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13 Jan 2010 : Column 275WH—continued

There are some good points and merits of local newspapers that we should boast about in this debate, to justify support for thriving local media. We are lucky with the Newsquest "Guardian" series, as it has a broad
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editorial base for its activities. Its contribution to the community can be seen in its green pages, in its campaigns in the interests of business-in our case, for south London businesses-and in its promotion of contributions from individuals to their community.

I went to an event run by the Croydon Guardian which celebrated Croydon champions. That newspaper has taken a positive line on removing sex industry adverts from its newspapers. I hope that Northcliffe will do the same with the Croydon Advertiser, although so far it has refused.

Finally, we should recognise that the industry is extremely efficient. The Croydon Guardian operates with three journalists-Kirsty Whalley, Harry Miller and Mike Didymus, who report to Matt Knowles-but the quality of production is amazing.

Yesterday, I was pleased to meet the editor of the Croydon Advertiser, Andrew Worden. There is a challenge to the Advertiser from the local council newspaper, Your Croydon. There is heavy-top-heavy-investment in the press department of the local authority, and often there is little distinction between Croydon council's press office and the parliamentary campaign of the Conservative candidate for Croydon, Central. One can see the power councils have in terms of the money provided, and although the amount spent on the council newspaper is probably around £20,000 a month, overall spending for the communication side of the authority is now £2 million a year. That is a substantial amount of money, which might be better spent on the campaign currently being run by the council-in close conjunction with the Conservative parliamentary candidate-calling for extra police officers in Croydon. That is rather surprising given that the Conservatives are in control both at County hall and in Croydon.

We must think carefully about how the intervention of local authorities in newspaper production can be particularly dangerous in communities that are smaller than Croydon. The economies of scale are being increased by such intervention and if we end up with only two journalists on the newspaper, as that is all that can be afforded at local level, the newspaper might go out of business. Many communities to the south of my constituency could face that difficulty.

We often criticise local newspapers for being sensationalist, and that is particularly applied to the Croydon Advertiser. However, we must recognise that they do many good things, and I underline the point raised earlier about the advantages of newspapers investing in regions and little parts of their communities. In my local area, New Addington is a satellite estate and somewhat isolated, so it is great news that the Croydon Advertiser continues to publish the New Addington Advertiser, and the good work done by Joanne Charlton.

Local papers support communities by covering local sports. I primarily read my local paper not to see what unpleasant things have been written about me, but to learn what has been happening to Croydon football club. Only about 60 of us actually go to watch the matches, but it is still important for people to know what is going on. The Croydon Advertiser has done good things in terms of transport for young people who need to be taken for kidney treatment, and in supporting the Chase children's hospice, which is outside Croydon but looks after young people from Croydon.

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Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman think that councils should be banned from issuing newspapers of their own?

Mr. Pelling: Although there is a need to communicate basic public information, it would be possible to have legislation that stopped the marketing of the political views of parties. That is something that one would have expected the local soviet to have produced in Russia, and I agree with the implication of the right hon. Gentleman's question. I support that approach-£2 million could be much better spent elsewhere.

Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton) (Lab): Do local newspapers face a greater threat from locally produced local government newspapers, or through the incompetence of their owners?

Mr. Pelling: There must be value in seeing both points of view. In the previous speech, a point was made about the lack of investment in training and in staff. In my local newspapers, many staff probably earn between £12,000 and £16,000 a year, but have the prospect of doubling their pay if they become the equivalent of a junior reporter on their local government newspaper, and that situation is extremely distorting.

None the less, good things are done, and I want to mention two examples of the dedication shown in local journalism. First, my local authority gave an award to a gentleman called Ian Austin, who has been covering local government in Croydon for 40 years. Without him, it would not have been possible for people to have had a balanced view of what was happening.

Secondly, I want to mention a lady called Aline Nassif, who is a campaigning, social issues journalist. I am sure that she will go on to rival the pay of Polly Toynbee, or perhaps a local government press officer, because of her pursuit of important social issues. Work such as hers also informs Members of Parliament, who benefit from what the local media have to say, and one attraction of her work is that she has campaigned on important social issues, such as the very real weaknesses at Mayday hospital. However, I have already taken too much time, and I apologise to other hon. Members. I will make way for others to speak.

