Local and Regional Newspapers

– in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 15th July 2009.

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Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Shadow Minister (Innovation, Universities and Skills), Shadow Minister (Wales) 2:30 pm, 15th July 2009

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton. I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the plight of local and regional newspapers in a Welsh, if not Ceredigion context, but more generally as well.

The starting point for my interest in the matter was a visit a few months ago to the office of one of our local newspapers, the Cardigan and Tivyside Advertiser, which is an immensely well-respected local weekly paper. I was surprised to find that the total staff complement for the newspaper was just five people, with only two journalists-half of what there were two years ago. The paper covers the town of Cardigan, the lower Teifi valley and north Pembrokeshire-a large geographical area. Sadly, it is now characterised by fewer news stories and more advertising features, or attempts to secure them, and less real news that matters to people, to help retain sales.

The paper faces a downward spiral: sales are hard to win back, and jobs are subsequently put at risk. To use a butchery analogy of trimming the meat, I am afraid that it has been a case not only of trimming the fat; the reality is that the muscle of the newspaper industry is being trimmed fatally.

There is a similar story on a bigger scale with Ceredigion's other weekly newspaper, the Cambrian News, which has a readership of 68,000 people and covers a vast area. There are two editions, although that represents a reduction, covering Ceredigion, Machynlleth and Llanidloes in the constituency of my hon. Friend Lembit Öpik, Merioneth, and the Dwyfor towns of Porthmadog, Pwllheli, and Criccieth in the constituency of Hywel Williams. Next year, that paper will celebrate its 150th birthday, but it, too, faces the challenge of reduced advertising and the loss of editions, jobs and its capacity to hold local politicians and public agencies to account. That picture is replicated across the United Kingdom.

I fear that a diminished local press diminishes the principles of community and democracy. My local journalists tell me that it is simply impossible for them to attend, in the way that they used to, sufficient meetings of community and town councils, the county council cabinet or its planning and scrutiny committees, the community health councils, the local health board or the police authority. Disseminating the work of those bodies has been an essential role of the local press.

Furthermore, more controversially perhaps, the local press is unable to launch detailed investigations. Stories are left untouched, and potential stories are not revealed. In the spirit of this debate, I shall stick to local matters such as the proposed industrial development north of the town of Cardigan, ParcAberporth, which swallowed vast sums of public money but has yet to produce a fraction of the jobs that were promised. Under normal circumstances, that issue would have been pursued by the press, but the press is without the resources to delve, to question elected Members and to challenge our role here. Stories are missed and local issues are not raised or aired. That is mitigated only in part by a vociferous letters page, to which I have no doubt we have all been subjected in the past. A local press covering issues within the locality that the nationals would not touch is an essential part of our democratic process.

I am flattered that so many hon. Members have come to this debate. They represent diverse parts of the country. As someone who represents a scattered rural constituency with 174 villages, I believe that the community role of newspapers is critical. Pictures of local people enjoying themselves at the Borth carnival or the winners of the Aberystwyth and district agricultural show, reports from the women's institute, the local sports page, items about Master Evans being picked for the under-11s or Mr. and Mrs. Davies's golden wedding anniversary might be crass parish-pump stuff to some people, but it is important, cohesive community information.

Both our local papers have served the Welsh and English-speaking communities with distinction. The Welsh medium articles from local volunteer correspondents are important. They cover significant cultural events: the Urdd, local eisteddfodau and cymanfa ganu-the singing festivals-and Dydd Dewi Sant, or Saint David's day. It is important that pre-eminence is given to the Welsh language in Ceredigion. But there are also the big campaigning issues.

The Tivysidepromoted the restoration of Cardigan castle, which was the scene of Wales's first eisteddfod, and the campaign for a new hospital. Cambrian News campaigned against compulsory purchase orders in Aberystwyth town centre, for retaining key services and meals on wheels and against industrial scallop dredging in our precious Cardigan bay. Local newspapers galvanise opinion, sometimes working more effectively as campaigners than we do. Sometimes they work in concert with politicians, sometimes against, but they promote community interest, action and engagement. They are still a cherished local resource and are successful because they are local to people.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

My hon. Friend makes a prescient observation on campaigning. Is he aware of the fact that, as a direct result of the work of the County Times, which is surely one of the finest newspapers in the western world, I submitted a petition regarding concerns about wind farm transportation through my constituency, and that the County Times, working with politicians in the Welshpool area, was directly responsible for raising the issue, exactly as my hon. Friend rightly says?

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Shadow Minister (Innovation, Universities and Skills), Shadow Minister (Wales)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that observation. I emphasise the case that politicians work in concert with their local newspapers, and I note that County Times journalists have been spotted in these parts today. No doubt, they are lurking somewhere in the Gallery.

Local news for local communities is important, but the newspapers are struggling because of the range of news media that is available to people. That was brought to our attention in the Scottish context by the Scottish Affairs Committee's recent report, and also in Wales by the Welsh Assembly's broadcasting sub-committee, which discussed the challenges resulting from the increasingly diverse ways in which members of the public can access news and current affairs.

I should like to discuss some of the problems: first, the undeniable decline in advertising revenue and the effects of the recession, although there were the seeds of decline even before the latest recession. Between 2007 and 2008, advertising in newspapers fell by 12 per cent., according to the Advertising Association. Advertising across the board dropped by 3.9 per cent., yet advertising on the internet increased by 17 per cent. Recently, Gannett, the US-based parent company of Newsquest, revealed a 45 per cent. fall in advertising year on year, between January and March 2009, with the resultant loss of 11 local newspapers in north-west England. I shall not stray further into England, but these messages need to be heeded across the UK.

Regional publications have been restructured in the light of the recession. In January, Trinity Mirror merged Media Wales with its north-west and north Wales divisions. Seventy-eight jobs were lost, including 10 in Wales-again, there is a loss of local titles and local offices. The growing characteristic of such restructuring is centralisation, with more journalists working from one location. The journalists for the Western Mail, the South Wales Echo and Wales on Sunday are now based in one centralised newsroom in Cardiff. Twenty years ago, the tentacles of the Western Mail reached out with correspondents right across the length and breadth of Wales. We had a correspondent in my town of Aberystwyth, but that time is long since gone.

The news groups will rightly assert that, beyond the sentimentality of local titles, they are businesses and must fit in with models of profitability, but there is an added, crucial imperative in Wales: a different political culture post-devolution of which the electorate needs to be informed. Regional newspapers therefore are a tool for political and constitutional engagement. And yet one has to look very hard to find news of Welsh politics.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

Has the hon. Gentleman considered using his communication allowance-since he is talking about political engagement-in a proper, appropriate way to help his local newspapers and his constituents? For instance, he could take a full-page ad to promote take-up for Warm Front before winter comes around or he could promote the take-up of the pensioners' credit, because two in five of our pensioners do not take it and lose £1,470 as a result. So he could use his communication allowance positively to help his community, and that would not do his local newspapers any harm, either.

