Newspaper Industry (Royal Commission's Report)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17th March 1976.

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Photo of Mr Peter Shore Mr Peter Shore , Tower Hamlets Stepney and Poplar 12:00 am, 17th March 1976

I will, with your permission, Mr. Speaker, make a statement on the national newspaper industry. The Interim Report on the national newspaper industry by the Royal Commission on the Press has been presented to the House and is published today.

As the House will know, the Government asked the Royal Commission last September for a report in view of the urgent problems facing Fleet Street. In recent months, management and unions have been working together to reach a comprehensive agreement on modern manning levels and technology. The Report considers that the rapid collective implementation of such an agreement is essential. The Government recognise the importance of such a coordinated approach.

To achieve the breakthrough needed, very substantial expenditure will be involved over a period of about four years. It will mean major capital investment in new equipment and financing the costs of redundancies, following consequent demanning and some rationalisation of Fleet Street's floating labour force. To this would have to be added the cost of associated improved pension schemes. In exchange, there will be large offsetting savings. The Royal Commission takes the view that a general subsidy for the Press is unnecessary and unjustified and can be avoided by the introduction of a scheme for new equipment and agreed voluntary redundancies on the right terms. Nor does it believe that the industry would welcome subsidies on this basis. The Government agree.

The Royal Commission hazards outline figures for costs and savings of £50 million to £55 million in respect of capital investment and demanning costs and of £35 million per annum in respect of economies. In fact—and I am sure the Commission would be the first to agree—it is not possible to predict either figure with confidence now. Before anyone can get the measure of what is involved, it is essential to know from the joint union-management team what are its agreed manning levels and what are the specific compensatory payments to be associated with them. Although the intention is that these will be applied on a standard basis throughout Fleet Street. it will still be necessary for each house to work out its agreed consequentials in respect of the individual positions, which vary very widely.

The key to the Royal Commission's proposals is that any individual house participating in this collective scheme shall be able, within a relatively short time, to finance its costs out of its savings. This means that a high proportion of them should be able to secure necessary loan finance from the private sector. It adds that there may be cases where a house could achieve these valuable offsetting economies in the medium term but meanwhile has difficulties in meeting the normal commercial requirements. The Royal Commission proposes that such loans should be made available from public sources.

The Government recognise that Fleet Street now has an opportunity of taking bold collective action to deal with its central problems. There are however a number of important issues for decision; particularly in the present economic climate, all concerned will need firmer estimates of the costs and savings involved.

We shall be inviting the Fleet Street committee to tell us by the end of June what specific demanning and compensation figures it is agreed upon; and by the end of July we shall ask indivdual houses to submit similiarly agreed figures of the consequentials in terms of costs and savings for their own positions. Once supplied with such basic arithmetic, the Government will consider urgently and constructively what rôle they could most usefully play.

I am sure the House will wish to join me in thanking the Royal Commission for the serious and constructive Report it has submitted.

Photo of Mr Terence Higgins Mr Terence Higgins , Worthing

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that my right hon. and hon. Friends regard a strong, diversified and viable free Press as of vital importance in our democracy? My right hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) has already expressed views on the proposals of the Secretary of State for Employment and the impact that they will have. I shall ask the right hon. Gentleman some specific questions about the Report to which he has referred, but he will realise that it is difficult to react immediately to a 112-page Report and a three-page statement of such complexity.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we take the view that this is par excellence not an industry in which a general Government subsidy or a lame-duck approach is appropriate? On the contrary, it is an industry in which technological advance and its exploitation is essential. We must ensure that restrictive trade practices do not create higher and higher monopoly pay in a smaller and smaller market.

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the proposals in the Report suggest that certain carrots, if I may put it in that way, should be given to the industry. Will he express a view on the reservations that have been expressed by Mr. Ian Richardson about that? Is it not a little curious that the suggestion should be made that the funds should come from Finance for Industry so as to remove the matter from the political arena, bearing in mind that the Government are quite closely in co-operation with Finance for Industry?

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that it is right that we should proceed, if possible, by consensus. I ask him to ensure that the House has an opportunity to debate this matter, and especially whether there is a need for assistance of the sort to which he has referred. Will he also ensure that two loose ends are tied up—namely, cross-subsidisation of advertising revenue and the position of the economics of the provincial Press—and that information is made available before we reach a firm position on the interim Report?

