I want to put on record my thanks to Mr. Speaker for granting me this important debate. I am so happy to see so many hon. and right hon. Members in the Chamber, because this is an important issue. I shall try to be brief, but I have important issues to flag up regarding my area.
I am sure that all hon. and right hon. Members in the Chamber agree that a thriving local press is essential for a healthy democracy. We may not always agree with the views and opinions of the local paper serving our constituency, but most of us would regard local papers as representative of our communities and of their needs and aspirations. It is clear that this role is now under threat as never before.
Recently, the chief executive of one of my local newspapers described the situation as a "perfect storm" engulfing local press. The situation is now so severe that many titles may disappear unless corrective action is taken. So today, in this debate, I want to raise two important, simple matters. First, I will outline the pressures and threats facing local titles. Secondly, I will suggest some remedies that, with the co-operation of our Government, may provide some help for our local press to survive.
I shall say a few words on problems and causes. What has caused the current situation? First and foremost, it is the economic downturn. The headlines in the online magazine for the local press, "Hold the Front Page", illustrate the current situation effectively, and I shall provide a few quotations from a sample that I took last month: "Gutted reporters facing forced relocation"; "Yorkshire weekly closes—Ripon Gazette sister paper ceases publication"; "Reporters sacrifice pay to save colleagues—Journalists offer to reduce their hours to prevent redundancy"; "Brand new editor handed redundancy notice"; and "Daily newspaper to close after 25 years".
The area that I represent has not escaped these cutbacks. On Teesside, we are served by two excellent daily and evening local newspapers—The Northern Echo, based in Darlington, which is a regional paper, and the Evening Gazette, based in Middlesbrough. Both papers were founded in the heyday of Victorian provincial newspapers and have served our communities through war and peace, boom time and recession. I know that the reporters and editors on those papers are determined to continue doing just that for the coming century, but editors and managers on both titles have been forced to ask for redundancies and axe branch offices, which is a move that many journalists and I feel will affect story generation and sourcing for the worse.
The Northern Echo, has had to axe some of its sister "Advertiser" series and reduce editions, and the Middlesbrough EveningGazette has asked for voluntary editorial redundancies. The same problem is affecting local free sheets, one of which—the Cleveland Circuit— nearly ceased production, but the heroic work of the couple who own and manage the paper rescued it and it is now appearing again on a regular basis and will, I hope, do so for a long time to come.
The economic downturn has not led to a circulation drop. Indeed, many people want to know how their region is fighting back. However, over a longer period there has been a steady loss of readership that cannot be ignored. The British provincial press has seen a 51 per cent. drop in circulation since 1989. Coupled with that, there has been a significant drop in advertising. Display advertising from the local high street is down as the retail crunch bites. The staples of local advertising have been adversely affected as people withdraw from the property market, recruitment is put on hold and car sales stagnate. The internet has also hit sections of the readership, and fewer younger readers are staying loyal to what the bloggers call the dead-end press.
There are other pressures, too. For instance, there is a serious and as yet hardly unreported threat of big increases in the price of newsprint paper. Yet the need for good, honest local reportage is greater than ever. Look at the alternatives. Local and regional TV is going under the axe and ITV is, to all intents and purposes, decimating its regional coverage, which has led to an outcry in the House but has seemingly been rubber-stamped by Ofcom. Instead, we will be left with very broad coverage of regional news.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and congratulate him on securing this important debate. The regions of England are well represented in the Chamber, and I am sure that hon. Members support the comments that the hon. Gentleman is making.
The hon. Gentleman's point about the ITV cutbacks resonates strongly in Wales, a country where plurality is all the more important, whether it comes from the local press, the national press or ITV. Does the hon. Gentleman agree—he is making the point strongly—that it is welcome when, for instance, the BBC cuts its local website proposals, because it allows the local press the opportunity to diversify and put their local newspapers online?
My hon. Friend mentioned a moment or two ago the threat of the internet, but in many ways it is an opportunity. At the Society of Editors conference, it was suggested that local and regional newspapers should collaborate in the development of a search engine. That would not necessarily rival Google's 40 per cent. of advertising revenue, but something there is struggling to get out. My local paper, the Leicester Mercury, an excellent regional paper, has a website called "This is Leicestershire" that could do with development. A collaborative, alternative search engine might be helpful in maintaining the local and regional press, which we know is necessary in this country.
