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Philip Davies: In the hon. Gentleman's area, as I understand it, the cost is not the big issue. My understanding, from what the local authority says, is that its publication does not lose money, because of the advertising revenue that it brings in. However, does he agree that it is not just propaganda that is a problem with local council newspapers? It is the fact that it is propaganda masquerading as independent news. Whereas real, independent news will expose wrongdoing in the local authority, such publications merely highlight all the supposedly positive news stories that they want to get out.
Mr. Slaughter: The hon. Gentleman is right. I shall finish by responding to that point. The cost is an issue, because the admitted cost is £750,000 and some of that-about half-is subsidised from advertising, a large chunk of which is advertising by the council itself, or its mates in the public sector; the rest is taken from the local newspapers, to help run them down. However, the actual cost, when one considers the on-costs and hidden costs that councils provide, runs into millions of pounds. With the other advertising that is an issue. However-I direct this comment to those who are fortunate enough not to suffer from the problem at the moment-I agree that at root the problem is that however much the Conservative party or, indeed, any other party spends on party political material such as glossy leaflets or DVDs, at least it is clear where the money comes from. The pernicious nature of the material we are discussing is that it suppresses any news hostile to a particular political party-whichever it is-and exclusively promotes its interests. That is what is happening in local authorities throughout the country.
Yes, the issue is one of press freedom and of support for our very good local newspapers, which I want to praise-particularly the Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle: I wish it success in the first issue on Friday. However, the matter goes deeper-to the root of local democracy, and if we are not careful, because national and European elections are targeted as well, to democracy generally. I have said this previously, and am glad to say it before a larger audience today: I ask hon. Members to be warned-the threat may be the most serious we face. We would not tolerate it at national level. We resile from regimes around the world that suppress a free press in such a way, to promote state propaganda. Why should that attitude not apply to our town halls?
In my borough of Hillingdon the demise of local papers has been going on for some time. I recognise the problems that have been discussed: the rise of the internet and of council publications-we have had one under both Conservative and Labour councils and I do not think that it interfered with the circulation of local papers. I would probably put it down mostly to something else. I agree with the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner), who is not now in his place-and I am not a businessman who knows that much about the press-that one of the problems has been chronic lack of investment in local newspapers.
Large multinational or national companies have come along and diminished the number of journalists, and diminished their skills, to the point where the Gazette series, which is the one we have in the London borough of Hillingdon, has its offices in Chertsey, which to all intents and purposes is a million miles away. The people one talks to-the reporters, of whom there are one or two on the ground, operating with a laptop and a digital phone-tend not to understand the area, so people are not interested in what is in the newspaper. Advertisers like me do not think it is worth while to advertise, so things go down the pan.
The local newspaper is a fundamental part of the whole. The internet will never replace it, because many people, including many of the more vulnerable people, do not have the internet. The local newspaper is a very important thing, and we must do something, but it is no good just blaming one set of things.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): This is about the sixth debate that we have had on local newspapers in the past two years. May I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt), on the proposals that he made, that actually the Government have listened. When we had the debate about 18 months ago, proposals were made that the Secretary of State should convene a meeting of all sides of the industry. He did that last April, and there was a summit at which a number of us from the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group were present, along with representatives of newspaper conglomerates and other representatives of the media. My hon. Friend's exact proposal that there should be a form of public funding to support local news and local quality journalism was taken on board. A presentation was made by Ofcom, and the Government have introduced the Digital Economy Bill, which includes the proposals on independently financed news consortiums.
I hope that that will provide part of the solution to the problem that we have been trying to address during this series of debates. I agree with the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) that part of the problem has been both a lack of investment in the good times, when companies such as Trinity Mirror were making significant profits, and management not looking to the long-term future.
The Government have listened to those discussions and the debates here, and I welcome their proposals. My only reason for speaking in the debate is to ask the Secretary of State to give us an indication of the time scale now. We know that the tenders were put out for the pilots for the consortiums in November. It would be useful to know the time scale for the decision making on the process. That is also important for the sake of the staff, because we are worried about the loss of quality journalism, which was based on quality journalists. Assurances need to be given-for example, that existing staff within the area of the consortiums are protected by TUPE and will be transferred across into the new consortiums if they are established. In addition, an assurance is needed that there will be full involvement of the trade unions in the discussions on those proposals at the next stage. An assurance also needs to be given
that in the next stage of the development of policy, we will keep in place the mechanism of the summit that we had last April, so that we can be ahead of the game, rather than continuously responding to crises.
Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) on securing the debate, which has demonstrated, for once, all-party concern about an issue-an all-party desire that action be taken. My hon. Friend described local and regional newspapers as the lifeblood of local democracy-words that echo those of the Secretary of State. They are also very similar to those of Lord Mandelson, who recently described local newspapers as the
"bedrock of local democracy and public life".
That has been reflected by all hon. Members who have spoken. No one denies the vital importance of such newspapers in holding bodies such as local councils and primary care trusts to account, reporting from our local courts, as we heard, or simply providing local news and local information. We all agree that we need a vigorous local and regional press.
We also heard that there have been problems with the continued existence of local and regional newspapers. Threats have come particularly from structural changes as more and more people get their news and information from local radio and online. For once, we have heard a lot of praise for Trinity Mirror. We should perhaps reflect on the fact that it has seen huge increases in the profits that it takes from its online assets. In fact, in 2008, it spent £13 million acquiring new digital assets and, in the same year, closed 28 of its local newspapers.
We have seen, as a result of that problem, other problems coming along. We have seen a decline in advertising revenue. That is critical because local newspapers depend very much on local advertising revenue. We are also seeing the growing threat, as we heard, from the increasing number of councils producing publications that are newspaper-like and magazine-like. Some 90 per cent. of councils now produce such publications.
As a result, 60 newspapers closed last year. That is about 5 per cent. of the total. A number of daily newspapers have changed to be weekly newspapers. Hundreds of qualified journalists have lost their jobs, and many of the high street offices of our local newspapers have been closed. As we heard from the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), the situation seems destined to get worse.
That said, I was delighted to read in a briefing from the Newspaper Society that it thinks that there is an element of optimism: the decline in advertising has begun to stabilise, readership is currently being maintained, and local papers are availing themselves of opportunities in connection with the web and multi-media.
The reason for the threat continuing comes from three key areas. We have already heard about the first from my hon. Friend. It relates to the current requirement for councils to publish statutory notices-planning notices, compulsory purchase orders, footpath orders and so on-in a local newspaper. There was a real threat that that requirement would be removed. My hon. Friend rightly says that it was great to hear on 21 December the Government saying that that would not happen.
However, I say to the Minister that that threat may still be a real one, because my understanding is that a number of councils have now either had their local publications registered as a newspaper so that they can be the body-the organ-in which those statutory notices are put, or are considering ways of doing that. The threat has not totally gone and I would be grateful if the Minister responded on what the Government are doing about that.
The second cause of concern is the fact that some of those publications are being used for councils' own advertising and therefore advertising is being taken away from local newspapers. The Minister might want to comment on what the Government themselves are doing, because the Government, too, have started to withdraw some of their own advertising opportunities from local papers. Perhaps there is a course of action that they could take in that respect.
Mr. Turner: This problem does not affect the Isle of Wight yet, I am pleased to say. If people on the Isle of Wight-or, for that matter, anywhere else-have their own businesses, they keep the money on the island and it circulates on the island.
My third concern is that council publications, as we heard, are accepting private advertising. For instance, 90 per cent. of the publications of local councils in London already accept or already contain private advertising, so there is real cause for concern.
The newspaper industry is arguing, rightly, that councils should be running core services, not newspapers, and certainly should not be producing propaganda. They should not be using council tax payers' money for that purpose. The industry is concerned about local and regional newspapers being undermined by such organs taking advertising, and so on.
"The aim of any local newspaper is to provide unbiased, balanced news. If we don't provide it they won't buy us. The local council meanwhile is there to provide services for residents. But if they don't provide them, then who will let people know? It is certainly not the in-house council newspaper.
Local councils have a right, and indeed a duty, to inform their residents about what they are up to. However, without balance and independence, council newspapers can be seen as, at best, biased products and at worst simple propaganda. And that is why local newspapers are so vital for local democracy for giving people all the facts without the prejudice.
As a newspaper we can reflect the good things that local councils get up to-and we do so, far more than we are often given credit for. But we can also be there to represent local people who don't feel they have been well served and want their voices heard."