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Shadow Minister (Innovation, Universities and Skills), Shadow Minister (Wales)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those suggestions, some of which I shall take back to Wales with me and some I am using already. For example, adverts for my surgeries appear regularly in the local papers. Those surgeries are costly, but an important principle is involved none the less. I will mention that in connection with local authorities and other public agencies in a little while.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Trinity Mirror group, which has taken a hard-nosed attitude towards local newspapers and is about to close nine papers in the midlands, including the Burton Trader, the Ashby Trader and Echo and the Coalville Echo, which, sadly, ceases publication next week. Can we not develop the point raised by Bob Spink? Should we not expect local authorities, public agencies and the Government to do far more information take-up advertising in local media that are under threat? Is not the message that must come from today's debate, "Let's do it now, before they disappear."?

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Shadow Minister (Innovation, Universities and Skills), Shadow Minister (Wales)

I concur. I will return to that point later. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that this is urgent, because, as he said, local titles are going to the wall now.

The lack of Welsh stories in the national news media is serious for those hon. Members who represent Welsh constituencies and explains why we attach great importance to the nearest things that we have to a national newspaper-The Western Mail in the south of Wales and the Daily Post in the north.

I now come to the point raised by the hon. Members for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) and for Castle Point (Bob Spink) on the emergence of local council publications, as distinct from advertisements in local newspapers. Although those papers contain local news, they are by their nature not independent and are competing with the commercial press, arguably speeding the decline of the local press and thereby reducing scrutiny of local authorities.

Photo of Lorely Burt Lorely Burt Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party

Is my hon. Friend aware that Birmingham city council is not only issuing its own newspaper, but that that paper is carrying advertising, therefore robbing local newspapers, such as TheBirmingham Post, the Birmingham Evening Mail and the Express & Star, of important advertising revenue?

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Shadow Minister (Innovation, Universities and Skills), Shadow Minister (Wales)

I shall append to what my hon. Friend said the phrase, "thereby threatening and jeopardising the future of those newspapers." The Local Government Association has asserted that no threat is posed and that three fifths of all council magazines contain no advertising at all or less than 10 per cent.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

The hon. Gentleman is proposing to distort market forces to provide a direct or indirect subsidy to local papers. Local papers are not known for their independent political view; many of them are outrageously biased politically. Is it sensible to ask for public funds before we can impose on local papers the same duty of political balance that we insist on from the broadcasting media?

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Shadow Minister (Innovation, Universities and Skills), Shadow Minister (Wales)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that observation. I will take a generalist view in the debate, but I will assert that we stand to lose rather more from the decimation of the local newspaper industry as we know it.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

I have some sympathy with the point made by Paul Flynn. I have been in touch with a number of my local newspapers, many of which cover not just Westminster but other central London boroughs, and the message that has come through loud and clear is that they worry intensely about council-run newspapers effectively stepping in their way. I can see that that is quite an issue. But is not the independence that Mark Williams mentioned largely illusory in many parts of the country, not least because local newspapers rely on local authority advertising, particularly recruitment advertising? Is not that one reason why there is less independence than in the broadcasting world?

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Shadow Minister (Innovation, Universities and Skills), Shadow Minister (Wales)

That point was mentioned in the report by the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, which hon. Members will have read.

Local councils should be encouraged to take out longer advertising contracts, to run the campaigns that were mentioned earlier and to sponsor local party initiatives. There are precedents for that in Wales, with county councils sponsoring the Papur Bro-the network of Welsh language community newspapers across much of Wales. I encourage hon. Members to look at the Scottish Affairs Committee report and the one from Wales, which urges the Assembly to review its job-advertising strategy.

I take hon. Members' points about the independence of newspapers, but I also take seriously the threat to their existence, because their absence would ultimately threaten and have a detrimental effect on our democracy.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush

The hon. Gentleman has struck a raw nerve on the point about local authorities. Whatever the threat from withholding advertising, the threat from setting up a rival publication is real in many areas. Has the hon. Gentleman seen the LGA brief-a self-serving, disingenuous document-which said that there was no threat whatsoever from local government newspapers, whereas we know that they are parasites and stiflers of local newspapers?

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Shadow Minister (Innovation, Universities and Skills), Shadow Minister (Wales)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that. I had a similar reaction to the hon. Gentleman's on reading the LGA brief, although I will not use the poetic language that he uses. None the less, he makes a strong point about the threat to our local papers.

I want to celebrate the local press. It can be immensely irritating to us, but it undertakes a critical public service. When we talk about the press, as the National Union of Journalists reminds us, we are talking about individuals with mortgages, anxieties about jobs and many of the stresses that have been experienced by some of us, as hon. Members, in recent weeks. We need to talk about support for the journalistic community and upskilling journalistic skills, as our committee in the National Assembly recommended.

I do not want to be dismissed as some kind of luddite. We need to address the perception of daily newspapers publishing yesterday's news tomorrow. That is the challenge. I will continue to campaign for the nearest that we can get to universal broadband across my area. That is not an easy task in rural Wales. I am a great enthusiast for the universal service obligation, with all that it entails, and much of what the "Digital Britain" report contains. According to Ofcom, 90 per cent. of people in our communities consume some form of local media; yet since the 1970s, newspaper circulations have been declining by 2 per cent. per year, and recently, local television and radio audiences have been declining as well. Among recent broadband adopters, 10 per cent. read fewer local newspapers and one in seven listens to less radio. For me, in the spirit of plurality, it is about choice overall and about choice of media. Many lack that choice, as local newspapers are diminishing.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again; he is generous. He has talked about new digital media. Let us be honest and say that we-all hon. Members in this Chamber-are unusual, being relatively middle-aged and big consumers of newspapers. The generation younger than us will barely look at a newspaper at all, and they regard digital media as the focus of attention for particular local stories. Although in central London we have some good online offerings from local newspapers, the big elephant in the room is that they face competition from the BBC, which benefits from a £3.6 billion annual subsidy, building up an impressive, active and interactive media operation. But that is the real problem. The next generation, who will not necessarily consume their newspapers in anything other than a digital form, is now finding that there is no point going online to see what the local newspaper has to say and will find quite effective local news through the BBC online offering, which has the benefit of significant public endorsement and funding.

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Shadow Minister (Innovation, Universities and Skills), Shadow Minister (Wales)

On the one hand, I share the hon. Gentleman's optimism about the new technologies, but on the other I am concerned, because we must seek a balance between those two things. I am reticent to say that the younger generation is not interested in local papers, and that is not my experience in my constituency. We must combine new and traditional technologies, and I shall come to that later.

Technological changes have threatened how news is consumed, and the internet is heralded as the natural successor to the printed word with the benefits of immediacy and interaction. All news groups have recognised that, and have reflected it in developing online newspapers. Trinity Mirror reckons that it still receives 90 per cent. of its income from the printed word, but 10 per cent. comes from digital. The balance is shifting, and that presents challenges to news groups, but advertising revenue on the internet is limited.

A critical theme for the industry is the rules on cross-media ownership. The NUJ's evidence to the Welsh Assembly broadcasting sub-committee highlighted the dangers of an homogenised news service, but moved in the direction of relaxing competition laws to alleviate concern about disappearing and vulnerable titles. The recommendations following its investigations have been slightly usurped by recent announcements, but it urged that cross-media rules be relaxed to allow exploration of new partnerships and that there should be accompanying measures to protect the plurality of local media. In a Welsh context, the Assembly said that we should consider means of supporting English language journalism, including the upskilling of journalists to meet the challenges of online technology.