All I can say to my hon. Friend is that I am sure that there is a lot of innovation in different parts of the country. However, I am only highlighting what is happening in my area. All sorts of new ideas have been tried, but the local press is still facing difficulties. Well done to the Leicester Mercury for the progress that it has made, but not everybody can do the same thing. I know that opportunities are there, but I am trying to highlight what is happening on my patch, because it is highly serious.
In my area, regional news means coverage from southern Scotland down to Scarborough compressed into about 20 minutes' airtime. Radio is little better, excepting licence-fee-paid BBC local radio. Now most independent local radio news coverage outside the BBC is little more than national agency feed from the Press Association read out over the airwaves.
As hon. Members have mentioned, we must not forget the internet. The internet was—admittedly, some years ago—seen as a new and free open house for local news and comment, but most local blogs and comment sites have become a means for those who merely shout the loudest to express their views. So we have a paradox: people want local news, but increasingly the only in-depth and reliable coverage comes from our existing local titles, which are currently under threat.
The hon. Gentleman has spoken about other media, and I agree with him. Will he go so far as to agree with me that without the local printed press, local democracy would not be able to continue as it exists today, which would be a great loss for our country? Also, has he seen that early-day motions 502 and 503, which were tabled last night, follow that theme?
I have not seen the early-day motions, but that is the point that I am trying to make. In my area, some of the satellite offices of the Evening Gazette and The Northern Echo have been closed down. If offices close, stories that would have been picked up in the past will not be picked up. That is precisely why we need local media and local satellite offices, which help newspapers to keep stories local. I am glad that for once I agree with the hon. Gentleman.
I shall propose a couple of solutions, because it is no good my simply raising the issues. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister would like to hear some solutions and suggestions, and I hope that he will take them up. Can anything be done to prevent this dreadful situation from having devastating consequences for our local news? It is clear that there is a case for some form of rescue package for local papers that are struggling, but we have to ask what, in practical terms, can be done. Of course, the local press themselves must adapt to changing circumstances, as my hon. Friend David Taylor has said. It needs to move away from a lazy reliance on simply inputting press releases from the local councils, the nearest big football club or local businesses.
Indeed. The business managers must show that they can adapt, attract new advertising streams and become relevant to young readers. However, even the most hard-headed and innovative business managers will need help, if they are to come through this difficult time. That was the point that I was trying to make to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire.
I thank my hon. Friend for being so generous about giving way. Will he accept that there is a paradox, inasmuch as many of the main groups that own our well loved titles are extremely profitable? They may be less profitable as a result of the credit crunch, but they have been extremely profitable. However, the people who report the news—the reporters—are paid abysmally. If one asks those who work in the newspaper industry or even in the spoken media, one finds that what they earn is appalling. In addition, people on work experience are increasingly used as a substitute for fully employed people, and there is virtually no apprenticeship scheme left. If there was investment in good journalism, would that not be the answer to many of the prayers about keeping the industry going?
I have not asked my local journalists what they are paid, although I am sure that my hon. Friend is well informed. Now that he has raised the issue, I will ask them, and perhaps I will be able to deal with his comment.
There are small things that can be done, and perhaps a couple of big things. Let us take the small things first. The state, at both local and national level, is a big spender on advertising. Can we harness that advertising power, so that it helps both our local papers and our local communities? The Government recently announced a big cash boost to the work of the Department for Work and Pensions and the Jobcentre Plus network, so why not make part of that boost conditional on jobcentres booking space in the local papers in their area to advertise jobs and training courses? There is always a lag between new benefits or changes to benefits and take-up. Again, why not require the DWP to publicise such information in local papers, which have a much greater reach than any DWP information sheet or pamphlet?
The state—now that the state helping people is fashionable again—could help with training for journalists, too. We need to recognise that the newspaper industry has been a leader in the provision of in-service training and distance learning. That is provided by the National Council for the Training of Journalists—a body whose running costs are underwritten by the regional newspaper industry. However, I am told that that work needs to be enhanced to reflect multi-media convergence across the whole industry. That would help to deal with the consequences of the economic downturn, but it would mean higher costs. It is difficult to give precise figures for the cost of trainees in the first few years of their careers, but I am told by the Society of Editors that it could be £15,000 to £20,000. The pure training element need not be high, as newspapers increasingly take graduates who have paid for basic courses.
