What a great pleasure it is to open this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I thank hon. Members and hon. Friends for their early support for my remarks, which may have been heard as "noises off".
Thank you, Mr Benton, for that important ruling, which was effectively ex post facto, as I noticed that Opposition Members had already pre-empted it.
This is an important debate about a very important issue-the future of our local and regional media-and I am delighted that we will have the opportunity in the next three hours to examine in detail the landscape before us and the opportunities that we could have to reinvigorate local media and, through local media, local communities and local democracy.
I am delighted to see so many important members of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee here today. Towards the end of last year, the Select Committee issued a very important report on local media, and the Government have recently responded in some detail to it. That response is now available at the Vote Office and I am sure that all hon. Members present will have read it in some detail.
As is clear in our response, the Government welcome the Select Committee's in-depth investigation and analysis of the issues affecting local media-indeed, we broadly agree with most of the Committee's conclusions. I must say, albeit in his absence, that I have been a great admirer of the hard-working Chairman of the Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Whittingdale, and of one of its more articulate members, my hon. Friend Philip Davies, who has had a strong and independent voice in Parliament and looks set to continue to have one for his foreseeable parliamentary career. That is very welcome, particularly as Parliament gains powers and responsibilities under the coalition Government.
I am grateful for the Select Committee's emphatic support for local and regional media-above all, local journalism. Westminster Hall is full of quality today, but I had anticipated more quantity, in terms of the number of hon. Members present. I say that because debates on the local media give all in this House a chance to praise our local newspapers and local media organisations, in a desperate attempt to curry favour with them. In fact, during the four Westminster Hall debates in which I participated as a member of the Opposition, I went out of my way to praise my local newspaper, the Wantage and Grove Herald. In response, I am delighted to say that it put details of my expenses on the front page and campaigned vigorously for an independent candidate to stand against me.
So let me instead use this opportunity to praise Oxfordshire's JACKfm, a local radio station that is enormously successful. To be serious for a moment, JACKfm won two awards this week at the Arqiva commercial radio awards. [Interruption.] I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley may indeed have been present at the awards ceremony. JACKfm won two awards. The first was for Ali Booker's "Cancer Diaries". Ali Booker is a constituent of mine, who is a very well known local personality and radio DJ. She has been recording her battle with cancer on JACKfm and it has been an extremely moving and highly popular programme. JACKfm also won the commercial radio station imaging award. I must confess that I am not quite sure what an "imaging award" is, for a local radio station.
I also want to thank Arqiva for sponsoring those commercial radio awards. I am a huge admirer of Arqiva, although our relationship is somewhat strained at the moment, because my local television antenna in Oxfordshire, which was built by Arqiva to enable the digital television switchover, unfortunately caught fire and burned down as it was being erected. That has affected the local television coverage of many of my constituents. A new antenna is being built, but it will not be erected until September and I am in constant dialogue with Arqiva about the situation.
I wanted to use the opportunity of this debate to talk about some of the themes highlighted in the Select Committee's report, in the light of the Government's approach to this vital part of the media landscape. As I am sure all hon. Members will agree, we have a fine tradition of excellent journalism, provided at a range of levels through a wide range of media. That tradition is as important at the local level as at the national level. Indeed, survey data from Ofcom indicate that four in five people rate local news stories as very important. Although they were tragic, awful and unprecedented, one thing that emerged from the terrible events in Whitehaven recently was how important the local newspaper had been.
Indeed, I remember the floods in Oxfordshire in July 2007, when BBC Oxford radio became an incredibly important source of local information, with people able to ring in to the station to talk about the situation on the ground. As a result, the radio station became a vital hub of local communication at a time of crisis.
Independent journalism and news distribution have a clear and vital role in democracy at every level. In an international report on the newspaper industry, published by the OECD last week, the industry was described as:
"a pillar of public life and pluralistic, democratic societies".
I recommend that hon. Members read that excellent report, if they can. To put a finer point on it, as the Select Committee said in its report:
"The importance of reporting on local institutions and local democracy cannot be overstated; without it there is little democratic accountability."
Democratic accountability has never been more important. As we roll back power from the core to the periphery and from central Government to local government, and as we empower local government and local people to take more and more decisions, reporting on those decisions, or on the environment and climate in which those decisions are made, will be a vital role for local news sources.
For example, we intend to introduce locally elected police chiefs. It will be vital for local newspapers and local media to participate in the debate on that issue. We also intend to have elected NHS boards, to give new powers to councils, to publish local Government spending, and to unlock local and national Government data. That presents a huge opportunity for the local media in getting hold of that information, leading the debate or providing a forum and platform for important debates at the local level.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, has said:
"This government is committed to...giving local communities far greater control over their own destinies...But for this to happen we need strong local media to nurture a sense of local identity and hold locally-elected politicians to account."
However, as the Select Committee report makes clear, there are significant challenges ahead for our media. Newspapers have been particularly hard hit. A report last week-I think that it was the OECD report to which I referred earlier-noted a projected 26% fall in overall UK print advertising revenues for 2009, the steepest fall in Europe. Since 2004, regional newspapers have faced a much steeper decline in circulation than national newspapers. Not only newspapers, but local radio and regional TV news programmes face significant structural challenges-shifting to meet audiences online, developing effective new advertising models and carrying the burdens of onerous ownership restrictions. Those have been exacerbated by the cyclical pressures brought about by the current economic climate.