I hope that the Welsh Assembly Government and local authorities throughout Britain will be minded to take a more strategic view of advertising to ensure that relevant titles are not overlooked. Implicit in that is the suggestion that an advertising strategy from local authorities, the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament, the UK Government and so on must be communicated to the papers. In a spirit of Celtic solidarity, I commend the conclusions of the Scottish Affairs Committee whose report said that

"under pressure from the current economic climate, diminishing advertising, and the explosion of alternative news and information sources in electronic format, the industry has been forced to dramatically restructure itself, often at great cost to its dedicated and knowledgeable staff."

I could so easily have inserted "Wales" instead of "Scotland" in that text.

It is vital that the Welsh Assembly and UK Governments ensure that the Welsh newspaper industry is not made unviable because of overbearing competition from public sector advertising and that the industry can create sustainable business models through consolidation and mergers, subject to appropriate safeguards, while maintaining high quality, varied and independent journalism that reflects the Welsh identity. One could easily have inserted "Wales" for "Scotland" in that conclusion of the Scottish Affairs Committee report, and indeed I have done just that. It fits the bill perfectly.

More recently, however, we have had the results of the Office of Fair Trading's inquiry that accompanied the "Digital Britain" report, which recognised the problems facing local and regional newspapers and did not go down the route of legislation to change the rules governing media mergers. The Minister is new to his post, but he is mastering his brief. Will he assure me about the extent to which that will satisfy the concerns of some of us who believe that necessary mergers between different media organisations is one way of alleviating the great concern in our communities about the fate of local newspapers?

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West 2:54 pm, 15th July 2009

I congratulate Mark Williams on securing this debate, and I agree with the main thrust of his argument. I am sure that the world would be a poorer place without a healthy Tivy-Side Advertiser in Cardigan, and that his constituents would be confused and bereft without the latest bulletin on the state of cockle-dredging and scallop-dredging in Cardigan bay. Such matters are important locally.

I am speaking today to share my long-standing view about how to reform society and improve our democracy. In my constituency in 1839, 20 Chartists were shot during their campaign for a charter. A few years ago, I drew up a charter for the 21st century. One element was to impose on our media a duty of balance in the same way as we do on broadcasters. That is crucial because the media generally-not just the local media, but the national media-have an outrageous right-wing bias. If they ask the country for the same sort of subsidies that the broadcasters receive, particularly the BBC, that responsibility must go with those subsidies. We can all think of examples from our local and national press of how they behave.

A neighbouring MP complained to the editor of a local newspaper that of the 14 press releases that he sent in this year, none was published. That MP is a former editor of a newspaper, and does not send in vacuous press releases. Newspapers are often empty of political news-they do not consider it worth reporting-or they are heavily biased, and rarely towards the left, the radical or the progressive side of politics.

We must consider seriously the other influences on advertising. Another newspaper said openly that it would not write fair reports on the Welsh Assembly, but attack it because it did not provide enough advertising when it advertised jobs. That is an example of the newspapers' editorial line depending on advertising. We are in dangerous waters if we are talking about intervention. There is even a vested interest in respect of MPs. Some of us use local papers and our communication allowances. Does that mean that newspapers are more disposed to us? If they were, that would be wrong. They should take the same unbiased line that they take on other issues. We are all aware of a softening of criticism. How newspapers treated the recent reports of our immaculate expenses might have been influenced by the fact that MP A advertises in the paper, and MP B does not.

Many hon. Members want to speak, so I shall be brief. My main point is that I support the argument that local papers are valuable. They are immensely important in communications and in keeping communities together. In Welsh-speaking areas they are vital. However, we all know that the news that is trusted comes via broadcasters, not from local or national papers.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

My hon. Friend is a renowned blogger who is widely read by many people in the political sphere. Does he agree that one way in which local newspapers have responded to their problems in recent years has accelerated the difficulties? They have failed to invest, to train their staff, and to pay and recruit decent staff, with the result that the problem that they responded to has worsened. The Mayor of London receives the chicken feed, as he described it, of £250,000 for 50 articles a year. Should we not balance the payments a little?

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

Indeed we should. Local newspapers are described as local, but many are run by the appropriately named Gannett Company, to which the hon. Member for Ceredigion referred. Decisions are made not in Ceredigion, Newport or Birmingham, but in America, for financial reasons. It is not imperative for local papers to be local any longer.

We are all sad about the disappearance of local journalists and the training ground where the seed corn of journalism was provided. It would be a great shame if local newspapers went under, but we know the realities of market forces. How many of us receive our news in the morning not by holding up pieces of paper, but by going straight to the website and seeing tomorrow's papers the day before? The point is that we cannot have subsidies for the press without imposing a condition of political balance.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

Order. Before I call the next speaker, it may be helpful if I point out that at least six hon. Members and probably even more wish to speak, so if hon. Members could make their comments in five minutes or even a little less, everyone will be able to speak. We also have to have the winding-up speeches. Obviously we have to leave the Minister time to respond to the various points. I call Lembit Öpik.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire 3:00 pm, 15th July 2009

I shall be guided by your request, Lady Winterton. As we heard in the outstanding speech by my hon. Friend Mark Williams, the local press is the key vehicle in reporting accurately and fairly on local goings-on-in scrutinising the workings of local councils and local courts. Unlike many national journalists, local reporters tend to live and work in the communities on which they report, so local people trust them as a source of news. They do not need to tap people's phones or mobiles to get exclusives, because people trust them and talk to them, and people read the results of what they have investigated and what they write about, knowing that they are reading accurate reports about their own world.

The County Times, which is the weekly in my area, is a classic example-a role model for how what I have described can best be achieved. It is 130 years old; it was founded in 1879, in the same year as Montgomeryshire elected its first Liberal MP, Stuart Rendel. Two great and revolutionary leaps forward occurred in that same year.

As my hon. Friend rightly suspected, two journalists-Richard Jones and photographer Phil Blagg-have been here from the County Times,because they believe in reporting accurately and seeing at the coal face what, in this case, their MP does, but they also do that in many other environments, whether industrial, educational, cultural or social. That is because they want to get it right in a way that I am sorry to say the national press seems not as concerned to do.

As we heard, the problems are very serious. The County Times is part of North West News Media and is facing real difficulties. Northcliffe has just announced 30 more job cuts in Wales. I understand that the constrictive merger and takeover laws prevent some changes from taking place that would protect local newspaper jobs. Someone who works in the media in my area put it simply:

"To continue to do this we must survive as a local business. We are not asking for handouts, but we could do with some consideration from local Government."

I agree with that sentiment.

The local newspaper business model relies heavily on advertising, as we heard. It accounts for about two thirds of local newspapers' turnover. In recent years, advertising spend has been in a general decline of between 10 and 20 per cent., but since the recession hit, advertising in key sectors such as housing, cars and jobs has plummeted. Newspapers are desperately exposed because of the trend towards advertising online. In 2007, all media sectors except cinema and radio lost market share to the internet. We can give many examples, but the mood music is clear. Local newspapers need to have more consideration than they have had so far if they are to survive.

My first request, therefore, is for the Minister's observations on the report by Lord Carter of Barnes, which earlier this year did not seem to go very far in relaxing laws on mergers and takeovers. Surely it is better to allow mergers and takeovers to occur than to lose local newspapers altogether. I would welcome the observations of the Minister and others in that regard. We are talking not about Murdoch-style empires, but about local businesses that just want to make ends meet, with journalists who are not well paid but have a passion for their work and their communities.

