Local and Regional News

Part of Legislative Reform – in the House of Commons at 2:45 pm on 19th March 2009.

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Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport 2:45 pm, 19th March 2009

We have already heard about the crisis in the local and regional news—news that is trusted and valued by our constituents, and, as the Minister said, lies at the heart of the democratic process. That crisis has been brought on by the current economic difficulties and the resulting reduction in advertising spend—a reduced advertising spend that has to be spread ever more thinly as we increase the number of outlets, not least with the growth of online content. It is interesting to note that some analysts suggest that Google now has more UK advertising revenue than ITV.

Local and regional news provision comes, of course, from television, radio, newspapers and increasingly, as I said, online. Figures suggest that 24 per cent. of young people now get their news predominantly from online sources. We have a real crisis in all four of those outlets, and it has led to something like 2,000 job losses in the last 12 months.

In television ITV, along with the BBC, is one of the key providers of regional news, yet we have seen its recently announced £2.73 billion pre-tax loss for the last financial year, due largely to a downturn in advertising revenue. We have also seen the number of regions for regional broadcasting brought down from the original 17 to nine, which I think amounts to a real loss for our constituents. In Bath, for example, my constituents will now get their local news from as far away as Penzance—and I have to say that, frankly, they are about as interested in that as they are in news from Bolton, which is the same distance away from Bath.

Commercial radio, too, is facing huge problems. We know that five local stations have been forced to close in the last 12 months, and RadioCentre predicts that between 30 and 50 stations are in imminent danger of closing. There have also been a number of mergers, which have undermined the value to local communities.

As many people have reported in recent debates, newspapers have fared no better, with 60 titles closed in the last 12 months and a 14 per cent. reduction in the work force. Many of our valued daily newspapers, such as the excellent B ath Chronicle, have had to become weekly rather than daily publications. I am sure that all Members speaking in this debate will be keen to sign, if they have not already done so, early-day motion 916, offering support for local journalism, and also early-day motion 1044, which reports the concern of many of us about the recent decision of the Guardian Media Group to reduce the number of offices serving local communities in the Greater Manchester area. Even online provision has been affected.

The question, then, is: what can be done? We are in a difficult position, midway between the preliminary report by Lord Carter on "Digital Britain" and the final result, which is due out in the early summer. Many of us were disappointed that we did not get more detail in the preliminary report, but it is worth placing on record my belief that it is possible to move forward in a number of areas.

In the case of television, it is clear that major structural changes are needed. I do not want to see the BBC's licence fee being top-sliced and I do not want to see the crazy Conservative proposal to freeze the licence fee implemented. If the best they can offer the British people is a £3 per household cut as their solution to the current economic crisis, that is a bit bizarre. It is particularly bizarre to do that at a time when Mr. Vaizey claims that he welcomes the conversations, discussions and agreements going on between the BBC and ITV to share resources and facilities that will help ITV through its difficulties.

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