It is obviously important for the industry to adapt to the changing economic and technological environment and, in debating this subject, we should not lose sight of the fact that these are, by and large, commercial companies that were able to make substantial and significant profits in the pre-internet age. It is therefore only right that they, as commercial companies, should be prepared to adapt and change their business models in a very different technological climate.
I was interested to note, for example, that yesterday the Evening Standard announced that it has started to move into profit after having adopted a free distribution model. Those are the kinds of changes that newspapers may have to consider. However, it is also incumbent on the Government to ensure that there are no barriers to enterprise-we made that point again and again in opposition-and to provide the necessary independence and vision to enable a commercially successful and publicly valuable local media economy to develop. In that regard, we have stood still for too long, even in the face of the vast changes that I have mentioned.
That is why, as a coalition Government, our priorities in this area are to find ways to improve local media provision, and to enable the development of partnerships across the local media landscape. As elements of local media increasingly converge through digital means, it is vital that we see the landscape as interlinked, so we have to be active across all areas. That means a programme of action across television, newspapers, radio and the internet.
Importantly, we do not think of the issue as a zero-sum game-we are not going to be moving the deckchairs about on the deck of the Titanic. As I said earlier, even in the face of the downturn, we know that the digital age presents real opportunities to grow and strengthen local media. There are opportunities to support the plurality of news, hold local government to account, strengthen democracy, participate in and lead debates, and aggregate data at a local level. There are also opportunities to reconnect people with the work of their local voluntary and community sector, with job opportunities and local businesses, and with neighbourhoods.
We believe that the issue can be dealt with without straightforward subsidy. In fact, we take the view that Government patronage can be a problem-it can create dependence and threaten impartiality. Local media should be given the opportunity to become commercially viable and sustainable in the long term, but they should also have commercial and editorial independence from the very institutions that they are meant to scrutinise.
So what does such an approach look like in action? First, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently announced that we are going to implement the recommendations that Ofcom put forward at the end of last year. We will therefore significantly relax local cross-media ownership regulations, and I hope that that relaxation will be in place by the end of this year. However, we would like to go further, which is why we have asked Ofcom to look at the scope for removing the remaining rules and what the implications of that would be.
If any barriers to local media growth and sustainability are to remain, we want to be absolutely clear about whether they are necessary. Local journalism and the local media economy will benefit from more permeable boundaries between different types of media. That will help to achieve greater economies of scale, to follow consumers as they move between platforms and to develop innovative ways of communicating with audiences.
Secondly, we have a commitment to building a strong broadband network in the UK. Broadband also has a crucial role to play in supporting local media. As I have already pointed out, media at every level-national, regional and local-are converging online, and local media's ability to connect with audiences will increasingly depend on fast internet connections. We want to ensure a basic universal service and to explore ways to introduce super-fast broadband in rural and urban areas. We will work to accelerate the roll-out of super-fast broadband, particularly by using existing infrastructure-the pipes and poles in every neighbourhood-to improve fibre-optic access.
As the hon. Gentleman is fully aware, I have answered a parliamentary question on that point, and I refer him back to the answer I gave him some days ago.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am against Government waste, and it seems pointless to repeat that answer here when it has already been printed in Hansard. I will write him a letter explaining what my definition of super-fast broadband is, but it certainly does not involve the word "megabit."
We have always been clear that the previous Government's plans for independently funded news consortia were the wrong way to go, and we opposed those plans from the beginning. We understood why the previous Government wanted to put the measures in place: it was their answer to the challenge of sustaining regional news. There is a legacy from the process that they started, in that it kindled innovative ideas among local media companies. Indeed, my understanding is that many of the consortia that formed as a result of that policy will continue to work together to look at ways of taking their ideas forward. We hope that by, for example, relaxing the cross-media ownership rules, they can follow a deregulatory path, rather than the subsidy path, to bring their ideas to fruition.
We always felt strongly that the issue of subsidy focused consortia on the best way to get access to the subsidy, as opposed to the best way to engage with viewers. That is why we opposed subsidies, and why we took an early decision not to go ahead with the pilots. The savings made from not going ahead with them will go into providing super-fast broadband, a definition of which is available in Hansard.
I agree with much of what my hon. Friend has said, but does he accept that in places such as Yorkshire, ITV regional news-the news programme there is called "Calendar"-is incredibly popular, and that there is great demand for it? Will he think again about the obvious solution that would help organisations such as ITV carry on with programmes such as "Calendar"? That solution is to top-slice the BBC licence fee. The BBC gets more and more money every year-so much money that in most years, it does not know how to spend it. That money could be given to an organisation such as ITV to do something worth while, such as providing real competition within regional news, which is much enjoyed in places such as Yorkshire.
Mr Foster wants to answer the question, so I am tempted not to answer it, and simply to leave him to deal with it when he speaks. However, I should mention a number of points. First, I have always been against top-slicing the BBC licence fee to fund other broadcasters, because that is the thin end of the wedge. We have one publicly supported broadcaster in this country, but once one starts top-slicing, one effectively creates a second, and possibly a third.