3.10 pm

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) on obtaining a debate on an extraordinarily important issue. There is no doubt that local newspapers face a crisis, which is why the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport is conducting an inquiry into the future of local and regional media and why we have received a lot of evidence. In our first session, Claire Enders, who is one of the most respected industry analysts, told us that half the country's 1,300 local newspapers will be out of business within five years. We then heard from the chief executives of Johnston Press, Trinity Mirror and the Guardian Media Group, all of whom agreed that the crisis is the greatest that the industry has faced.

This is not just a UK problem, but an international one. I have with me a chart showing the number of people employed in newspaper publishing in America. In 1947, the figure stood at about 240,000 and it grew steadily until about 1992. It peaked at 460,000, but in
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the 15 years since then it has fallen to 260,000, and it is still plummeting. All of us know of local papers from around the country that have closed, but even where papers have not closed, their offices on the high street are being shut, the number of journalists is falling and the number of photographers is no longer the same. As a result, the quality of local coverage is diminishing.

The first question to address is whether that matters. When the Minister gave evidence to the Committee a few weeks ago, he rightly pointed to the quality of some online content. I think that he mentioned a website called Pots and Pans-

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Siôn Simon): Pits n Pots.

Mr. Whittingdale: I apologise. The Minister highlighted an example of a good local website, and there is no doubt good local provision.

However, it was pointed out to the Committee that the media industry is a pyramid, with local newspapers at the bottom, forming the base or the widest part. Much of the journalistic investigation and news content that filters up to the nationals, to radio and even to television and the BBC starts with investigations carried out by local newspapers. Furthermore, online provision is largely parasitic. That is a slightly emotive word, but how many journalists does Google employ? Most such sites reproduce content from local newspapers. If we lose those newspapers, the bottom of the pyramid will be removed. I agree with all that has been said about how important it is for democracy and local accountability that local newspapers survive.

Simon Hughes: One point that we have not mentioned, and which I am keen that we should, is that local newspapers also do local court reporting. If we did not have that, the only court reports would be about celebrities appearing in court. Promoting an orderly society often involves people realising that others who live on their doorstep, on their estate or on their street might be held to account and punished for what they do. People can then comment on the punishment and on whether it works.

Mr. Whittingdale: I very much agree and I will mention that issue briefly in a second.

However, we need to look at why these things have happened. The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) is right that the principal cause of the problem is the growth of the internet. That growth has come at the same time as a recession, which has led to a reduction in overall advertising spending. However, this is not just about the recession; there is a migration of eyeballs and advertising expenditure away from traditional media and towards online provision. To cite one example, the value of regional newspaper advertising fell from £2.8 billion to £2 billion between 2002 and 2008. At the same time, the value of internet advertising grew from £0.2 billion to £2.8 billion in real terms. As a result, local newspapers are in a double squeeze and are seeing their advertising revenue fall, with all the consequences that have been described.

In the brief time available I shall focus on one or two things that we might do to address the problem. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam is right: local
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authority newspapers are not helping. There is undoubtedly competition-some might say unfair competition-from many local authority newspapers. Authorities no longer place advertisements in local newspapers, with the result that newspaper revenues are declining. At the same time, local authority newspapers are taking advertising revenue. The Committee had some concern about that when we took evidence, and it may be necessary to take action.

However, there are other elements in the problem. The present crisis faces not only local newspapers, but local radio and regional television. The Government have come up with the interesting idea of using part of the licence fee to fund independently financed news consortiums, and that might help local newspapers, which could play a significant part in such consortiums if they go ahead.

We could also do something about the competition regime. The Committee was told to expect that almost every area of the country would be served by just one local newspaper in the future. That should not necessarily worry us, because there is competition from a lot of different sources, so it is not a case of allowing a monopoly to develop. We need to look at the competition rules again to take account of alternative news provision.

Interesting experiments are taking place with paid-for online content. Like the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, I will watch with great interest how News International gets on if it seeks to impose pay walls on its content. There are two villains in the piece, particularly in this country. The first is Google, which aggregates content and allows consumers to bypass pay walls. Google's UK managing director assured us that Google was a beneficial influence and that it strongly supported local newspapers. If that is the case, it needs to do more, although it has begun to take steps to address the problem.

The other villain is the BBC. As long as it provides online content for nothing, it will be difficult for local newspapers or, indeed, any news organisations to charge for content. I am not necessarily suggesting that the BBC should charge for all its online content, but the current situation is an obstacle, which will make things hard for other providers.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that another way forward might be to enable the BBC to go ahead with its original plans for local websites, but to populate them with news gathered by local newspaper and radio reporters, who would then be paid for their work?