I come now to the big suggestions, and at this point two important words enter the debate—public money. We need to ask whether there is any reason why local newspapers should not compete with electronic broadcasters for financial support. Such newspapers provide the crucial public service of keeping a community informed about itself. I am well aware that this question is very sensitive in the local newspaper industry. Many editors and owners would once have dismissed it out of hand, because they were concerned that strings might be attached to a requirement to produce so-called public service content. Some would have seen that as a threat to editorial autonomy. However, I am not sure that they would reject such an approach at this time, especially if any public help came from external third parties, rather than from the state itself, and with the type of safeguards historically guaranteed to the BBC. There are precedents for that elsewhere.
In Norway, a state subsidy scheme for local newspapers has existed since 1969. The subsidies amount to between 2 and 3 per cent. of the total annual turnover of the press. Moreover, subsidies are directed particularly towards newspapers in difficult market positions. To be eligible for support, the newspaper must have a general news profile and an editor who adheres to the editor's code. That code, set up by the editors association and the publishers association, gives guarantees for the independence of the editors.
"Who is to say that Channel 4 (not to mention some aspects of the BBC output) is any more deserving of state funding than those responsible for the sometimes humdrum, but essential, task of keeping people informed about what their local councils, courts, police, health and fire services are up to?"
My approach would be based on these principles. The resource for such aid would come from the digital switchover surplus. As the Minister knows, a new auction of parts of the spectrum is coming up. That is to be managed by Ofcom, which has been charged with a duty to ensure that spectrum is not wasted. There is real money here, too. Previously, and famously, the Government did very well when they auctioned the third generation mobile phone spectrum licences, raising £21 billion for the Treasury. Now, with 16 national licences available for auction, the Government can expect to raise a fair amount of cash. Alan Rusbridger estimates that the cash from the ITV part of the equation could be £60 million, while the digital surplus element of the BBC licence fee could amount to a further £130 million. Why should local newspapers not be in with a shout for some of those revenues, rather than the money merely being shuffled around a limited pool of broadcasters?
Ofcom's most recent review of public service broadcasting sketches a number of scenarios for covering nations, regions and local communities. That includes a network of local and regional TV news providers as well as an idea for newspapers to combine with others to provide cross-platform content, including nightly TV bulletins. It also suggests that present competition restrictions could be reviewed, which would involve asking the Office of Fair Trading to assess whether local newspapers could be viewed simply as part of a wider media market. I argue that that pool should be managed by a third party rather than a Government Department. Ofcom is a possibility, or, if it does not have the machinery in place, regional development agencies in England and equivalent bodies in the devolved parts of the UK might be appropriate, because they are perceived to be value free and in those terms would be acceptable to editors.
There are issues about the balance of help that goes to small, local newspapers, as against help for titles owned by bigger media plcs. Of course, checks and balances would be needed to prevent the bigger and better-resourced media groups from hoovering up the pool before the smaller groups can get their applications finalised. As a further guarantee, any receipts from that pool must be seen to be wholly additional to internal media group funding and not used as a way to reduce corporate support.
I know that a lot of hon. Members want to take part in the debate, so in conclusion I have tried to highlight the problems and difficulties facing our local newspapers. I have made some far-reaching suggestions to the Minister, and I fear that if those ideas are not considered, we could be in serious danger of seeing the collapse of a large part of our unique local press. I am not trying to be dramatic, but that would certainly be disastrous. I know that the Minister has listened carefully to what I have said. Local newspapers are the lifeblood of our communities and part of our cultural heritage. They are absolutely essential for our areas and towns, and once lost they would be difficult to restore. Certainly in my area, TheNorthern Echo is an excellent regional newspaper and the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette has been serving our people for nearly 150 years. The Minister should take my suggestions very seriously, as I have expressed the concerns of people in my area and the spirit of what our local papers are saying and the worries that they have.