I do not say that ITV is calling for top-slicing, but I say to any broadcaster that might still be calling for it to be careful what they wish for, because the BBC operates under a number of constraints and in a very public climate-something that other broadcasters are, to a certain extent, free from. We do not think such an approach is the way forward, but we believe that we have an answer for my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley: the third strand of our policy after deregulation and laying the infrastructure for super-fast broadband, the definition of which is in Hansard.
I am delighted to welcome my hon. Friend, the new Member for Hove, who has had a distinguished career in the film industry. I went down to Hove to support him during the election and got into trouble with the Daily Mirror as a result, but I will not go into that. I like to think that my visit contributed substantially to my hon. Friend's impressive victory, and I will certainly drop him an e-mail about my definition of super-fast broadband.
After deregulation and broadband roll-out, the third strand is our major announcement on strong public service local television. Bizarrely, this country has had no real local television. As I am sure right hon. and hon. Members will point out, when they turn on their local news it is, in effect, regional news, and regional news can be wholly irrelevant to one's local area. As an Oxfordshire MP, I am used to getting news from Southampton and other places, which are fantastic, but the news is not entirely relevant to where I live. Things are very different in America and western Europe, where local television thrives. A local television network, enabled by a new regulatory regime, could form a core plank of local journalism and local democracy in a thriving multi-platform local media ecosystem. If Mr Watson wishes to put down a parliamentary question, I will give him a definition of multi-platform local media ecosystem.
The Government's focus is on making new local media models commercially viable. We believe that local television has the potential to revitalise local media markets with new cross-media models, and as a new platform for reaching local audiences. Before I go into further detail, I want to stress that regional news will remain, for both ITV and STV, an obligation on the channel 3 licence holders. Our vision for local TV is in addition to existing regional news services. We are looking at the potential for existing public service content providers in the nations and regions to play a role locally.
I have not had the chance to read in detail the Minister's vision for a multi-platform local media ecosystem and for public service TV. Does he acknowledge that some commercially independent newspapers would be wary of a further extension of local TV if it distorts a market in which they are already finding it difficult to operate? Can he reassure them?
I am happy to reassure them; we see local newspaper groups as having an opportunity with local television. It is important to make the point that many of our local newspapers are owned by national or multinational companies; they are not produced with a photocopier in someone's back room, but are part of a substantial business. The Government think that there could be a huge opportunity there, not just because of the quality of the journalism, which is obviously very high and we should not lose sight of that-it reaches its peak in the Wantage and Grove Herald, owned by Newsquest-but because local people tend to identify closely with the brands. We continue to see opportunities there.
On introducing local television into this country, part of the opportunity for local television comes about because of the changes in technology that have decentralised production and reduced costs, and because we have new flexible means of reaching and interacting with audiences. I have already talked about the convergence of different media platforms online, which, again, makes this an exciting opportunity.
We have asked a chap called Nicholas Shott, the head of UK investment banking at Lazard, to examine the potential for commercially viable local television stations and to look at what the barriers are, what incentives are needed and what we need to do to make local television a central part of a thriving local media ecology. On the basis that if one announces something in Parliament, it will not get into the public domain, I want to tell right hon. and hon. Members in complete confidence that we have appointed a steering group to support Nicholas Shott. That may be in the newspapers in a few weeks, but I will tell Members in confidence now. The group includes the media analyst, Claire Enders; the venture capitalist, Brian Linden; the former GCap director, Richard Eyre; and the Labour peer, Baroness Kingsmill, the former head of the Competition Commission. They have agreed to work with Nicholas Shott on his report, which is due in the autumn, to take things forward. There is work to be done.
I am not entirely clear-I cast a panicked look at my officials-whether those terms of reference have been published. I cannot see any reason why they should be confidential. I imagine that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport has sent a letter to Nicholas Shott explaining in detail exactly what the Government hope he will examine in the next few months.
A number of other points arose from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee's report that are worth covering. It focused on the impact that local authority newspapers might have on local newspapers. In opposition I enjoyed sparring with Mr Slaughter on the subject of the role of Hammersmith and Fulham council's local newspaper. I got the impression that he was driven less by principle than by a concern that the newspaper might cost him his seat. Now that he has won a seat that the Conservatives may have expected to win, he may take a more objective view of the newspaper's role. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will bring forward a consultation on the impact of local authority newspapers on the local press in the very near future.
It is also important to address specifically the Culture, Media and Sport Committee's points on local radio. In particular, the Committee praised the role of community radio, and I am delighted to echo that praise. Community radio has been a huge success story, and a lot of the credit goes to the previous Government for how they nurtured it. Towards the end of the previous Parliament, I was on a Committee that further deregulated community radio. In the run-up to digital switchover, which remains a firm commitment of the coalition Government, it is important to acknowledge that there is, again, a significant opportunity for community radio, in that more of the FM spectrum should be available to community radio stations so that they can broadcast to local communities.
I have covered quite a large area of ground in substantial detail. I am grateful that not too many hon. Members intervened on me. I look forward to hearing the speeches of the Opposition spokesman-Mr Bradshaw-and other hon. Members during the two and a half hours that we have to debate this subject.