There are arguments on both sides. There is an argument that says that councils have a duty to provide information and so on, but equally there are concerns that we have
got into a situation in which there is unfair competition that is damaging what my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam calls the lifeblood of local democracy.
What can we do? First, councils should be able to find ways of working more effectively with their local newspapers. They could take out longer-term advertising contracts. They could run long-term campaigns in their local press. They could distribute their product alongside the local newspaper, sharing the distribution costs. We could also be looking, as the Government already are, at the local authority publicity code to see whether we can firm that up.
The Government are doing that; they have 300 responses in. We await the outcome, which I hope will include council papers being required to concentrate on relevant local council information, not on general local news, and certainly not on sudokus. We should also reduce the frequency with which they are published. It is ludicrous to have cases such as those in Tower Hamlets, Greenwich, Hammersmith and Fulham, Waltham Forest and elsewhere that we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam. Those are the things that could be looked at. Codes are one thing, but what we need is real action. My biggest worry is that when the Government requested the independent bodies to look at the competition issues, they refused. We now have a situation in which they are looking only at whether the council papers provide value for money, and that is not good enough. It is absolutely crucial that the Office of Fair Trading now carry out an investigation into the competition issue.
Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs. Dean. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) on calling this excellent and important debate. As the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) indicated, this is the fourth time that I have participated in a debate on the future of local and regional news, and we may even have debated the matter on five or six occasions in the past two years. That is a reflection of not only the importance of the issue, but the keenness of hon. Members to suck up to their local newspaper editors to improve their local coverage. I sucked up like mad before the expenses scandal and a lot of good it did me-I can tell Members-with my local press.
It is important to start the debate from first principles. We are debating the importance of local unbiased news and of investigative reporting. To an extent, I take the remarks of people such as the editor of The Bath Chronicle with a pinch of salt. I am not sure that most newspaper editors would say that it was their job to provide unbiased reporting. There is a tendency in these debates to pretend that all our local newspaper editors are somehow the local version of Woodward and Bernstein, constantly uncovering corruption in high places. The business of a local newspaper editor is to sell the local newspaper, and local newspapers as much as national ones can distort or sensationalise the news to attract readers.
"It would...be wrong to paint a picture of an industry in crisis".
Many of the titles that have closed are free weeklies in a competitive local marketplace, and there is still a plethora of news sources, not only the 1,300 regional newspapers that have been referred to, but the 159 community radio stations, the success and vibrancy of which over the past five or six years the Minister and I were debating only yesterday in Committee, and of course BBC local news and websites and commercial local radio. Such is the proximity to power that the Conservatives now have that I have started to receive the Goldman Sachs media and telecoms daily update, and in between counting its humungous bonuses, Goldman Sachs has found time to put a buy note on Johnston Press and Trinity Mirror, which perhaps indicates that those news organisations are healthier than we had perceived.
We also have to acknowledge that technology is changing, with blogs and so on beginning to fill a back gap. On "The Westminster Hour", an excellent programme that goes out on Radio 4 on Sunday evenings at 10 o'clock with some of the most talented hon. Members participating, I heard a report from John Beasley about a group in Lichfield that was holding its excellent local Member, my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), to account, although there is not much to hold him to account for apart from the excellence of his service. Local blogs and so on are therefore coming out; there is a technology revolution.
The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) and I have jousted before on local newspapers, and he has even had the temerity to refer to my contradicting him as somehow being churlish. I am sure that he would agree, if he were able to just step outside of himself for one minute and look objectively, that it is hard to take his remarks seriously, knowing that he was the local council leader who created HFM. That was a local glossy free magazine put out by the council; I have a picture of one of its covers here. The titles are "Cross Roads: Lollipop John waves goodbye", with a picture of a nice lollipop man, "What's on", "News", "My Borough", "Interviews" and "Letters". There is nothing to say that it is from the council. The only difference between the hon. Gentleman's publication and H&F News is that his, because it was put out by a Labour council, lost £400,000 a year. The current publication put out by a Conservative council costs the council tax payer absolutely nothing. What else upsets me about the hypocrisy of some Members is that Labour Members voted themselves-
Mr. Vaizey: I think that that will appear as "interruption" in Hansard. Labour Members voted themselves a £10,000 communications allowance, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will now pledge to use that allowance to take a page in H&F News, which goes out free to every resident.
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