I congratulate Dr. Kumar on securing this important debate. For me, the importance of local media is about scrutinising Back Benchers and ensuring that we are accountable to our constituents. As the debate was starting, I received a text message from somebody in my constituency to say that there is now a campaign among the local media to find out how Shropshire MPs will be voting on the issue of MPs' expenses. Constituents are being asked not to vote for MPs who vote to withhold that information. I love that sort of scrutiny. It is essential to have a mechanism for local people to challenge their MPs and for the newspapers to do that vital job.
In Shrewsbury we have two excellent newspapers, the Shropshire Star and the Shrewsbury Chronicle. In the Lobby, there is a correspondent, Mr. John Hipwood, who works for the Shropshire Star and other newspapers. He is always in the Members' Lobby on Wednesday before Prime Minister's Question Time, asking us what we have done during the week, probing and scrutinising. I always look forward to my interactions with Mr. Hipwood in the Lobby, and it is important to have somebody in the House of Commons who scrutinises what we do and reports back to our constituents in an impartial way. We need more than MPs' propaganda through their newsletters to constituents.
I depend on my local newspapers, the Shrewsbury Chronicle and the Shropshire Star, for highlighting the outrageous way in which the Labour Government are treating Shropshire. They help me to raise issues that are pivotal to the people of Shrewsbury, such as the fact that every child in Shrewsbury receives £3,300 per annum for their education. In other parts of the country, particularly in Labour seats, that figure is £9,000 or £10,000—three times what my children in Shrewsbury get. As a result, village schools are under threat from closure.
The hon. Gentleman recognises that newspapers are impartial. Does he share equal enthusiasm for the way in which local papers lambasted the former Conservative Government when they tried to introduce a poll tax?
I look forward to next year, when the Conservative party will get into power, and I expect my local paper to be as critical in its scrutiny as it has been with the Labour Government.
Sometimes, there are controversial issues. Yesterday, I met the chief executive of Veolia to talk about an incinerator in my constituency—or a "waste to energy facility", as people like to call it nowadays. Such issues are complicated and emotional. People raise health issues, and it is the role of the local newspaper to try to crunch all the information and present it in the most effective way.
I agree with the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland, who secured the debate, about the need for Government to spend more money on local newspapers. I concur totally with the concerns that he raised about advertising spending having decreased significantly over the past six months. As a result, papers have, for example, had to cut the number of photographers whom they employ, because of the lack of advertising money. Obviously, I would put a caveat on that—I do not want any more Labour propaganda, which is spewed out all over the place in the media. However, it is good to put relevant campaigns through the local media.
The hon. Gentleman makes a lot of sense. Has he considered using his communications allowance to promote the take-up of pension credit, which I have done in my constituency? That is very helpful for a local community. On a more substantive subject, does he note any difference between the free press that is delivered weekly, which often addresses vulnerable people, and the paid-for, daily local press?
I concur with the hon. Gentleman. With the help of my local newspaper, I am initiating a conference in Shrewsbury, with experts, to interact with the senior citizens forum, which is 5,000 people strong, and help people understand more about pension credits. I know that many people in my county are not getting what they are entitled to.
In order to define the lexicon that the hon. Gentleman is using, are we to understand that all information that the Government produce and publicise, perhaps in relation to the Department for Work and Pensions, is propaganda, while anything that comes from Opposition parties is a clinical and objective assessment? Is that how he reads it?
It is important for Opposition MPs to highlight in a public way their concerns about Government spending, particularly in the run-up to a general election when there is a massive peak in such spending. It is a strange coincidence, but there seems to be a correlation between an imminent general election and the amount of Government spending. Of course it is our duty and responsibility to scrutinise whether all that information is totally unbiased, and it is very important that we do that job.
The remainder of my remarks will be brief, Mr. Cummings, because I know that you want to ensure that everybody speaks. The Shrewsbury Chronicle reports the views of its readers and the work of MPs, MEPs, and county, borough, town and parish councils. That is a very important point. We are talking about not only MPs but parish councils. I represent a rural constituency, and my local paper reports on rural, parish matters, which is very helpful especially for senior citizens living in isolated areas who might otherwise be unable to find out about various vital, local services, such as meals on wheels.
