Local Press

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 20th January 2009.

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Photo of Ashok Kumar Ashok Kumar Labour, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland 11:00 am, 20th January 2009

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.

I have no problem with state help. After all, as Alan Rusbridger said in The Guardian recently:

"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.