Mr. Whittingdale: Like me, the hon. Gentleman will remember local newspapers' fury at the suggestion that the BBC should provide local news. He might be right, but such an arrangement would be regarded with huge suspicion. It was suggested at the time that the BBC would use material gathered by local newspapers, but the proportion was likely to be small. The local newspaper industry is likely to regard such an arrangement more as a threat than an opportunity. However, it may be that we should at least consider it.

I am conscious of the number of people who want to speak, so I want to raise one final point. I do not fully share the view of the hon. Member for Sittingbourne
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and Sheppey, who mentioned the interesting principle of public service reporting. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) mentioned the court service, which is just one example. It is terribly important that we know what is going on in our courts, health authorities, police authorities and local councils-in all the various institutions that underpin local government and local democracy. The truth is that local newspapers no longer cover those things. We no longer see someone from the local paper sitting in the corner at every meeting of the local council or its sub-committees or in meetings of the health authority. That coverage is disappearing from local newspapers, and we should at least consider whether there is a case for public service reporting to be made available to anybody who wishes to carry it, be that local newspapers, local radio or local TV.

Similarly, we no longer have every newspaper represented in the Gallery of the House of Commons. Papers rely on the Press Association to supply them with independent and objective content and to tip them off if anything dramatic happens in the Chamber. There may be a case for considering whether the same kind of service should be extended to local council chambers and the other local institutions that are so important. How that would be financed is a matter for debate. There is a case for it to receive public support, and if so the licence fee is an obvious source. We need to have that debate. I agree with the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam that if we allow local newspapers to continue to close and to withdraw from their terribly important local role in sustaining our democracy, we shall all suffer.

3.20 pm

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): I am pleased to speak again in the series of debates that have taken place in this Chamber on this subject. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) on securing the debate. What gives me particular pleasure is the fact that on each occasion the number of hon. Members who attend grows, and the penny appears to have dropped on all sides that the issue is not party political. It is an issue on which all three parties are guilty, at local level, and which is a serious threat to local democracy and perhaps wider democracy.

I can do no better than to use a quotation to sum up where we are in the borough that may suffer most from the problem-Hammersmith and Fulham. Andrew Gilligan wrote in his blog last week:

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as the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam mentioned earlier-

The blog also praises the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) for his robust comments on the matter in the Select Committee and says that some councils are already closing their newspapers. I shall be asking Hammersmith and Fulham council why, from next week, it will not close its newspaper, as its only excuse for publishing one was that there was no independent local paper in circulation.

The other unusual thing about the debate is that it gives me an opportunity to praise Trinity Mirror, of which I have been somewhat critical in the past. I hope that its ambition in this case-clearly it has the necessary resources-will be followed throughout the country. Clearly it recognises a commercial threat, because although a minority of local authorities may be affected at present, you can bet your life-it is human nature, is it not?-that all those councillors sitting in their offices would love a completely supportive and uncritical press. I am concerned about what will happen if we do not tackle what is happening and nip it in the bud.

What action do the Government intend to take to stop politicisation through the council press, and the destruction of the independent local press? We will shortly need action at national level. This cannot be left to Trinity Mirror and the other newspaper groups. Let us make no mistake: the problem goes further than the watering down or manipulation of news. Very large sums of money-millions of pounds-are involved. Hammersmith and Fulham admits to spending £750,000 on the newspaper; but that is only the cost that it admits. It is the tip of the iceberg. There are magazines, newsletters, banners in the streets, poster vans driven around the borough, whole tube stations kitted out with advertisements, and online material, all advertising the Conservative party, in effect, in all but name.

I shall give two examples of what I have described. One was a letter sent to tenants and leaseholders in response to a Labour party publication, directly criticising the Hammersmith Labour party. I feel sorry for the Conservatives. They had only £200,000 to spend politically in my constituency last year. Clearly they were a bit short with regard to what the council could provide in subsidy by putting out that material. Just before Christmas a glossy six-page brochure went out about Building Schools for the Future. I could find no mention of its being a Government-funded scheme, but I found a half-page picture of my opponent saying that he had been invited into schools to talk to pupils, with a hagiography of him and an account of what he did.

I received an e-mail today from the borough solicitor, about that picture and publication:

They must think I was born yesterday. Such things happen on a regular, weekly basis. Hon. Members may regard it as a warning if they will.

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