My next point concerns the shift of local government notices and job adverts towards websites and local government magazines and publications. Only about 1 per cent. of the councils that responded to a recent survey produced a magazine once a week, so if we want to get information out quickly, in about 99 per cent. of local authority areas the local newspaper is still the best way to do that. I would be grateful if the Minister let me and the House know what action he is taking to investigate that change. Local newspapers are a vital source of knowledge for local people in finding out where and how their council tax is being spent-and they are independent. On that basis, there is a strong political and democratic case for supporting local newspapers.

Of course, many newspapers are published daily. The Shropshire Star, which very sensibly bases an excellent journalist called Anwen Evans in my constituency, provides a counterpoint to much of the information that is blandly and inaccurately described in the national media. Again, we see the daily newspaper suffering in just the way that my local weekly newspaper, the County Times,is.

I shall therefore end with another question. Is the Minister willing to hear from a delegation from mid-Wales? Obviously, that is my interest. Is he willing to hear from editors such as Nick Knight and others about what they would like the Government to do to protect these vital services? As I said, none of them wants a handout. They simply want a hand-up, so that they can carry on serving the communities that they have served for more than a century. They have done that with a dignity, nobility, accuracy and grace that it would behove the national press to reflect.

Photo of Ann Coffey Ann Coffey Labour, Stockport 3:05 pm, 15th July 2009

I congratulate Mark Williams on securing this interesting debate. He is right to say that local newspapers face a grave crisis. Seventy newspapers have closed in the past year and analysts have warned that up to half the UK's local and regional newspapers may be shut within the next five years.

The recent "Digital Britain" report pointed out that

"there's an imminent danger that large parts of the UK will be left without professionally verified sources of information."

The importance of strong local and regional news came through in "Digital Britain". Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport described it as

"essential for the health and vibrancy of our democracy".-[Hansard, 16 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 166.]

No one is saying that the standard of journalism in local papers is perfect, but local reporters are close to the community and they do try to provide independently verified stories in print. Local newspapers provide more diversity and access for different groups than the new army of bloggers could ever hope to achieve. The problem with blogs as a source of news is that they are self-selective and provide the view of one individual, not a balanced view. They often carry more opinion than facts and it would be a pity if they became one of our main sources of information.

The local newspaper is more than news. It is a way of binding our communities together and of archiving the history of a community. My local paper, the Stockport Express, has archives going back more than a century. It is difficult to see how the internet will provide such an archive in 100 years.

Research shows that local newspapers are the most trusted of all media, yet ironically, according to figures obtained by the Newspaper Society, of the £193 million that the Government spent on advertising in 2008, only 3.3 per cent. was spent in regional press and local newspapers. That was far less than was spent on radio and TV and less than half what was spent on posters-7.6 per cent.

Departments, which are already encouraged and expected to connect with local communities by engaging with local and regional media, should also look favourably on local and regional media, rooted within those communities, for advertising campaigns, recognising the unique public value, trusted environment and effectiveness that such spend offers, with resulting benefits for the local community.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, who is the former Culture Secretary, said recently that he believes that there is a significant public benefit in Departments putting more ad spend into local newspapers. I agree. The loss of advertising to online media, coupled with the recession, is one of the main causes of financial problems for newspapers.

I have had experience of that in my own constituency with job losses at the Stockport Express and the move of its office and journalists to the Manchester Evening News head office. I objected to that because I fear that, in the long run, the unique nature of the Stockport Express and its long connection with the Stockport community will be undermined. Instead of being a newspaper in its own right, it could become a slip edition of the Manchester Evening News. That would be a shame, as the Stockport Express is one of only 25 paid-for weekly papers in the UK to have increased sales from readers, who love its grass-roots coverage.

I recently tabled a series of parliamentary questions to all Departments to establish how much the level of advertising in weekly and regional newspapers had gone down in the past five years. Some Departments provided more detailed information than others. The key findings were that spending on weekly and regional advertisements had clearly gone down in the major Departments of Health, of Communities and Local Government, for International Development, for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Northern Ireland Office. It has also slumped heavily at the Foreign Office, where the Minister responsible explained that the fall was due to a large increase in the use of internet advertising and a large reduction in the number of recruitment campaigns from 2006 to 2007. The Home Office figure was also down on 2004-05, although it was up on the previous three years. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Defence provided no figures, and the other Departments were not clear.

The amount of advertising from the Government will heavily decrease if the obligation to place statutory notices in local papers is removed. That would be wrong because controversial planning notices could find their way to a secluded part of a council's newspaper or website. We need proposals to be set out in black and white in a place where all the community-young and old, web users or not-know that they can find them.

That brings me to the adverse impact on local newspapers of local authorities' increasing role in taking paid advertising to support local authority information sheets or council newspapers. I support the proposal in "Digital Britain" for the Audit Commission to undertake an inquiry into the issue. The Newspaper Society wants strict guidelines issued to all local authorities to ensure that their publications are quarterly or less frequent. It also wants the guidelines to ensure that local authority publications and websites do not take advertising or statutory notices and that they focus on providing information about council services rather than general local news and non-council events listings. Councils should be encouraged to use the local media, not compete with them.

I welcome the current consultation on proposals for a contestable element in the television licence fee to fund sustainable independent and impartial news through independently financed news consortiums. Such consortiums would include television news providers, local newspaper groups or other news-gathering agencies. That would provide a great opportunity for local newspapers to work with other news gatherers and to benefit from cross-promotion to help to safeguard their futures.

Apparently, there are to be three pilots-one in Scotland, one in Wales and one in England-and I would encourage my hon. Friend the Minister to choose the bid from the Granada area for the English pilot. The bid is being put together by a number of north-west newspaper publishers, including the Guardian Media Group, which also has experience of running the Channel m TV station. As long as the bid firmly safeguards individual papers, such as the Stockport Express, which is part of the Guardian Media Group, I will be in favour of it.

Whatever emerges from the consultation, the popular, localised aspects of newspapers should not be lost. We should not forget that regional and national news TV and radio are very reliant on stories that are fed to them by local newspaper reporters on the ground. TV must plug local newspapers and promote and credit their stories on air to encourage people to buy those papers.

In the past, there has been tension. Newspapers have not wanted subsidies, because journalists and owners felt that that might affect their independence. However, I detect a sea change in thinking, which has been prompted by the current crisis in the industry. People now realise that local newspapers are too precious to lose and that they should be entitled to some form of subsidy for providing a public service and keeping the community informed about what its local councils, courts and police, health and fire services are up to. The BBC and ITV are highly subsidised and regulated, but we do not worry about their independence. The time is right for a change of heart, and independently financed news consortiums should provide the way forward.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development) 3:13 pm, 15th July 2009

I congratulate Mark Williams on securing this important debate.

Local newspapers are facing a hard time, and the issue is particularly acute in Wales because newspapers are published in two languages. Furthermore, the nature of daily newspaper production means that the overwhelming majority of the population-about 85 per cent.-read London newspapers. That has direct implications for democratic accountability, and particularly for the Welsh Assembly. London-based newspapers rarely report Welsh news, and their Welsh correspondents have long gone. Where there are Welsh reports, they are included only in so far as they are relevant to English or UK news or where they have sport or showbiz connotations. Otherwise, they are in the "And finally" category with the weird vegetables, the two-headed ducks and the mysterious sightings. That is the daily fare for readers of newspapers in Wales, unless they read locally produced papers.