Photo of Mr Peter Shore Mr Peter Shore , Tower Hamlets Stepney and Poplar

We are all concerned to preserve a strong, free and diversified Press. Indeed, that was almost within the terms of reference of the Royal Commission when it was set up.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we stand by what we have said and that which the Royal Commission has emphasised—namely, that we would be opposed to any general Government subsidy to the Press. I do not wish to go beyond my statement in considering any of the more detailed proposals put forward by the Royal Commission, whether in the majority Report or in the minority Addendum, except to say that we should need an awful lot of persuading and that we should approach any proposal of that kind in a critical frame of mind. At the right time we shall consider urgently and constructively the rôle that the Government can play, but, as I have emphasised, there is a great deal of arithmetic still to be done.

It is certainly desirable that we proceed by consensus. The hon. Gentleman will realise that it is for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to deal with arrangements for a debate. However, I think I can tell him that most of the House would welcome the opportunity at some stage to debate the general question of the Press and the interim Report. Finally, I shall see what information can be made available about the provincial Press. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the comments made about it in the interim Report.

Photo of Mr Jo Grimond Mr Jo Grimond , Orkney and Shetland

First, I declare an interest. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that if assistance is offered to the Press it will not result in some of the more efficient sectors of the Press being penalised? Secondly, although we are accustomed to speaking of Fleet Street as the Press, does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that a great deal of the Press is situated outside Fleet Street? Has he anything further to say about the interim proposals for the provincial Press, which is of the greatest importance?

Photo of Mr Peter Shore Mr Peter Shore , Tower Hamlets Stepney and Poplar

The general agreement was that the most critical area of the Press was Fleet Street, although I would associate Manchester with Fleet Street, as did the Royal Commission. Therefore, Fleet Street should be the focus of the interim Report of the Royal Commission. It would be wrong to penalise efficient parts of the Press. When the arithmetic is done by the joint committee we shall have a clearer picture as to who is efficient and who is not.

Photo of Mr Robin Corbett Mr Robin Corbett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Does my right hon. Friend welcome the statement made a few weeks ago by the joint committee representing employers and unions on the way in which they intend to proceed with this difficult and hazardous exercise of redundancy and re-equipment in the national Press? Will he give a categoric assurance that there is no question of providing loans for either purpose unless and until there has been agreement between individual managements and unions?

Photo of Mr Peter Shore Mr Peter Shore , Tower Hamlets Stepney and Poplar

I willingly echo my hon. Friend's sentiments about the helpful and forward-looking approach of unions and management in their submissions to the Royal Commission, the contents of which are printed in Appendix B. It is an invaluable and indispensable step forward. I assure my hon. Friend that we have no intention of making available loans under the Royal Commission proposals unless and until agreements are reached—agreements of the detailed kind envisaged by the Royal Commission both at Fleet Street level and at house level, as indicated in the timetable which I have suggested.

Photo of Mr Michael Neubert Mr Michael Neubert , Romford

What indications does the Secretary of State have that these proposals are likely to be acceptable to the printing unions, which have been among the most militant defenders of overmanning?

Photo of Mr Peter Shore Mr Peter Shore , Tower Hamlets Stepney and Poplar

The most encouraging feature of the discussions which have taken place so far has been the full co-operation of the printing unions—and indeed the leading part taken by them—in putting forward outline proposals which have so greatly helped the Royal Commission in producing its Report.

Photo of Mr Phillip Whitehead Mr Phillip Whitehead , Derby North

Will my right hon. Friend accept that probably on both sides of the House there is a welcome for the Royal Commission's viewpoint that there should be no general subsidy to the Press? In the forthcoming discussions will he make clear to both sides of the industry when they come forward to the Government with their proposals that we are committed to a plural Press, which means the existence of as many outlets as possible? Will he also make clear that that, in turn, means that the Government will set their face against a further concentration of ownership?

Photo of Mr Peter Shore Mr Peter Shore , Tower Hamlets Stepney and Poplar

The Royal Commission made clear in its proposals that it had those considerations in mind and that it is hostile to mergers of both titles and houses. I reiterate that we have no intention of supporting any scheme for general subsidy.

Photo of Mr George Younger Mr George Younger , Ayr

Will the Secretary of State bear in mind that in any assessment of the Press, it is important to think of the future as well as of the past? Does he not agree that it would be a poor bargain if we were to pay through the nose to liquidate the old manning levels in order to fix new ones which will remain set until a further crisis hits the Press? Will he bear that point in mind?

Photo of Mr Peter Shore Mr Peter Shore , Tower Hamlets Stepney and Poplar

Yes. One part of the Royal Commission's recommendations is concerned with the introduction of new technology. Agreements on appropriate manning scales for the new technology are highly relevant to the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

Photo of Mr Douglas Jay Mr Douglas Jay , Wandsworth Battersea North

Does the Secretary of State also agree that any proposal for a general subsidy would involve Governments in an intolerable dilemma in discriminating between one project and another, whether new or old?

