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Times Newspapers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:20 pm on 27th January 1981.

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Photo of Mr Norman Atkinson Mr Norman Atkinson , Haringey Tottenham 6:20 pm, 27th January 1981

The curious thing about this debate is that it is on the Adjournment of the House. There is no other motion before us. Therefore, one assumes that by voting for the Adjournment we are opposed to a reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. There are variations of view on the Opposition Benches, particularly among those of us who support the trade unions and their studies of the submissions that have already been made, and also the reservations of the trade unions in Fleet Street, including my own, the AUEW, with regard to such a reference. I follow in detail the comments of the hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones), who put what is generally looked upon as a "print" point of view.

Related to what I have just said is the fact that many of us, as Socialists, believe that the MMC is the wrong commission for such reference because it is concerned more with commercial aspects and commercial diversity than with editorial diversity. We therefore feel that consideration by a commission of this nature might be the wrong kind of consideration. Given the dominance of commercial Fleet Street over our means of communication, we believe that there should be some other kind of commission to which references of this kind could be submitted and which would be primarily concerned with editorial diversity. That is the Labour Party's point of view and attitude at the moment.

I wish to make one or two comments on the debate so far. The curious thing about the Minister's statement is that, presumably, he will have to alter the rules and some of his comments when he comes to consider Associated Newspapers' takeover bid for the Bristol Evening Post and the five other titles now being discussed. When all is said and done, that would be a takeover of some size—000A3;7·8 million. Some of the comments that have been made will surely not apply to that, because if they do, it must be essentially a commercial consideration rather than one of editorial diversity.

Having said that, however, I turn to the question of the unions in Fleet Street, which are not concerned with commercial diversity, which means nothing at all to us. The fact that there is an anti-Socialist monopoly in the national newspapers concerns Labour Members very much, and we cannot see anything coming out of a reference of this kind to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. I believe that all of us on the Labour Benches are hostile to and critical of what goes on in Fleet Street and would therefore wish to analyse the whole matter in a very different way from what is involved in the debate.

The trade unions say that they are concerned about the situation in March. Above all else, they want continuity of production. Because 4,000 jobs are involved, they see that continuity of production as essential. They must therefore ask themselves what is the alternative to Rupert Murdoch's proposal. The conclusion must be that there is no viable alternative at the moment. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) shakes his head rather wearily. I understand that.

I was fascinated by the convincing argument that my hon. Friend put to the House. For two years I have been involved, in an informal way, in trying to seek out possibilities for the formation of a press co-operative that would be interested in launching a Labour Party national newspaper or a national weekly. [HON. MEMBERS: "How is it getting on?"] I shall tell hon. Members how we are getting on, as this applies to the merchant bankers who say that they will back such a journalists' consortium or co-operative. I, too, support that. Indeed, I suspect that almost 100 per cent. of Labour Members would agree with that and support my hon. Friends in backing the idea of a journalists' co-operative or consortium, which was almost suggested by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond). It is along the lines of his views that we would go. We also support the ideas developed by Le Monde. We should like to see that kind of situation in this country.

In Fleet Street there is a golden rule that applies above all else. The rule is that he who provides the gold makes the rules. In this case, the person who makes the rules also sets editorial policy. It is because we are Socialists that we feel excluded from that monopoly in Fleet Street and wish to get in. What was the Labour Party's experience when we talked informally to these people about how a press co-operative capable of producing a Socialist daily could be established? One or two people made the position clear to me—privately, of course, asking me not to identify them or what their conditions were.

I put those conditions to one of the print leaders in the TUC print committee when we were discussing a possible coming together of the Labour Party and the TUC for this purpose. Those people said that they would give every assistance to the Labour Party to produce a national daily. They also said that there were many sources from, which adequate capital could be obtained to sponsor such a project. However, the Labour Party and the trade unions would first have to agree to techniques such as simultaneous transmission and computerised typesetting with direct input, and so on.

They saw this as a marvellous opportunity to construct a huge Trojan horse right in the middle of Fleet Street, backed and supported by the Labour Party and the trade unions. They knew that the only way in which we could get a national paper was by agreeing to simultaneous transmission and by using or leasing the facilities of the vacated presses used for printing the evening papers, so that we could use them during the night on a synchronised basis in order to make it financially viable for us to carry out such an operation. At the end of the day, what would they have done? They would have opened the gates—in some cases the floodgates—to the introduction of modern technology. That is why they were prepared to finance ideas of that kind.

That situation does not apply now. There are suspicions that a journalists' consortium or co-operative of this kind would not get full backing from merchant bankers on some of those terms because of the question of viability and whether the journalists would be given complete editorial freedom on a co-operative basis. I invite hon. Members to ask themselves whether that is a likelihood, knowing the hard-faced and determined way in which press proprietors in this country have gone about establishing editorial policies in the past. There are therefore doubts about whether those editorial freedoms would be forthcoming.

The trade unions have considered the whole question of continuity of production. Their concern is about the situation in March. They want to get over that period, not for purely selfish reasons of seeing about severance terms or negotiating redundancy pay but for other, more basic reasons.