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Local Journalism

Volume 750: debated on Thursday 23 May 2024

Mr Speaker, 24 hours is a long time in politics. As this is the last session of oral questions before we hand over to the people we serve and await their decision, I want to thank the whole team at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and everyone who supports our ministerial team. Let me also wish luck to everyone whose lives will be changing. That includes Members, of course, but importantly it also includes the staff who support them and the residents they serve. Having looked at Sir David Amess’s plaque during prayers, I also wish everyone a very safe campaign.

We are committed to supporting local media as a vital pillar of our local democracy. Our Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill will, among many other measures, help to rebalance the relationship between local publishers and online platforms. In addition, the Media Bill, which I hope will be passed, includes measures to help radio to provide high-quality local journalism. We have also supported local press through tax reliefs and innovation funding.

The Slough Observer, the Slough Express, BBC Radio Berkshire, Asian Star Radio and other such local media outlets are the glue that binds and builds our Slough community, holding to account local councillors, MPs and officials, and placing a local focus on national issues. However, the Tories have neglected local news. In 2019 the Cairncross review highlighted the serious challenges facing local journalism, but to date the Government have taken no significant action. Their lack of support, coupled with low wages and job insecurity, is forcing talented journalists out of local news. What steps have Ministers taken to ensure that jobs in local journalism are viable?

Since we are doing some name checks, let me pay tribute to The Havering Daily, Time FM and the Romford Recorder. I think the hon. Gentleman must have missed the Digital Markets Act 2022 and the key recommendation of the Cairncross review, which identified the lack of balance in the relationship between publishers and dominant platforms. We brought that recommendation to the House and it was passed. That was our main effort to protect local journalism, but of course it was not our only effort. We also provided business tax relief for local journalism offices, we support the BBC’s local democracy reporting scheme, we have protected public notices income, we are looking at how we use Government advertising spend, and we are speaking to the teams about what else we can do.

This seems to be an appropriate moment to acknowledge that in Orkney and Shetland we are blessed with some very good-quality local media: The Orcadian, The Shetland Times, Shetland News, SIBC, BBC Radio Orkney and BBC Radio Shetland—if I have forgotten anyone, I will doubtless suffer for it in the weeks to come. For communities such as ours, a strong local media presence is an important bulwark against the relentless centralisation of control, power and government in Edinburgh, which is why we need to protect our media. Does the Minister agree that what we really need is a coherent strategy for all aspects of local media, including advertising, to ensure that local media outlets remain strong?

I certainly agree, and we have been putting forward that strategy, but it is a very dynamic market. We are now seeing challenges to local reporting from artificial intelligence, and we are considering how we can protect some of these publications, because we agree that they are such an important part of our local democracy. If any other Members want to bob on this question and name-check their local media, I shall be happy to pay fulsome tribute to their journalists.

The Minister must have guessed that a mention of the Torbay Weekly, which was launched four years ago under its editor Jim Parker, would be coming in this supplementary question.

On a more serious note, one of the worrying trends we have seen is the way that national corporations will buy a historic local title, turn it into a weekly and run into the ground. Even when such corporations close down a newspaper, they refuse to release the title so that it can perhaps be used by a local group that is trying to put together a multimedia platform to continue local accountability. What steps could the Government take to resolve that?

There is surely no greater publication in my hon. Friend’s constituency than the Torbay Weekly. I should also say that this House has made it clear just how strongly it feels about BBC local radio services in the course of this Parliament, and I hope to see them protected in the next Parliament. He is absolutely right about the challenge of publications being bought up. We want to support some of the microsites, and we are looking at how we can use Government advertising spend to try to help support them.

In the spirit of one-upmanship, I would just like to announce that Mr Speaker does not read the Financial Times or listen to Radio 4. No, he reads the Bolton News and listens to Bolton FM. We were very disappointed at the weekend, because we lost to Oxford United. I spoke to Keith Harris from Bolton FM this morning, and he wants assurances that the Government will do all they can to ensure that local radio is an essential tool for democracy, that it gets the legal support it needs, and that Government, both locally and nationally, can do more to support local platforms.

On a point of clarification, I read the Chorley Guardian and the Lancashire Evening Post. I would definitely still be listening, as Peter Kay would say, to Chorley FM—coming all over!

The Bolton News, Bolton FM and the Chorley Guardian—we could not live without them. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of local radio. As Media Minister, I fought hard to make sure that we included provisions for local radio in the Media Bill, and I very much hope that it will be passed in the wash-up.