The local editor, Mr. Butterworth, has worked with political, business and health officials to improve the town. That has included campaigns to save the town swimming pool and to get signs put up for Shrewsbury on certain main roads—before I became an MP, I asked the Highways Agency how we could get a sign for Shrewsbury on the M6. It had a sign for Telford, but not for Shrewsbury. It said, "No chance; no, no, we're not going to do it!" The local newspaper ran a concerted campaign saying how important it was for Shrewsbury to be recognised as the county town of Shropshire and to have a sign on the M6. It initiated a cross-party campaign; now thanks to the Shrewsbury Chronicle, Shrewsbury finally has a sign on the M6 directing people to our beautiful, historic town—it is, of course, one of the most beautiful in the west midlands, and I highly recommend it for summer holidays.
The Shrewsbury Chronicle has also been involved in a campaign for flood defences. However, its most successful campaign was "Let's grow for it", which concerned Shrewsbury's bid for the Britain in Bloom competition. The town not only won the national title for the first time in 25 years, but won the European and world titles—yes, we hold the town in bloom world title! Not only are we beautiful, but we have lots of beautiful flowers.
In the past 12 years, the paper has raised more than £5 million for various charities, which has helped to build a new Macmillan cancer centre and a new diabetes unit at the Royal Shrewsbury hospital, and it has provided a new vehicle for the Red Cross to use in the county, a much-needed extension for the local hospice, a vehicle for a children's hospice and a new head and neck cancer unit at the Royal Shrewsbury hospital. The paper was recognised for its efforts when the editor, Mr. John Butterworth, was awarded the MBE for services to journalism and charity in last year's new year's honours list. The paper has also organised many competitions, such as hanging-basket, shop-window and tots of year contests—I entered my own beautiful daughter, Alexis, in the tots of the year competition. Regrettably, she did not win—
We shall not go into that. However, she is a very beautiful little girl.
In conclusion, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland has secured a very important debate, and I acknowledge the work that he has done to highlight the issue. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what tangible things he has planned to help our local media get through this difficult financial time.
This is a very difficult time for local newspapers; it is important not only for business, but for community cohesion, that they continue to serve communities, especially given that, as has been said, local government can communicate through local newspapers. We are fortunate in Croydon in having two strong newspapers, including the Croydon Advertiser, whichhas a long tradition of service to the town. For a great deal of time, a famous editor, Geoff Collard, managed to represent the town as well as report on it. These days, newspapers face some difficult challenges in addition to the economy and possible competition from the BBC. Croydon has much violent crime, on which the Croydon Advertiser rightly reports. However, it faces the difficulty of potentially killing the golden goose by having to report on such very difficult issues.
Although local newspapers play very important local roles, they are often part of significant media organisations. The Croydon Guardian is part of the Gannett group, which is a US media organisation, and the Croydon Advertiser is now part of the Daily Mail and General Trust stable of newspapers having been sold by Trinity Mirror. Interestingly, when it was sold, it was advised that the readership was 20,000, which is less than a third of what it was more than 15 years ago. That is a sign of the challenge facing local newspapers. Gannett has managed, through the Guardian series, to conglomerate a number of local newspapers, in the way indicated by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland. In some ways, that is very efficient. Indeed, in south London, as a local media organisation, the Guardian series employs more than 80 journalists and some 300 people working full-time on their 23 weekly newspapers.
In the world of the web, the Croydon Guardianhas been particularly successful, because its online media now reaches a monthly audience of more than 275,000 people. Thus the BBC's proposal to spend £68 million on the creation of 65 local news video sites represents a real challenge to those newspapers. Currently, the resource provided by the BBC for local reporting in Croydon is very modest—just one journalist, who is a lady called Evadney Campbell—and its approach is very responsible. However, it is understandable that private-sector providers feel threatened by the potential of being crushed by the size of the new investment.
Those unwelcome developments come at a time when local media need to counter several threats to their future. First, there are the structural, industry-wide changes as part of the media migration to the web. Secondly, Newsquest in south London has operated websites for it newspapers for more than 10 years, and it continues to innovate and invest in a way that provides for an exciting digital future. However, the severity of the current economic climate is having a real impact on its core revenues—most notably, on job and property advertising. Thirdly, in the mind of the Croydon Advertiser and the Croydon Guardian, there is Government-induced support for local government to withdraw advertising from independent providers through the establishment of local authority news channels and publications subsidised by public and third-party funds. Those two papers have been very critical of Croydon council over the significant increase in its advertising spend that does not go to local media, but is spent directly.