Photo of Mr Peter Shore Mr Peter Shore , Tower Hamlets Stepney and Poplar

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. We are anxious to avoid—and I am sure that this applies to anybody else—being placed in that unenviable position.

Photo of Mr Robert McCrindle Mr Robert McCrindle , Brentwood and Ongar

As there appears to be a section dealing with London evening newspapers, will the Secretary of State say whether the Royal Commission reached the conclusion that the industry will be able to sustain only one London evening newspaper?

Photo of Mr Peter Shore Mr Peter Shore , Tower Hamlets Stepney and Poplar

I am sure that the Royal Commission has not committed itself to such a view. Indeed, it would have been surprising if it had done so.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner , Bolsover

Will my right hon. Friend appreciate that there are at least a few Labour Members who do not accept the nonsense that we have a pluralist or diversified Press? We take the view that it is an Establishment Press and that it is wrong for ordinary workers to pay the bulk of their taxes to prop up this Establishment Press—a Press which at times, almost in unison, attacks those very workers for having the audacity to fight for better conditions and wages.

Photo of Mr Peter Shore Mr Peter Shore , Tower Hamlets Stepney and Poplar

My hon. Friend must not confuse the term "pluralist Press"—we have a number of national newspapers in this country, probably rather more than possessed by other countries where the newspapers are different in style and in affiliations—with the separate and additional question whether we have the most satisfactory Press, or indeed a satisfactory Press. The full Report of the Royal Commission at a later stage may give us a far deeper and more searching analysis of the Press in this country and may possibly suggest changes for the future that may be either inevitable or desirable.

Photo of Mr Michael English Mr Michael English , Nottingham West

Judging by the chorus of sycophantic noises, one would think that we were not subsidising the Press at all. Is the Secretary of State aware that some of us think that provincial papers, which make more money than national newspapers, may be more efficient than is the over-centralised London Press, and that we do not necessarily believe in any subsidy to the Press at all? If that Press were efficient, it could use its own money and provide for its needs. Why should we subsidise millionaire newspaper proprietors?

Photo of Mr Peter Shore Mr Peter Shore , Tower Hamlets Stepney and Poplar

There is no proposal for any general subsidy to the Press. What is being discussed is whether an agreed scheme can be worked out to enable necessary and overdue changes to take place—a scheme that would depend on satisfactory terms in respect of the borrowing and repayment of money

Photo of Mr Robert Cooke Mr Robert Cooke , Bristol West

Will the Secretary of State address himself to the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) about future technology? Since there is now chronic overmanning, will he try to ensure that this does not arise again in the future?

Photo of Mr Peter Shore Mr Peter Shore , Tower Hamlets Stepney and Poplar

I have already said that in the Royal Commission's proposals on the introduction of new technology, which it was much concerned to bring about, the appropriate manning levels for the new technology will be the subject of joint discussions in the different forums I have mentioned.

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

I shall call two quick supplementary questions. We have a great deal of business before us.

Photo of Mr Max Madden Mr Max Madden , Sowerby

In considering any financial arrangements, will the Secretary of State take full account of the diversification of many newspaper publishing companies into activities as diverse as plastics and North Sea oil? On the question of manning levels, will he also take account of the incompetent managements that prevail in so many newspaper offices? On the question of redundancies——

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

Order. I shall allow the hon. Gentleman to complete his supplementary question, but will he bear in mind what I said?

Photo of Mr Max Madden Mr Max Madden , Sowerby

In considering redundancies, will the Secretary of State set up a monitoring arrangement to ensure that those redundancies are carried out on an agreed basis?

Photo of Mr Peter Shore Mr Peter Shore , Tower Hamlets Stepney and Poplar

That is one of the proposals in the interim Report—namely, that agreements should be reached on manning and other arrangements and that there should also be careful monitoring of progress made towards the achievement of various targets.

Photo of Mr Ioan Evans Mr Ioan Evans , Aberdare

Does my right hon. Friend recall that when some of us on this side of the House suggested last year that a Royal Commission should be set up to look into the newspaper industry, there was considerable opposition from the Conservative Party? Does not this interim Report justify the setting up of the Commission? When may we expect a final Report dealing with the concentration of ownership of the Press in this country?

Photo of Mr Peter Shore Mr Peter Shore , Tower Hamlets Stepney and Poplar

I am sure that it was necessary to set up the Royal Commission. It has enabled us to have this interim Report in what has been a very difficult financial period for the Press. Of course there are many other questions affecting the Press which are the subject of the wider terms of reference of the Royal Commission. I very much hope that we shall get the full Report some time next year.