Local Press

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:40 am on 20th January 2009.

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Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush 11:40 am, 20th January 2009

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.