Forgive me, Mr Benton, but I understood that I would speak towards the end of the debate. I can then respond to hon. Members' points before the Minister sums up.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton, and to give a speech that I did not know I was going to deliver when I entered this cavernously empty Chamber. Given that we have two and a half hours together this afternoon, I would like to use the opportunity to praise the Minister and congratulate him on his appointment. He is a noble and elegant member of the Government, and I am looking forward to working with him when I can, scrutinising him in infinite detail and helping him to do his job to the best of his ability. It is good that he has published the response to the Select Committee's report last year on local media, but I suspect that it has only just gone to the Table Office. He is new to his job, so I shall not be pedantic and complain about that, but he will understand that we have not had time adequately to read the report and respond to it. Perhaps we will have a chance to do so in another forum.
The figure that worried me most in the Minister's speech was that from the OECD of a 26% fall in print advertising revenue this year. That illustrates the huge structural problems that local, regional and national media face in the United Kingdom. They are structural because of the internet, which is the most disruptive technology for many centuries. It is hackneyed to say that it is as disruptive as the Gutenberg press, but it is important that we, as policy makers, understand some of the characteristics that the internet gives us when responding to the challenges in local media. I hope to sketch out a few of my concerns in that area.
The Minister talked about advertising revenue as a prime example of why advertising models for newspapers are now in such trouble. A great man called Craig Newmark, who invented Craigslist, looked at the classified ads in American newspapers and thought they created an imperfect marketplace because people could not find all the goods that they wanted to purchase, and people trying to sell goods could not find all their potential purchasers. He found a digital solution and founded Craigslist, the vast majority of which offers free classified advertising. Having started his endeavour with no idea of how he would make the model pay, he created a small revenue base, based on advertising real estate in selected American cities. Craigslist is one of the biggest and most successful global websites.
Craig Newmark understood the power of network growth, which is killing newspapers' revenue models today. We are almost in a commune of despair when it comes to considering how we can retain a strong, rigorous local news base in the UK. None of us has the answers to the hugely disruptive models that the internet gives us. The lesson that we, as policy makers, must learn is: if we do not have the answers, let us not make it harder to find them. One thing that worries me-my position is probably slightly ironic in my party-is that if one does not know an answer, the regulatory models that are then devised may make the problem worse, not better. I hope that in years to come, the one thing that we can share an interest in is trying not to be too prescriptive with our regulation.
The two Front-Bench teams will probably be in despair at my wittering on about the Digital Economy Act 2010, but I believe that if we are honest with each other, it managed the politics of decline for some of the old publishing models that are now completely challenged and almost washed away by the internet. Governments must sometimes step in and protect industries that are transforming themselves, and that is fine, but I suspect that the Act has made it harder, not easier, for publishers to find solutions.
The simple truth of the internet is that scarcity cannot be enforced, as used to be possible in print media, and local newspapers have found it difficult to find solutions. There are some things that communities do on the internet from which lessons can be learned. It enables people easily to form groups. They may coalesce around a brand, a journalist or a newspaper group, so that what a newspaper does and its component parts are vital to its future success. A classic example is the Daily Mail's Jan Moir, who chose to write a vicious article that resulted in 25,000 complaints to the Press Complaints Commission when people uprose digitally and formed a community. I believe that harmed the Daily Mail brand. A good pioneering local newspaper that distinguishes itself in a niche market by being the only creator of local news and has a track record of integrity, honesty and checking facts can manage transformation in the digital space, but it must understand the power of its brand.
The Minister referred to the Wantage and Grove Herald, which mistakenly made an editorial decision to put his expenses on the front page. How would a newspaper respond to that? The country's biggest-selling regional newspaper-the Express and Star-is in my constituency. It is-dare I say it?-a classically run newspaper with strong news values, and when one turns a page one knows whether one is reading a news story or a comment piece; it does not have editorialised news pages. Editorially, it backs a political party-the Minister's party-but its news coverage is studiously impartial. It refuses to take off-the-record or unattributed briefings; everything is on the record. When it makes a mistake, it apologises and puts it right. When I appeared in the Express and Star accused of claiming for a 69p pair of rubber gloves and a tree surgeon, it apologised and put the matter right by explaining that it was in fact my neighbouring MP who had made those claims. That is why the Express and Star has managed to stand up against some of the forces that have been unleashed in local newspapers better than others. It has strong values which result in a loyal readership.
Another matter that newspapers should understand is the power of communities. They could collaborate with their readership more than they have. We all take part in some form of collaboration. Most hon. Members have columns in our local newspapers, and it is far easier in a digital age to build a more participative relationship with readers. I hope that the Government will play a role in helping to facilitate that.
In our report, we did not discuss in depth whether there is a role for the Government to provide not a technology fund, but technology advice to old-school newspapers in the analogue sector moving through the transition to the digital age. Perhaps one of the most worrying parts of the mix in the newspaper industry now is that when it has had to cut back, it has done so on news journalism to such a degree that it cannot cut the staff any more, so it is now turning on the higher-paid technologists and making it harder for them to handle the digital age. If the Government have a role in partnership, it could be in the technology sector.
I cannot end my rather rambling contribution without referring to the report's reference to the Hammersmith newspaper. What united both wings of the Committee was that we were almost stupefied that a local authority could produce a weekly newspaper containing pizza advertising and-I will not refer to cranky religious advertising-all sorts of dubious advertising without any social policy on that. The only people from the council who were allowed to appear in the pages of the newspaper were the elected Conservative cabinet councillors; the poor Conservative back-bench councillors were not even allowed a voice. The paper had such a dominant place in the local market that it would be impossible for a commercial rival to set up and produce an alternative form of news. It could not possibly have held the local authority to account.