Added to that is the fact that providing newspapers in two languages involves particular pressures. Crisis is not too fancy a word for the democratic deficit that we face in Wales, and that is particularly true of the production of television news. ITV has more or less disappeared. When I told colleagues that having two languages in Wales was a particular problem, it was suggested that we could have ITV news on Channel 4. When I pointed out that Channel 4 in Wales is S4C and that the news, although it happens to be in Welsh, is produced by the monolithic BBC, the crisis became all too obvious.

As elsewhere, newspapers are facing pressures from other news sources, and the main pressure, as has been said, is on advertising revenue. That pressure comes from other media, such as web-based media, and its impact on journalists and editors has been all too clear. I am a member of the NUJ's parliamentary group and I have a particular concern about the pressures on those who work in the industry. I recently visited my own local newspaper, the Caernarfon Herald, which, in contrast to some hon. Members, I will mention only once. I talked to the editor and the executive in charge of business in north Wales, who explained the streamlining that has recently gone on. There has, for example, been a reduction in the number of sub-editors, so journalists now write copy almost directly on to the page. There are also pressures on journalists to produce several types of copy. I was quite surprised to see that reports from the House that had appeared in the Daily Post, which is the morning newspaper, had also appeared in the weekly newspapers, although they were, of course, slightly changed. Presumably, those stories would also appear on the website. There are therefore pressures on journalists to produce all kinds of material, but there has been no increase in the numbers of journalists and certainly not in the number of local journalists.

What is lost, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion eloquently said, is local accountability-reports about local council or local court proceedings. Such things are the bread and butter of local reporting. They are often not riveting, but they are essential if local communities are to be kept informed and engaged. Without such reports, we will have a democratic deficit. That is what I fear we will see in the forthcoming Westminster elections in Wales and what we saw in the Welsh Assembly elections, when many people's ignorance of what was going on in the Assembly was all too manifest in the level of discussion and in the turnout. We ignore that decline at our peril. Given the information on web-based sites and even local web-based sites, there are questions to be asked about their accountability and credibility.

I want to finish with a brief point about Welsh-language newspapers, which, for me, offers a glimmer of a way forward. With his close family connections to my constituency, the Minister will know that Caernarfon was once the epicentre of Welsh-language publishing, but I am afraid that that is no longer the case. We now have two weekly Welsh-language newspapers and various inserts in other papers. As the hon. Member for Ceredigion said, however, we do have a network of community newspapers. They are not "newsy" newspapers, but they at least tell people what is happening in their communities.

I recently visited Barcelona with the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, and we looked at community newspapers there. The key to their success is community involvement coupled with high quality. We should be looking at places abroad where newspapers succeed. I have an interest in minority languages, and what is happening in areas such as Catalonia, which are struggling to maintain interest not only in newspapers but in minority languages, is a great spur. There is much to be learned from such areas, including about the use of new technology.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush 3:19 pm, 15th July 2009

I am grateful that I have been squeezed into the debate and I will limit myself to a single point in my five minutes. I want to expand on the point that I made in my intervention on Mark Williams, who has rightly given us another opportunity to debate the serious issue of the abuse of power and the misuse of public resources by local authorities.

In saying that, I do not underestimate the other factors involved, such as the appalling action by Trinity Mirror in my area, although I know that other groups are involved in these things. Such groups have caused long-standing titles to collapse and have then closed them, sacking highly respected and dedicated journalists.

The local authority role, if not the most significant, is certainly the most dangerous and insidious in undermining an independent and free local press. In making those comments I hope that I shall attract support from the three Front-Bench spokesmen. I say that for two reasons. First, the last time I debated the issue in this Chamber, on 20 January, Mr. Vaizey made some slightly graceless and rather parti pris comments on the matter. He may crow at the moment because most town halls are under Conservative control, but that changes over time, and he may come, in time, and I hope sooner rather than later, to agree with the view that hon. Members of all parties have been expressing.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

What the hon. Gentleman characterises as graceless was merely my pointing out that when he was leader of the council he published a free sheet to go to constituents, which cost council tax payers £300,000. Therefore, he is carping slightly in criticising the current administration for publishing a free sheet at no cost to council tax payers. Perhaps he will give a guarantee that if, God forbid, his party were ever to come back to run Hammersmith and Fulham, he would close the free newspaper.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush

The hon. Gentleman has not learned his lesson, but perhaps by the end of my speech he will have done. The second of the two reasons I wanted to set out was that there is an early-day motion in the name of Mr. Galloway, and an amendment in my name, signed by members of all three parties-in fact, members of four parties-which clearly puts Labour and Tory councils in the dock for their publications. I think that my hon. Friend John McDonnell has signed it.

In the brief time that I have, I want to use the example of Hammersmith and Fulham's H and F News, which is published, although one would not know it, by the local council. It is a 64-page newspaper, fully underwritten by the taxpayers, with hidden subsidy-all the costs that a local paper would have, in accommodation, staffing and so on, are covered, and completely underwritten by public money.

I think that the marketing strategy goes further than hon. Members have so far said. The paper crows about what it calls the poor quality and low circulation of local newspapers-it says it can deliver to every door in the borough once every fortnight and claims to have nearly 10 times the readers of the nearest equivalent-and about its advertising offer, its huge splash and everything it can do, all of which is done by professional marketing people and, to their shame, journalists who have taken the shilling to leave the independent sector. It is quite brazen about it. The chap who edits it, who used to be a local journalist, says:

"The reality is councils such as Hammersmith and Fulham are being forced into producing weekly and fortnightly newspapers in order to fill a vacuum that has developed as a result of ...underinvestment from within the industry".

That is rather like a kerb crawler saying he is simply providing a service to young women who otherwise would not have their sexual appetites satisfied. I think that we shall treat it with the contempt it deserves.

As a consequence, two long-standing publications, the Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle and the Hammersmith and Shepherds Bush Gazette, each with more than a century of independent publication behind them, are now effectively merged, and a shadow of their former selves. Their chances, against the competition-if we can call it competition-of a new newspaper starting up, are effectively nil.

If there is any doubt left about what I am saying, I end with this example. There was only one story in Hammersmith and Fulham last week. It had two pages in the Evening Standard under the headline, "Plot to rid council estates of poor", and the editorial and an article in the Daily Mirror under the headline, "Tories plan homes 'social cleansing'". Of course, it also had the front-page story in the excellent Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle under the headline "Thousands to face losing homes". That story was by Aidan Jones, an excellent local reporter. I predict that no mention of that story will be found in the council newspaper. A story about how the courageous council is regenerating the scheme with the full support of MegaGreed plc might be found-but not the truth. That is the problem. What is happening is undermining, corrupting and corroding not just local democracy but the democracy in this House, and the hon. Member for Wantage should bear that in mind.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush

I am being told to sit down. The hon. Gentleman should come back on the point; he has the opportunity of a 10-minute speech and I have had the opportunity of a five-minute speech. I invite him to come back on the point, but ask him please to be a little contrite and considered in his comments when he does.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Health), Shadow Minister (Treasury) 3:24 pm, 15th July 2009

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mark Williams on initiating the debate, if only because it provides hon. Members with an opportunity to ingratiate themselves with their local newspapers. I shall resist that temptation, because my local journal is so intelligent that it would see through it straight away; it reads me like a book.