I am mindful that other Members wish to speak, so I shall only take a further two minutes. Local papers can play a real role in giving local communities a sense of identity. If local newspapers leave, much of that sense of identity will go. Many local newspapers campaign on social issues. I am impressed by the work done by journalists on both my local newspapers, such as Harry Miller, Neil Millard, Aline Nassif and Kirsty Whalley. Such people campaign on important issues that are vital to our community—for example, they deal with issues involving the families of victims of knife crime—but given the pressures and the limited pay and resources, it is very difficult for local journalists to pursue such interests.
Local newspapers must be responsible. I congratulate the approach taken by the Gannett newspaper group to remove sex trade adverts from its newspapers. That is something that has yet to be followed by the Croydon Advertiser and something that I urge it to do. The Croydon Guardian has been lobbying hard on green issues on behalf of south London business. Those are all important concerns.
Finally, on a more light-hearted note, I thank the Croydon Guardian for publicising the charity-giving, prize-giving process related to the competition for the best Christmas lights in Croydon, which was the very heart of Christmas light provision within the United Kingdom. Providing such publicity shows how newspapers can support their Members of Parliament and local communities.
This has not been a happy new year for my local press. The Ealing Times closed before Christmas. In early January, Trinity Mirror cut its editorial staff for London and the south-east from 96 to 80. For those papers covering my constituency, that means a cut of about a third. The situation is somewhat unusual in that Trinity Mirror owns both the remaining newspaper groups, the Gazette and Chronicle series. On
Effectively, one centre will cover areas including Surrey, Buckinghamshire, and north, south, east and west London. No semblance of a local newspaper or independence will remain after those cuts. That is very sad. Both the Fulham Chronicle and the Ealing Gazette have long histories going back over a century, and a loyal readership that has been sorely tried over the years. Despite their common ownership, they have remained fully independent and great rivals. The quality of journalism has never been better in the 25 years that I have been reading and contributing to them. There has been a combination of experienced editors and sub-editors, and enthusiastic journalists, such as Steve Still, Rebecca Kent and Michael Russell on the Gazette and Tom Shaw and Saffron Pineger on the Chronicle. I make no criticism of them at all. What is said about the pay levels for local journalists is absolutely right. Staff turnover is high because people cannot afford to live on the salaries that they are paid.
Although it is right to say that the recession and unfair competition are the reason for the decline of the local press, the seeds were sown some time ago. The fact that Trinity Mirror and other publishers put their shareholders before their journalists and readers means that when one picks up a local paper, it no longer is that. There are a couple of pages of local news, and then one suddenly finds oneself into the next borough or county in what is effectively syndicated and generalised news. For that reason, sales inevitably go down, and the decline becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As one or two of my hon. Friends have said, investment is the answer to selling more papers and producing a better product. The successful newspapers that remain in London are the ones that contain genuinely local news that people wish to read.
I also want to draw attention to the growth of the yellow press or, as in this case, the yellow, blue and red press. Under the guise of producing information, all local authorities and parties publish what is effectively political propaganda to keep the ruling party in power. I am not talking about the traditional council publications—they are dire in the extreme—that contain information about the mayor's engagements and are produced by one hard-pressed information officer. Probably the only thing on which I agree with Boris Johnson is getting rid of The Londoner. He did that because it was absolutely useless.
Touché. I recognise that. It has to be said that Boris Johnson did not need The Londoner because the Evening Standard is the house journal of the Conservative party and will print whatever he says in any event. However, I am not talking about such publications, but the much more sophisticated type of publication that replicates what local newspapers used to do and pretends to be a local newspaper that imparts impartial news. Several local authorities in London are now doing that, including Hammersmith and Fulham.
Why is that the wrong thing to do? First, it provides desperately unfair competition. Local authorities have huge resources with which to pay the hidden costs. They pay two or three times the amount to the journalist, and their terms and conditions are marvellous compared with those of the local press. All the costs of distribution, overheads and so forth are hidden. We are talking about hundreds, if not millions, of pounds of expenditure on promotional activity of such a kind. That is bad.
In an aggressive marketing campaign, Hammersmith and Fulham council can say, "Your local press sells 3,000 copies a week, we can deliver 80,000 copies free through your door, and we will give free personal ads and we will undercut any of the advertising rates." Of course, that will lead to the demise of the local press. One may say that that is sad, but it is the way of the world.
