I, too, support the amendment tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Shipley and Lord Storey. I declare an interest. As I am sure Members of your Lordships’ House may know, I was leader of Norwich City Council, but also I was a member of the Press Council for a number of years under Louis Blom-Cooper. So I come at this from both ends.
At no stage in my time on the Press Council do I recall receiving a complaint about the regional press because it was accountable to its local community for everything from advertisements to news, from fetes to weddings, funerals, baptisms and the like. All the complaints that were sensitive or difficult were about the national press, which was essentially promiscuous in the 19th century sense of the term as it was not accountable to a readership, which fluctuated from day to day and of which it had no intimate knowledge. So the regional press served its community in a way that the national press did not, and served it faithfully.
When I was leader of Norwich council an issue started boiling up while I was in Australia. The Eastern Daily Press would not run with the story until it had contacted me in Australia to get a countervailing view. That would have been unthinkable with the national press. That is why the amendment is so important. If we do not support the amendment and encourage the regional press to scrutinise mayoral and other meetings, as it does meetings under the existing local government structure, I fear that reportage of local government, much like reportage of court proceedings, will die on the vine. Twenty years ago we could expect our court proceedings, local council meetings and some of the important committee meetings to be reported. The press would expect to be briefed on them in advance. What we get now—in national newspapers as well—is sketches rather than reports of debates.
Political coverage is shrinking in this country because it is not regarded as sufficiently amusing for people with only 30 seconds’ attention span. The regional press has held on, trying to make both Westminster and local authorities accountable and transparent to the members of their community, to whom it also feels accountable.
At the moment, the leader of a local authority will be monitored by his or her group, the opposition or the press and also by the chambers of commerce and local pressure groups and lobby groups such as the local branch of Age UK, the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society or whatever, for example, on access to buildings. There must be stringent protection of the right of access of the press. We must not accept one person’s view of what counts as confidential or private, or what he or she would rather was not made public because it might be faintly awkward or embarrassing. Without that protection, I fear that the regional press will continue to opt out of the coverage that we absolutely need if we are to grow a healthy democracy in our localities.