I recognise that all local journalists are having a hard time. They are losing jobs. There is a fall in advertising. They have competition, as has been mentioned, from the web, local radio and television. They struggle to get the younger generation on board. I do not see the Local Government Association as a significant long-term threat, as most councils will soon be so strapped for cash that they will not be able to put out any pieces of paper at all. However, I recognise that local newspapers are strongly supportive of their own economies, which contrasts quite well with national organisations such as the BBC, which lose nothing-as they are cushioned by the licence fee-from talking down the economy, something a local newspaper would never do.

Papers are essentially business. They sell information, of two kinds: information about products, which is called advertising; and information about communities, which is called news. Those are obviously linked activities. However-this point was made by Ann Coffey-they provide a cement for the community. They inform and provide a forum for discussion; they air problems and campaign for solutions. They may not do those things in a perfect way. From time to time they are, indeed, guilty of bias, and are not a mirror but a refracting medium, but they cannot be that way for long, because they need to stay in touch with the community that they serve. That, I guess, is what local journalism is about-turning everyday life into everyday news. That requires lots of journalists-what I would call community journalists, who have the same status, I think, as good classroom teachers. Their status needs to be elevated. They tell the story against a potentially vast news base. My hon. Friend illustrated all that that might involve in his speech.

We might compare that with national papers, which exist almost entirely in the Westminster bubble, relaying chitchat and recycling the same material again and again, and giving us endless doses of celebrity-watching: by going on the tube, I learn more about who goes in and out of Boujis than I strictly speaking need to. We see more and more stuff being syndicated and more and more pressure on newspapers to sensationalise and, where they cannot do that, pad everything out by piling on comment instead of facts.

If local journalism is troubled, journalism itself is in trouble. We shall get down to increasingly limited information, circulated anonymously, to anomic and remote communities. A foretaste of that can already be seen in some regional papers. I picked up a Nottingham evening paper at the weekend and for no apparent reason it included very little news about Nottingham, but it did have a picture of Barack Obama meeting the Pope. It was not even on the day he met him; it was just there because it occupied space.

We should not underestimate the genuine interest that communities have in themselves. If local journalism goes, not only will journalism go, but communities will change. In contrast to the Nottingham example, I had the delight of reading, the other day, the Westmorland Gazette. I do not know if any hon. Members are familiar with it, but it is a broadsheet time warp newspaper, full of enormous detail about the community. It is very successful, because community journalism can and does work. I am sure that it will morph, and become more web-wise and interactive, but I hope that it will not disappear, because I am certain that it has a key role, and it must survive.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

If the last two speakers can possibly contain their remarks to about three minutes, everyone will get in.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 3:28 pm, 15th July 2009

I shall try to speak in less time than that, Lady Winterton.

This is the fourth or fifth debate on the topic in the past 18 months, and I congratulate Mark Williams. I am the secretary of the NUJ trade union group in Parliament. To save my speaking, hon. Members can find the latest updates about job losses by looking at the NUJ's latest briefing. When we debated the matter 12 months ago, 1,200 jobs had been lost. I think that we are near 2,000 now. Things are the same in my area, where Trinity Mirror has lost its office and a number of staff, and that is undermining the papers, because a spiralling decline begins. If journalists are not there, the news cannot be covered, so people cannot read the news and circulation declines and people will not advertise. We are in that cycle.

What I resent is that Trinity Mirror, to use it as an example, is still a profitable company. It had profits of 16.6 per cent. up to 2008, and the figure for Johnston newspapers was 19 per cent. at one point. They are still profitable; indeed, comparing them with Tesco at 5 per cent., they are very profitable. At the same time, however, they were cutting staff; 31 per cent. of their production and journalistic staff went in the seven years before 2008. There is an element of crying wolf, but we nevertheless want to preserve the local press.

As a result of the NUJ's meeting with the former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, now the Secretary of State for Health, and thanks to his hard work, we had a meeting-it was requested earlier-with all sectors of the industry to consider the way forward. That meeting took place two months ago. Ofcom made proposals for a news consortium that could be funded partly by the savings of digital switchover. However, the new idea is to top-slice the BBC's licence fee.

The constructive approach of establishing a newspaper consortium is the way forward, but I have some concerns. The new Secretary of State may reconvene that meeting, so that all sectors of the industry can get together again to see how far things have gone. My worry is about where the funding will come from. Top-slicing the BBC's income will begin to undermine it. There needs to be a wider look at technology levies. We have raised the question before, and it works in other countries. How will the news consortium pilot scheme work in practice? What will happen to the staff used by channel 3 news providers? If ITV regional news is replaced, but the company is not a partner in the consortium, how will the employment rights of existing ITV employees be protected?

As my hon. Friend Paul Flynn said, if public funding is to go to those consortiums, how will the Government ensure quality journalism and a balanced approach to the reportage of news in the local area? If we are to subsidise local journalism, we must ensure that we invest in quality local journalism. This is not about restoring the profitability of some companies. In the good times, they made massive profits but failed to reinvest. That is partly why the industry is in crisis.

Photo of Lorely Burt Lorely Burt Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party 3:32 pm, 15th July 2009

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mark Williams on securing this debate.

The news has been defined as something that people do not want us to see. All who have spoken in the debate have been at the difficult end of that. The Birmingham Post required all local MPs to pre-publish their expenses. One or two MPs were rather reticent to do so, but we nevertheless complied. That shows the power of the local press. Local papers, such as the Solihull News and the Solihull Times, publish what our MPs in my area have been up to, but many are not totally comfortable with that.

The important thing is that local newspapers should report on councillors' grubby dealings. Council-run papers may publish the local news and the variety of other things described this afternoon, but they do not contain any of that hard news. They publish only what they want us to see. That is why I agree with Mr. Slaughter.

It is clear that the industry is in trouble. It has been in trouble for some time-long before the recession started. The Trinity Mirror group of newspapers has shrunk; on 2 July, it was announced that nine newspapers and 120 jobs in the west midlands would be lost. Staffing complements have been cut by all local papers, and advertising has dropped by 40 per cent. over the past two years and is still falling. Local newspapers are in competition with the internet for advertising, and the internet steals their local and regional news stories-another problem that needs to be addressed.

Regional TV is no longer local, and the regions seem to be expanding hugely. The only repository of truly local news is therefore the local newspaper, with regional additions. That is what we want, and that is what we need to keep. What is the solution? We have discussed mergers and the "Digital Britain" report, and I look forward to the Audit Commission inquiry. It would be extremely helpful if the Minister commented on that. What about collaboration? Why not use local reporters, jointly engaged by regional TV and radio? We would then have the best of all worlds.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport 3:34 pm, 15th July 2009

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mark Williams not only on securing this debate but on his excellent and thought-provoking speech.

Like many other Members, I feel passionate about the importance of local newspapers, something that was summed up extremely well by my hon. Friend Dr. Pugh when he said that if local journalism goes, communities will change. He meant, of course, that they would change for the worse.