I end on the point with which my hon. Friend Dr. Kumar started: local democracy depends on a local press. If there is no scrutiny by local newspapers, as is the case in many parts of London, no one is keeping an eye on what is going on in the town hall, and that leads to abuse and corruption.
Last summer, the editor of the council newspaper wrote a very insulting article in the UK Press Gazette about the local newspapers, and he defended his paper by saying that it was not propaganda and that
"you won't find many pictures of councillors in our paper."
The UK Press Gazette correspondent counted 17 photographs of councillors in the last edition. A Labour councillor counted, in total, 150 photographs of Tory councillors before they found one of a Labour councillor. That is the sort of imbalance that we are talking about. That example may seem trivial, but we also see the promotion of unpopular council policies, attacks on anybody who is in an opposition role, whether it is the EU, another tier of Government or the Government themselves, and—this is perhaps the most insidious angle—no criticism whatsoever of the local council however unpopular its policies.
All of us who have been in local government know how mad people can feel when they have been criticised by the local press for making a mistake, but that is the price of public office. If the only source of local information in an area is a publication that only ever presents the local authority in a good light and suppresses anything that is counter to that, then that is a very serious attack on local democracy and one I ask the Government to consider.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the council newspaper to which he referred was started by the previous council, which was a Labour council, and despite the propaganda in that local paper, it failed to keep in office a woeful Labour council that had racked up the council tax?
The hon. Gentleman does not do himself any credit. Given his tone of voice, he could well get a job working for the local paper that my Conservative council produces. That is absolutely not the case. I do not want to be hypocritical about the matter. I have run a local authority, and local authorities produce publications. I am not saying that that is necessarily a bad idea, but it must be clear who is producing them and from where their information and views are coming. I am talking about a piece of subterfuge that prevents the public from knowing the truth in a locality. The hon. Gentleman would do well to follow the example of Boris Johnson rather than the insidious example that I have given. If that is the view of the Conservative Front Bench, that is to be regretted.
I am sorry that that intervention has caused me to take so much time. This is a serious problem, which is growing partly because of the recession, but principally because of the actions of some local authorities. At the moment they are mainly Conservative and Liberal Democrat, but I make the point against any local authority that wishes to subvert democracy in such a way.
I congratulate Dr. Kumar on securing this debate. He was right to say that newspapers are the lifeblood of our local communities. They have an important role, because they provide a source of local news and advertising that is not replicated anywhere else, and include such things as court reports, reports of council meetings, and the achievements of local people, schools and groups. Also, as all hon. Members will know, they are an important medium by which to get our message across to our constituents, and also by which our constituents hold us to account.
Local newspapers are also important when it comes to holding Governments to account. I can speak from both sides of the fence, because as well as being in Opposition here and in the Scottish Parliament now, for eight years my party was in power in the Scottish Parliament, when local newspapers held us to account. It can be uncomfortable, but there is an important role for local newspapers in our democracy.
Local letters pages are an important source of local debate. As other hon. Members have said, importantly, local newspapers run campaigns on behalf of their local communities. They are often champions of local communities on a range of issues, which the internet and video media would never replicate. Local newspapers are embracing new technology, and nearly all have web pages these days, but running campaigns and providing information cannot be replicated by the internet.
Newspapers are socially inclusive. The price is still relatively low, and they are placed in local libraries, so people who perhaps do not have access computers can go to their local newspapers and read the paper for nothing.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the people least likely to be able to access other forms of media or the internet, such as the elderly, are completely reliant on local newspapers?
My hon. Friend makes an important point: newspapers are very important for the elderly.
What can the Government do to help? They could do a lot by advertising—I am talking about public information, not propaganda. For example, they could advertise advice on where to apply for benefits such as pension credit, healthy living campaigns, notices of road closures, and consultations on planning applications and traffic management scheme proposals. Such things have got to be advertised in the local press. Simply putting planning applications, and traffic management and parking proposals, on the council's website is not good enough.