I support what the hon. Gentleman says. Does he agree that it is bad enough when local authorities use local taxpayers' money to pay for propaganda when it is clearly labelled as propaganda, but it is even worse when local authorities such as Hammersmith and Fulham produce newspapers full of propaganda that masquerade as independent newspapers?
Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right. In an article in The Daily Telegraph last week, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government complained about the cost of envelopes in local government. Far be it from me to give the Minister advice about his privatisation plans, but the paper in Hammersmith and Fulham is one local authority paper that could adequately be privatised. That would do us all a democratic service, because it would then hold elected politicians to account.
On the consultation, I hope that we have a serious discussion about how we can give local authorities proper boundaries and show them what is and is not democratically acceptable, because some authorities have inadvertently or deliberately crossed a line that needs defining. It is fair to say that all the members of the Committee entered the inquiry thinking that old newspapers were bleating about local authority newspapers, but when we looked at the issue in depth, we were pretty shocked. I hope the Minister will be able to work with colleagues in other Departments to do something about that, because it is not fair. With that, I will conclude, which should give my right hon. Friend Mr Bradshaw adequate time to wrap up over the next two hours.
It is a great pleasure to follow Mr Watson and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. The debate gives me the opportunity formally to welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend Mr Vaizey, to his post on the Front Bench.
We are discussing a really important issue. The Minister rightly recognised that we all had an opportunity to namecheck our excellent local newspapers. He did so with the Wantage and Grove Herald, and I certainly want to do the same for my own paper, The Bath Chronicle, which is now, sadly, a weekly rather than a daily. The Bath Chronicle, the Wantage and Grove Herald and all other local newspapers are important in ensuring the accountability of our local councils and other public bodies, and they are a focal point for the community. Sometimes they do interesting things; the Minister gave us the example of the coverage of his expenses. About eight years ago, when The Bath Chronicle was a daily, the letters page included a letter complaining that there were too many photographs of Don Foster in the paper. I was delighted that the paper chose to illustrate the letter with a quarter-page photograph of me, with a banner underneath saying, "Too many photographs?"
Local newspapers and the local media-radio and so on-also act as good vehicles for important local campaigns. Let me just say on a serious note, and with a degree of personal interest, that the front page of today's edition of The Bath Chronicle includes an article about my part-time secretary in my constituency office. This lady has had breast cancer and bone cancer, and she now has liver cancer. She is quite seriously ill and she was, most recently, taking Herceptin, until her consultants discovered that it was causing heart failure. The only drug now available to her is relatively new. It was recommended by her consultants, but it has not, unfortunately, gone through the final stages of approval by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, so she is being denied access to this life-saving drug. I am delighted that my local newspaper is running a campaign to gain support for her and that my secretary's local MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg, is supporting her.
Local newspapers, local radio and local media overall are clearly important, and they provide all the things that I have described. They also provide a training ground where many people can develop their media skills before moving to more regional or national newspapers. Given the emphasis that the coalition Government place on localism, it is critical that we find ways of supporting and defending local media so that they can carry out important checks on what happens locally.
As we have heard from the Minister, there are many problems. The local media industry has been contracting for the past five years. Thousands of jobs have been lost in regional and local newspapers, and 25% of jobs are being cut in local papers. Sixty titles were cut last year alone, and more jobs and titles will potentially be lost. Reference has also been made to ITV, where some 1,000 jobs have already gone in the regional news service. More than half of local commercial radio stations are now loss-making, and the industry's total revenue has gone down dramatically-by nearly a quarter-in the past few years. Its audience share has also declined.
The Minister has given us some of the reasons for what has happened. Of course, it is largely to do with the recession and, therefore, the fall in advertising revenue. However, there has also been a move to new platforms, not least on the internet-an issue to which I will return shortly. If we believe that something needs to be done, the real question is what we are going to do about these issues. I am delighted that the coalition agreement makes clear reference to the coalition Government's desire to
"enable partnerships between local newspapers, radio and television stations to promote a strong and diverse local media industry."
The question is how we do that. I want to make a number of suggestions to the Minister and to pick up on some of the points that he and others have made.
Let me start by saying that it is critical that we understand the important role that the BBC plays, and that we make it clear that we would do great damage to local, regional and national media if we followed the advice of Philip Davies and top-sliced the BBC's licence fee. That would undermine the BBC's independence-something that I am delighted the Secretary of State, in his recent speech on these issues, made clear the coalition Government are not prepared to do. The minute we allow top-slicing at the BBC, the corporation will be constantly looking over its shoulder to make sure that it is not offending the Government of the day, and its independence from the Government will be lost. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that I strongly oppose top-slicing and I hope that that will be the view of the coalition Government.
If that is the case, and top-slicing undermines the BBC's independence, is the hon. Gentleman saying that the BBC's independence suddenly disappears in the months and years before the charter and the licence fee agreement come up for renegotiation, because the BBC is looking over its shoulder and thinking about what the Government might do?