I spoke earlier today with the deputy editor of my excellent local newspaper, The Bath Chronicle. As one would expect, he was totally passionate about local and regional newspapers. He said that they are important because they stimulate the lifeblood of local communities and are the bastions of knowledge and democracy, especially in holding local government to account. With high-quality investigative journalism, they are able to shine a light into dark corners, and they provide a safety valve for local democracy.

As we have heard, however, times are hard. Having been one of the longest surviving continually produced daily newspapers, The Bath Chronicle has become a weekly newspaper. The number of editorial and commercial staff has been cut, and in the last few days we heard that a number of production activities such as subbing are to be moved to Bristol, with a further loss of local jobs. As a result, it becomes ever more difficult for our local newspapers to carry out investigative journalism, and to ask the hard questions that are so crucial to shining a light in dark places and holding local councils and other local bodies to account. As Ann Coffey said, that cannot be properly replaced by biased bloggers hiding away in their darkened rooms.

My local newspaper is not alone. As we have heard, local and regional newspapers have been facing difficulties for many years, difficulties exacerbated not only by the recent recession but by much newspaper advertising being moved, particularly to the internet. In 2000, 1 per cent. of all advertising was done on the internet and it is now about 20 per cent. In 2008, we saw a £400 million drop in the advertising in local and regional newspapers-a fall of 19 per cent.-and the figures are getting worse.

Crucially, the classified ads that used to be so important in selling local newspapers are now going to the internet. In 2000, 45 per cent. of all classified advertisements were to be found in local newspapers, and only 2 per cent. on the internet. Now, 45 per cent. of all classified ads are on the internet, and only a quarter are to be found in our local newspapers. Circulation is down, advertising is down and, as a result, revenue is down. The lifeblood of local newspapers is dwindling. They are in great difficulty. Sadly, many have had to close. Last year alone, 60 titles closed, all of them a loss to their local communities. As we heard from John McDonnell, many hundreds of editorial jobs have been lost; alongside that, however, many hundreds of support staff jobs have gone.

We must remember that 1,300 local and regional newspapers remain. They employ some 12,000 journalists and 30,000 support staff. They are beginning to fight back. Because of a shortage of capital, they did not invest early enough in websites, but they are now doing so; for instance, at www.thisisbath.co.uk, my local newspaper is now a thriving provider of daily local news, with 80,000 unique hits every month, up 40 per cent. from last year. Many other local newspapers are doing the same.

Much more needs to be done to help those newspapers. We heard a number of suggestions. The "Digital Britain" report and Ofcom suggest that the BBC should become involved in partnership proposals. We heard about that from the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington and others. There is an opportunity to use the BBC's resources to provide support and help to other news outlets through the independently funded news consortiums and partnership proposals. Like him, I am deeply worried about the Government's proposal to top-slice the BBC, which will take money away from it without its involvement. By all means, let the BBC become more involved in partnership work, which is what it wants, and has started, to do. However, that should be within the remit of the BBC, using money from the BBC and with its involvement. I am delighted that 15 Labour Members have signed his early-day motion opposing that policy.

People referred to the importance of the relaxation of cross-media ownership rules. I am delighted that the Office of Fair Trading and Ofcom are now considering such a move. The Government have said that it is important. I was also delighted that we had a lengthy debate about the important role that local councils can play by not overly developing their own media outlets, particularly taking advertising away from local newspapers. That is critical. However, we should look very carefully at the LGA's figures, of which some were overly scornful. The vast majority of local councils are not taking action that is-currently, at least-causing problems for local newspapers. I welcome what the hon. Member for Stockport said about the important role of central Government in helping local newspapers.

Finally, all sorts of other exciting developments are taking place, such as ways of bringing different journalists together. The Press Association's initiative in Merseyside to provide an independent source of journalistic information for local newspapers could be developed. No doubt we will hear more from Mr. Vaizey about his party's proposals for local television, which I hope will not further damage local newspapers. I hope to hear that it will work in consultation with them. Local newspapers are critical, and we must take action now to provide support for them, or far more will close.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) 3:42 pm, 15th July 2009

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate under your excellent chairmanship for the first time, Lady Winterton. I do not wish to give too much fodder for local or national journalists to write articles about the disgustingly incestuous nature of the Westminster village, but I welcome the Minister to his post as the Minister for the digital industries or creative Britain-or whatever title he might choose to use. I have known him for many years and have the utmost respect for his ability and judgment. His only misjudgment ever was to join the wrong political party. However, I am sure that he will make an excellent Minister and I look forward to debating with him in the months to come.

We have heard a great deal from hon. Members this afternoon-nine speeches, in addition to that of the Liberal Democrat spokesman, Mr. Foster. They set out the woes of the local newspaper industry, of which this House is only too well aware. I think that this is the third time in six or seven months that we have debated this matter. However, I congratulate Mark Williams on giving us another opportunity to emphasise the point that this House takes what is happening in the local newspaper industry very seriously. As so many hon. Members have pointed out, it is fundamental to the health not only of our local democracy. Newspapers do not exist simply to uncover the wrongdoings of hon. Members or local councillors, but to play a vital role in bringing a community together. Picking up the local paper, either daily or weekly, reminds us of what is going on in our communities and prevents us from becoming solitary people living in rabbit hutches, going to work then coming home and simply switching on the television.

The hon. Member for Bath was right to point out that we still have a sizeable local newspaper industry. We are a newspaper nation. We have far more national newspaper titles per head than almost any other country in the world, and we still enjoy reading our newspapers, but change is afoot and technology is knocking at the door. As people have pointed out, a perfect storm of technology coupled with a recession is proving to be extraordinarily testing for local newspapers. It is dangerous to get into a mindset in which one simply tries to prop up existing institutions without recognising that change is afoot. Blogs, such as ConservativeHome, Iain Dale's Diary or Guido Fawkes' blog, are effectively taking over some of the role of national newspapers and are capable of breaking important stories with very few resources. That shows that technology will help to fill the vacuum. Nevertheless, we should, as Members of this House, be looking to provide potential solutions for local newspapers. The main job of finding a solution rests with local newspapers, which are, after all, private organisations, but the Government must be there to make that possibility effective.

The Government have published "Digital Britain" and set out a range of options. On the same day it published the OFT's-disappointing-analysis of the local newspaper market. The document effectively said that the OFT would do nothing unless, or until, a referral was made and recommended no changes to the current regime. Ofcom is also considering media ownership rules. I know that the hon. Member for Ceredigion and other hon. Members have called for local cross-media ownership rules to be relaxed. We, on this side of the House, share that point of view and have called for that relaxation. We have urged Ofcom to bring its review to a speedy conclusion.

It would be useful to hear from the Minister when he expects Ofcom to report and, when it does report, when he expects the Government to look at it and reach a conclusion on what parts of the review they will implement. More than anything, local newspapers need a certain, clear, regulatory landscape and a clear way forward. It would be an extremely useful contribution to hear the timetable for what I hope will be a clear-sighted report from Ofcom calling for the relaxation of local media rules, recognising that the landscape has changed and that the internet now provides a much wider horizon, which has to be taken into account when considering competition measures.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Health), Shadow Minister (Treasury)

The hon. Gentleman is making a thoughtful contribution. Local newspapers face competition for breaking major news stories, but an awful lot of what we illustrated as being in local papers is not of that nature; it is about local football teams and events. Guido Fawkes and Iain Dale do not pepper their blogs with such information, and never will. In a sense, they are not in competition in the way that he stresses.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

Perhaps I did not express myself clearly enough. For example, a website such as ConservativeHome provides a community base for those of us interested in Conservative politics. Although it might break news, it also keeps us in touch with what that wider community is doing. [Interruption.] Luckily, I did not hear the hon. Member for Southport's intervention. It might have broken my smooth stride as I move closer to setting out the Conservative policy.