In the recession, there will be pressures on the public sector to cut back in all areas, and it could be tempting to cut back on advertising. However, I would urge the Government—they could encourage the whole public sector to do likewise—not to cut back on advertising in the local press. That is an important means by which the public sector can get its message across and engage with local people, and it is important for the survival of local newspapers, which are heavily dependent on advertising. Clearly, the recession has meant that commercial advertising is decreasing, so public sector advertising is important.
My message to the Government and the whole public sector is this: promote the local press, ensure that it is protected from unfair competition, and use it for advertising and consultations. Local communities and our democracy need a free, independent and vibrant local press.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr. Kumar on securing this important and timely debate. Regional and local papers are facing exceptionally hard times. I intend to talk about York's local paper, The Press, but it is clear from other hon. Members' contributions that the problem affects local and regional papers the length and breadth of the country.
Last summer, The Press made 23 redundancies, including 4 journalists, which was a cut of more than 10 per cent. of the work force. Two years before that, nine journalists were made redundant. This month, The Press announced that it will no longer print in York and that, instead, it will print the paper some 40 miles away in Bradford. All the printers' jobs at York will go, although I hope that some of them will be able to transfer to Bradford—that is currently under negotiation between the management and the trade unions. This month, the posts of editor and managing director were combined, in a new post of managing editor.
At one time, The Press had a Lobby correspondent here in Parliament. I am deeply envious of the situation in Shropshire where such a post has been maintained. I know, Mr. Cummings, that we are not supposed to pass comment on who is listening to our debate, but one only has to look at the Press Gallery to see how lean the regional media's presence is at Parliament.
I do not want to cover ground that colleagues have covered, but the local and regional press face two enormous challenges: the economic downturn and the pressures of technological change. Twenty-seven years ago, when I ran a small, independent television production company that made programmes for Channel 4, or whoever would buy them, I introduced, for the first time in television, a telephone phone-in. I dread to think where that has led, and I am horrified to see rigged telephone polls and premium-rate calls being used to fleece viewers. Twenty-three years ago, when I was first selected as a Labour party candidate in York, The Press was printed by letter press by the hot metal process, but moved to offset litho and bought the new presses in its new works in Walmgate, which are sadly going to be scrapped, as I said.
Technology will not stop, and its advance cannot be wished away. I believe that we will still have printed newspapers in 20 years, but that there will be a rather different content. Electronic media by that time will be more user friendly and better for distributing news, but I believe that the Government need to support local printed newspapers through the transition. For instance, the state could, appropriately, invest in training.
I will not because we have limited time.
I have spoken to local journalists in York and the regional management of Newsquest. Of course, there is no appetite for public subsidy, but the company would welcome more Government and local government advertising, as my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland said. There are some legal requirements on public authorities to advertise things such as planning applications, road closures, other legal notices and so on, but I should like the Government, local authorities and public bodies such as health trusts to advertise more jobs in local papers. That could be made a statutory responsibility. If it was, regulation of charging regimes would be necessary, because many local papers have monopolies as paid-for printed papers in an area, but that could be resolved by negotiation between the Newspaper Society and the Government.
My hon. Friend Mr. Slaughter said that local authorities, health trusts and other organisations that publish their own reports should use local papers to print supplements instead of producing parallel publications. Rather than issue our own parliamentary reports once a year, which are paid for by the communication allowance, MPs could do something similar.
There needs to be a public debate about the scope for public funding for independent, private sector media. As I said, I see no problem with greater public sector advertising or with support for training. Public ownership of independent local papers would, I think, be wholly unacceptable—Pravda and Izvestia did not live up to the English translations of their titles, "Truth" and "News", so public ownership is out. However, a case can be made for some degree of cross-subsidisation. When I produced programmes for Channel 4 in the 1980s, hundreds of millions of pounds of Channel 4's revenue came from a levy on the ITV companies, and the fact that the Broadcasting Act 1980 guaranteed most of Channel 4's revenue—it was my most important customer—did not in any way undermine my editorial freedom, or that of Channel 4.
My programmes were pretty political. In 1983, shortly after the Live Aid concert, one programme made the case that famine in east Africa was not just bad luck or an act of God, but the result of climate change brought about by human behaviour. That is now a commonplace, but more than 20 years ago it was seen as a dangerous, left-wing idea. I made a programme about miners' wives at Bentley colliery during the miners' strike, documenting how they fought back by writing and publishing poetry.