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Local Newspapers — [Mrs. Janet Dean in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:20 pm on 13th January 2010.

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Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush 3:20 pm, 13th January 2010

I am pleased to speak again in the series of debates that have taken place in this Chamber on this subject. I congratulate Mr. Burstow on securing the debate. What gives me particular pleasure is the fact that on each occasion the number of hon. Members who attend grows, and the penny appears to have dropped on all sides that the issue is not party political. It is an issue on which all three parties are guilty, at local level, and which is a serious threat to local democracy and perhaps wider democracy.

I can do no better than to use a quotation to sum up where we are in the borough that may suffer most from the problem-Hammersmith and Fulham. Andrew Gilligan wrote in his blog last week:

"One of the biggest threats to journalism is the growth of Britain's new state press-free propaganda papers, either weekly or fortnightly, produced at great public expense by local authorities and delivered to all homes. The idea is to destroy the independent local press, thus ensuring that the only news you read about your local council is written by your local council...The frontline of the struggle is the Tory flagship borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, which looked like being the first place in Britain where official news became the only news. The council's propaganda organ, H&F News, is a brilliant facsimile of a proper local paper-unless, of course, you are looking for any mention of the Labour Party, or any criticism of the council, the police, the NHS or any other branch of officialdom. The local independent paid-for paper, the Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle, meanwhile, was on its last legs, with a circulation of 1,500."

Now, however, the Chronicle"- as the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam mentioned earlier-

"has decided to fight back. It too is going free-boosting its circulation to 72,000 with no loss of editorial jobs-to take the fight to H&F News."

The blog also praises Philip Davies for his robust comments on the matter in the Select Committee and says that some councils are already closing their newspapers. I shall be asking Hammersmith and Fulham council why, from next week, it will not close its newspaper, as its only excuse for publishing one was that there was no independent local paper in circulation.

The other unusual thing about the debate is that it gives me an opportunity to praise Trinity Mirror, of which I have been somewhat critical in the past. I hope that its ambition in this case-clearly it has the necessary resources-will be followed throughout the country. Clearly it recognises a commercial threat, because although a minority of local authorities may be affected at present, you can bet your life-it is human nature, is it not?-that all those councillors sitting in their offices would love a completely supportive and uncritical press. I am concerned about what will happen if we do not tackle what is happening and nip it in the bud.

What action do the Government intend to take to stop politicisation through the council press, and the destruction of the independent local press? We will shortly need action at national level. This cannot be left to Trinity Mirror and the other newspaper groups. Let us make no mistake: the problem goes further than the watering down or manipulation of news. Very large sums of money-millions of pounds-are involved. Hammersmith and Fulham admits to spending £750,000 on the newspaper; but that is only the cost that it admits. It is the tip of the iceberg. There are magazines, newsletters, banners in the streets, poster vans driven around the borough, whole tube stations kitted out with advertisements, and online material, all advertising the Conservative party, in effect, in all but name.

I shall give two examples of what I have described. One was a letter sent to tenants and leaseholders in response to a Labour party publication, directly criticising the Hammersmith Labour party. I feel sorry for the Conservatives. They had only £200,000 to spend politically in my constituency last year. Clearly they were a bit short with regard to what the council could provide in subsidy by putting out that material. Just before Christmas a glossy six-page brochure went out about Building Schools for the Future. I could find no mention of its being a Government-funded scheme, but I found a half-page picture of my opponent saying that he had been invited into schools to talk to pupils, with a hagiography of him and an account of what he did.

I received an e-mail today from the borough solicitor, about that picture and publication:

"We recognise this is a sensitive political period and we regret the final sentence of the article we published. The council's normal procedure for vetting potentially controversial publicity did not work properly on this occasion and I apologise for this and for any dissatisfaction you feel as a result. The newsletter has been removed from schools, libraries and the council's websites, and no further copies of the article will be distributed."

They must think I was born yesterday. Such things happen on a regular, weekly basis. Hon. Members may regard it as a warning if they will.