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but two wrongs do not make a right for a start. He should look carefully at the BBC's current role, because there are ways of involving the BBC-I will come to this in more detail in a minute-in developing things that we need to support local and regional media. The BBC's sixth purpose, for example, includes responsibility for helping to develop platforms on which BBC programmes will appear. The most obvious example currently is the roll-out of high-speed broadband, the definition of which we will receive shortly when we get our letters from the Minister. That is an important example. Under its existing charter obligations, the BBC could be expected to provide even more support through such activities.
The hon. Gentleman is also well aware that the BBC has recently developed an even more vigorous approach to the concept of partnership. It is working with others in all parts of the media to provide forms of mutual support. That work benefits the BBC, but it also supports others. That is another area that we need to do more about in future.
Recently the biggest area of support, collaboration and partnership has been in developing a key part of the solution to our current problems: Project Canvas. I am sure that all hon. Members present are aware that while we debate the BBC Trust is making a final decision about whether to allow the BBC to go ahead with it. I hope the trust will allow it, because it will be a key driver in solving many of the problems that we have described.
Before the hon. Gentleman moves away from the question of the BBC and top-slicing, have not the Government announced that they intend to do exactly what he so decries, in that they have said they will fund super-fast broadband, whatever that means-one assumes it must be more than 2 megabits post-2014-from the licence fee? That can only mean a continuation of top-slicing post-2014.
The right hon. Gentleman should know better than to ask me of all people that question, because he knows only too well that the previous Government identified the underspend from the digital switchover money, which was provided for the targeted help scheme. That was ring-fenced and was not going to be used for any other BBC activities. I was highly critical of it; it should never have been there. That is a very different proposition from taking money from the BBC's operating funding. It was a separate fund. The previous Government were going to use it for one set of purposes, and the coalition Government are going to use it for other purposes. On a judgment call as to who is right, I believe the coalition decision to use it for the roll-out of high-speed broadband is right. The right hon. Gentleman was going to use it in part for independently funded news consortia.
If we are only talking about the underspend from the digital switchover before 2014, how will the coalition fund super-fast broadband after 2014?
That is obviously a matter for subsequent announcements that the Minister will no doubt make. I do not want to second-guess him. I have already hinted that the Government would be wise to give careful consideration to the sixth purpose of the BBC. That could happen in combination with several other measures that would help to drive up demand, which I shall come to, and that would incentivise the commercial companies-Virgin, BT and others-to act, for their own benefit. There are ways forward.
The other television organisation that has been mentioned is ITV, which has been a catalyst for debate because of its decision to reduce regional television. Many people have been deeply concerned about that. There is a new management team, and ITV seems at least willing to consider maintaining present regional TV levels, rather than making further cuts. The decisions have not yet been made. However, certain things should be done to provide support to ITV. Ofcom is already looking at the airtime sales rules, and we shall have to wait for the outcome. It is considering-I would hope it would do it rather more urgently-the issue of minutage, particularly in peak time. However, there is a key area in which it is important for the coalition Government to find a solution: the problems currently caused by the contract rights renewal situation. That is a fetter on ITV's opportunity to develop a rational approach to the sale of advertising. I fully appreciate the difficulties, although it is not appropriate to go into them here. I hope that the Minister will make some reference to the issue and give a commitment that the Government will do all they can to find a solution, perhaps working with colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
The Minister has mentioned something else that will be helpful for local and regional media-the reduction of regulation of cross-media ownership. The Secretary of State referred in his speech at the Hospital club to Ofcom's recommendations, and an agreement to proceed with those, but he said he wanted to go further, and if possible to remove the rules altogether. Of course he rightly entered a caveat, saying that we must bear in mind monopoly situations, which would be a matter of concern to us all. I hope that the Minister will be willing to consider, in addition to monopolies, the other side of the coin: all our deliberations-on all mergers-should include a public interest test. On some occasions a public interest test would suggest going ahead with something even if it would lead to a monopoly. We should introduce such a test not just for cross-media ownership but for monopolies. That is a possible approach.
There is a problem for the coalition Government and we should make no bones about it. The two parties in the coalition started their approach to independently funded news consortia from different positions. The Conservative party was opposed to them and the Liberal Democrats wanted to go ahead with the three trials. The coalition agreement states that we shall not go ahead, and I support that because of the Minister's clear acknowledgment that although they were not necessarily the right way forward, valuable lessons had been learned from the work that was done in setting up the potential trial areas. The question for the coalition Government is whether to grasp the opportunities of those lessons and find ways to take them forward.
I mentioned Project Canvas. With that, people will be able to sit in front of their televisions and see programmes that come from satellite, free-to-air or, effectively, their computer, via broadband. It would then be perfectly possible to develop a model of local television, which the Secretary of State and the Minister are interested in developing-I support them in that-through an internet protocol television route. That would be one potential model. We could then bring into partnership local and regional newspapers, local radio stations and other interested groups, and many others in the creative industries, in developing programmes. A model could be developed that could provide truly local television, which would support the other parts of the local and regional media industries. That would bring something of real interest to communities, and would be a sustainable model.