Finally, the Government have proposed independently financed news consortiums. I was pleased to hear the scepticism from hon. Members about the Government's proposals. Conservative Members oppose top-slicing of the BBC. I was astonished by the attack launched by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on the BBC leadership. The Government have a tradition of attacking the BBC leadership when it dares to disagree with them. We saw that with the David Kelly affair and the Hutton report. But attacking the BBC for a lack of leadership simply because the director-general disagrees with Government policy-which, I remind the Minister, is not actually Government policy, but technically under consultation-crosses a line. I am sure that the Secretary of State, once he gets into his stride, gets his feet under the desk and understands his job, will want to apologise to the director-general for the attack.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

I know that the hon. Gentleman wants to rush to his conclusion, but are we hearing today a complete reversal of the Conservative party position as expressed on 20 May. Then his party proposed to freeze the licence fee, which would effectively top-slice the amount of money that the BBC gets, but now it is saying that it would not. Back then, the Government said that they opposed top-slicing, but today they are proposing it. We, on the Liberal Democrat Benches, are getting very confused.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

The hon. Gentleman has fulfilled a role, for many years, as my mentor, but at this point I would say to him-perhaps the pupil is getting above himself-do not be too clever by half. We have said that the licence fee should be frozen for a year because we are going through a recession and we want to help hard-working families. We find it hypocritical that the Government are saying, "Don't touch the licence fee. By the way, we're taking 3.5 per cent. off the licence fee and will do with it as we want", which is exactly what they did-by the way-with the lottery.

We are also concerned about independently financed news consortiums. In effect the Government are saying, "This is how things have been, and this is how they should always have been." We all know that regional news was based around the old transmitter system, and it was not regional news in the true sense of the word.

I hope that everyone can hear the clatter of the hooves as the knight on his white charger arrives in the form of Conservative party policy, which was presented to the media this afternoon. The Speaker's rules about announcing party policy in the House before talking to the media do not yet apply; they will take effect in a year's time.

What we have put forward is a consultation document, which is written by the well respected, legendary journalist Roger Parry, on the creation of viable local multi-media companies in the UK. In the one minute I have left, let me simply say that this is a bottom-up solution for local television and multi-media consortiums using local spectrum. Ofcom has identified 81 areas in which local multi-media consortiums could be put in place. They will include video, audio, print and web. Production costs will be much lower. There will be economies of scale and the consortiums will rely on the use of volunteers. They will be truly local multi-media organisations, and we expect local newspaper groups to play a very important role in bidding for the spectrum licences so that we can create truly local television and a vital multi-media organisation that will be the saving solution for local newspapers.

Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport 3:51 pm, 15th July 2009

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton. I do not have a lot of time, but I will do my best to refer to everyone who has spoken.

Naturally, I congratulate Mark Williams on securing the debate and on his opening speech in which he set the ground for the entire debate. He covered most of the bases and managed to include not just his own local newspapers but those for Porthmadog, Pwllheli, Criccieth, Llannor, Llysfaen and Garndolbenmaen. Drawing all those in is a triumph for which he should be congratulated. He also touched on mergers, so perhaps I will set out the position. The OFT looked into the market and concluded-I cannot find the exact phrase-that it works and that it is sufficiently flexible and rigorous to allow a functioning local newspaper sector to exist.

Mr. Vaizey said at the end that the OFT would do nothing unless a merger was notified. Just to be clear on that point, the OFT concluded that the market was operational, but in cases in which mergers had been notified, it would have to look in more detail at the operation of the system. So the case is not closed. Work is going on to assess whether anything can be done to make the system more liberal and helpful to local newspapers.

My hon. Friend Paul Flynn spoke with his customary vigour about the lack of accountability of local newspapers. He said that they can be biased and unfair on some occasions. Like many hon. Members, Lembit Öpik referred to his local newspaper as a particularly trusted source of news and information for the community. He described the County Times as a role model. He also asked whether he could bring a delegation of editors to see me. Of course he can, but it must be an appropriately sized delegation of nice and good editors.

Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

Yes, that is always important. We take note of such things in the Department, as I am learning. The hon. Member for Stockport displayed his customary pithy precision. [Hon. Members: "Southport!"] Sorry, I mean Southport. Is it different?

Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

I am running out of time, as well as digging myself into a deep hole. Dr. Pugh talked-[Interruption.] Oh, it was my hon. Friend Ann Coffey. Sorry. When I wrote Stockport, I was looking at the hon. Gentleman. My hon. Friend talked at great length and with some erudition about Government advertising. Ideally, I should like to talk to her in greater detail about that. She made some interesting points. They did not come from the mainstream, which is all that I have read on the matter so far. If she would like to explore those ideas a bit more, I would be very glad to talk to her about them.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

I hate to give the impression that I might be jumping the queue, but given that there are only four minutes left, will the Minister say when he expects Ofcom to report on cross-media ownership?

Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

That is jumping the queue, but let me say that the Communications Act 2003 lays down that Ofcom undertakes such reviews every three years. Off the top of my head-I am new at this-the last review concluded in October 2006. The official line is that it will report back later this year. That should give the hon. Gentleman an indication of the kind of time scale that we are talking about.

As the clock ticks, let me say that I agree with Hywel Williams that the situation in Wales with respect to television is difficult and needs particular attention, which is one of the key reasons why Wales was chosen as one of the pilot areas. He talks about my family connection with his constituency. It is true that, even though I was born in south Yorkshire and grew up in Birmingham, the major milestones of my life have been recorded in the Dwyfor Leader-I am not sure whether it still exists-and that shows what a community newspaper means. One does not even have to live in the community to be part of the community.

I thank my hon. Friend Mr. Slaughter and congratulate him on taking the fight to the Tory Front Bench so admirably. The hon. Member for Southport- although I wrote Stockport again-talked about how local journalism can be at the heart of communities. Later on, he said that it would morph webwise and become interactive. That is true. The future of local journalism and local news gathering will be in the hands of not just journalists but communities. Local people will be delivering news to, from, by and of themselves. That does not mean that journalism does not need supporting, but we must look to new models.

My hon. Friend John McDonnell reminded us that, when we talk about journalists and the service that they render to communities, we are talking about not just abstracts and things that are important to democracy but people-large numbers of human beings who are losing their jobs, which is a tragedy for them and their families.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

Earlier, I said that the seminar or working party on industry that the Secretary of State convened some months ago was very successful. Will the Minister liaise with the new Secretary of State to find out whether or not it is appropriate to reconvene it in September or October?

Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

I wrote that down, and I will do just that. By all accounts, the seminar was a great event, and I will ask the Secretary of State to do it again. If he agrees, I will gladly attend.

Lorely Burt spoke with her usual elegance about collaboration. Mr. Foster gave me a soupcon of wisdom about the things to come over the coming months. The hon. Member for Wantage shared with us the new Conservative proposal for 80 local television stations.