Local and Regional Newspapers

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:42 pm on 15th July 2009.

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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.