The hon. Gentleman will not be able to answer this, because none of us has an answer, but although I follow the logic of his argument, is not the advertising revenue model from which organisations now work finite? What he suggests might load greater obligation and cost on to local news organisations without an increase in revenues to cover it.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but all I am suggesting is that I hope the review will consider the model I describe. That model could also receive support from the BBC and ITV, to provide some programming through partnership arrangements with the BBC and Canvas and ITV and its regional news outlets. That could provide a new route forward. Interestingly, the Select Committee hinted at it as a possibility in its report, and it ties in with the precise wording of the coalition agreement, which mentions partnerships between all those bodies.
Of course, as the Secretary of State said, there would also be the possibility of having straightforward, free-to-air local TV stations, but in those circumstances it is almost certain that they would have to use the interleaved spectrum. As we know, there is pressure on that spectrum for other uses such as programme making and special events-PMSE-and so on, so there are problems to be overcome, but it would be interesting to look at both models.
My final point on this subject to the Minister, and through him to the Secretary of State, is that reference is often made to the situation in America. We are aware, of course, that many of the American stations that he referred to are actually cable television stations-that is, the equivalent of broadband today. The one advantage of developing that model as part of the package is that it would be a key driver for broadband take-up. Broadband roll-out is crucial, but it is equally important that there is high take-up of broadband as it is rolled out. If that occurs, there will be a greater incentive for commercial operators to do a greater proportion of the work than they might otherwise do, thereby reducing the requirement on the state to fill in the gaps for rural and hard-to-reach areas. The model that I am describing would have the advantage of driving up broadband take-up.
I apologise for coming late to the debate, Mr Benton, because of an earlier ministerial meeting. Otherwise, I would have intervened earlier.
May I point out to the hon. Gentleman our regret over the dropping of the IFNC plans? There is a sense of urgency within the industry, and as secretary of the National Union of Journalists group I have stood up time and again in virtually every debate we have had over the past 18 months on the matter to demonstrate that sense of urgency. I suppose that what I am trying to get across to him is that if he is offering an alternative model, it would behove him to put as much pressure as he possibly can on the coalition to bring his proposals forward rapidly, before we lose even more jobs in the industry.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. In the most appropriate way that I can, given the rather strange circumstances that we all find ourselves in, I shall offer several suggestions in a friendly and supportive way to the Minister who has responsibility in this area. I hope that I have done exactly what the hon. Gentleman has asked of me.
I have two more quick points before I conclude. The first, which is about local radio, is a plea to the Minister. It will not fall on deaf ears, because I know that he shares my view on this: we must have a clear route map for digital radio switchover, as quickly as possible. It is vital so that the industry can understand where it is going. In doing that, can we please continue to make it clear to the public at large that digital switchover does not mean that FM will disappear? The continuation of FM provides a set of opportunities for exciting new things to happen, not least the development of true community radio, which is often run by volunteers and local groups. It would provide yet another form of local media which I believe would be very popular indeed. So please let us get on with digital radio switchover. We have passed the legislation to enable it, so let us now get on and implement it as quickly as possible. And, please, can we make it clear that there is no intention to switch off FM?
Finally, following on from where the hon. Member for West Bromwich East left off, of course we are all deeply concerned about the relatively small number of local councils that produce free sheets far too regularly, taking away advertising from their local newspapers, and action needs to be taken. I am sure that he, like me, has looked carefully at the statistics provided by the Local Government Association, which did some helpful work recently in looking at the number of councils that do that. It is staggering how few local councils, relatively speaking, are doing what he suggested-going way over the mark-but the fact is that several are, and it is critically important that action be taken by laying down clear guidelines on what will be allowed. In those areas where the council is going over the top-going overboard-we must provide protection to the local media.
I hope that the Minister will think that my remarks have been helpful in suggesting a way forward. I look forward to other colleagues joining the debate and to hearing what the Minister has to say.
Thank you, Mr Benton, for giving me an opportunity to speak today. This is not my maiden speech; it is actually my second speech, so I shall not be constrained by the 10 minutes one gets for a maiden speech. I have one hour and 20 minutes to complete my speech, so thank you for that.
I thank you, Minister, for helping me to win the seat of Hove, which I hope will soon be called "Hove and Portslade", as I am campaigning for use of the full constituency name. We had an enjoyable ice-cream on the beach, I recall, and you had a lot of green paint on your jacket that day after sitting on a painting. We sat on theatre seats on the beach, which was appropriate, given the Department for Culture, Media and Sport role that you hold.
You spoke to local businesses at the Brighton and Hove business show, which included many media companies. As you said, advertising revenues are in decline, but there are many opportunities out there for specific, targeted advertising, which is more effective. Advertising revenues may be down, but opportunities are up through the many outlets that you are creating in local media.
Of course, local democracy is important, so I shall take up your advice to include some of the names of my local media outlets. Our wonderful daily newspaper, The Argus, is not always helpful but is always informative, like your own local paper, I believe. It is a wonderful example of a regional newspaper.
We also have a free weekly magazine called Latest Homes. It is an example of a magazine whose readership is in ascendancy rather than decline. As you said earlier, many comments have been made about changing the media. I believe you mentioned that the London Evening Standard is now in profit. I am sure that that will be one of the ways forward for many papers.
Order. May I in the nicest way possible put it to the hon. Gentleman that he should not use personal pronouns when addressing other Members? I point out that it should be "honourable Member".
Thank you, Mr Benton, for pointing that out. I appreciate it.
