but at the way in which online advertising is working. All that has an effect.
I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
As a former local newspaper journalist, I pay tribute to local newspapers, particularly the Reading Chronicle, the Henley Standard and The Wokingham Paper. When the Secretary of State’s review ends, will he commit himself to using all his powers to try to level the playing field between these very worthy but struggling local newspapers and the tech giants?
As I have said, I think that we need to look carefully at the balance between the elements that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. It is undoubtedly part of the structural challenge that we have been discussing this afternoon, and I do not believe that we can come up with the appropriate structural answer unless we have considered those elements properly.
There are three Johnston Press titles in my constituency—
Thanks. One of those papers, The Yorkshire Post, is vital to our campaign for One Yorkshire devolution. Without The Yorkshire Post, we would not have been able to bring forward a diverse set of parties.
On 14 October, in The Observer, Roy Greenslade produced a devastating critique of the way in which what has happened to Johnston Press came to pass. When the banks failed, they were deemed to be too big to fail. Now the same thing has happened. When Johnston Press ceased to be a family firm, huge acquisitions were made based on debt. Will the Secretary of State be looking at future acquisitions, whether they are debt-backed or not, and will he be looking into the media industries?
I think we must be concerned with all similar transactions in this space, because that is important for the reasons that we have given. The hon. Gentleman will understand why—as I have already said—I will not comment specifically on the way in which this transaction has been conducted.
There are Johnston Press publications in my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) referred to the Belfast News Letter, which is a provincial paper. The unions have expressed concern about the defined-benefit pension scheme, and have also warned that any changes in future payments in line with Pension Protection Fund payment rules would be a terrible blow to affected staff. Will the Secretary of State keep the feet of JPI Media to the fire to ensure that pensions are protected?
Yes, I will certainly seek to do that. As I have said, I am grateful to the Pensions Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who has been present throughout this urgent question. Many of the points that have been raised relate to matters surrounding the pension scheme, and my hon. Friend has been listening attentively to them. I know that he will wish to pick up on some of the points that have been made.