We also have several good, strong local radio stations. One is Juice FM, and there is a community radio station called Radio Reverb, on which I was fortunate to host a programme called "House of Rock". I mention Radio Reverb because it is a good, local community radio station which does not have any advertising revenues. That has its own problems, but the station is an example of how the community can get involved. The ongoing point is that it goes out on the internet as well, and a programme that I presented with the Iron Maiden manager had a spike of listenership because it was taken up around the globe.
That brings me to local television. Like other hon. Members who mentioned this, I am a little concerned about propaganda masquerading as entertainment programming. We need to be careful of that.
I know that various consortiums in my constituency are looking closely at local TV, and one of my hopes, as someone who wants to expand the creativity of the city, especially Hove and Portslade, is that we take up all the opportunities for media. And, while considering local TV, we must consider whether super-fast broadband, whatever that may be, has implications-whether there is actually a local aspect, and whether we have enough listenership and enough people in the locality viewing the programmes rather than taking information from elsewhere.
It is a great honour to make the first intervention on a new Member. I did not realise that we had the Jack Black of the Conservative Back Benches with us, but I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is taking part in the debate. When he is looking at his local media and how internet radio and internet TV can be developed, does he accept that the capacity in which super-fast broadband is delivered will be vital to that? If we are to scale up the extent of people downloading content through the net, we will perhaps need a definition of or at least a floor level for what super-fast broadband means in practical terms.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I, too, am looking forward to the definition of super-fast broadband and how that is implicated in the debate. Certainly in my professional career, I have been very involved with intellectual property rights and the problems that that issue creates. I believe in creative ownership and, as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, digital downloads will potentially cause a problem going into the future. I look forward to supporting the Government in providing a full definition, including the aspect of super-fast broadband.
I welcome the debate. At the beginning of it, the Minister made much of how the new Government want to take Parliament more seriously, but six weeks after taking office, the Secretary of State has made a speech at the Roundhouse about the arts and one in Weymouth about tourism and he has announced at least some media policy at the Hospital club-but he has yet to come to the House of Commons to make a statement. I therefore welcome the opportunity to have a proper debate about media policy this afternoon.
As hon. Members on both sides rightly said, strong, independent local and regional media are essential to the health of our democracy as well as to a sense of identity and place in communities and regions throughout the United Kingdom. However, these have, as hon. Members noted, come under severe pressure in recent years for the reasons already highlighted: the move from traditional to digital media, the reduction in advertising revenue and, for some local newspapers, unacceptable competition from local authority freesheets.
The threat to quality television news on ITV in the English regions and in Scotland, Wales and, to a lesser extent, Northern Ireland, has been particularly serious. ITV has already made drastic cuts to its regional news provision, affecting quality and local content and hampering those programmes' ability to compete effectively with the BBC. However, in all surveys of opinion in this country, the public have said that high-quality local and regional news is the public service content that they value more than any other. Viewing figures substantiate that, with evening regional news programmes often being the most watched news programmes on the schedule in those regions.
That was the context of Labour's policy for independently funded news consortia-a policy supported by both Commons and Lords Select Committees, both with Conservative Chairs. It was also supported by Mr Foster, who used to speak on Department for Culture, Media and Sport matters for the Liberal Democrats, but who has been unceremoniously excluded, so far, from the governing coalition.
In fact, my first question for the Minister is, who does speak for his Liberal Democrat partners on DCMS matters in the present Government? Whoever it is, he or she cannot be too effective, because I have so far failed to identify a single Liberal Democrat DCMS policy that has survived the coalition negotiations. If that person is the hon. Member for Bath, or if it may well be in the future, I wish him better luck going forward.
As the right hon. Gentleman has asked a straight question, may I read to him from the coalition agreement? It states:
"We will maintain the independence of the BBC"- a Liberal Democrat policy-
"and give the National Audit Office full access to the BBC's accounts to ensure transparency."
That was also a Liberal Democrat proposal. The agreement refers to the policy that we have already mentioned about partnerships between newspapers and radio. It refers to
"free entry to national museums", work to deliver the Olympic games,
"moving to a 'gross profits tax' system for the National Lottery", the use of dormant betting accounts and
"reform of football governance rules".
It also states:
"We will cut red tape to encourage the performance of more live music."
I think that the right hon. Gentleman will recognise each and every one of those as a Liberal Democrat policy, and if he looks in other parts of the coalition programme, he will also notice reference to, for example, minimum pricing for alcohol and other measures. I think that he can be confident that we have played our part.
Yes, but the hon. Gentleman has read out a rather long list of policies that were also Conservative party policies; none was a distinctive Liberal Democrat policy. However, despite what I have said about the hon. Gentleman's previous support for IFNCs, one of the Government's first acts was to scrap them, without having any clear idea of what to put in their place. When I asked the Secretary of State, during DCMS oral questions this week, whether he could point to any other European country in which his new preferred model of local TV works, he could not.
It would be very helpful to hon. Members here if the Minister did better in his summing up, or if he identified a single respected media industry commentator who believes that the figures on local TV stack up. No, this has been done for ideological reasons and has been cheered on, no doubt, by the Government's friends in the Murdoch empire, who object to any intervention in the market or any obstacle to their aim to dominate it. I am afraid that it will mean the end of high-quality news on ITV in the regions and nations of the UK, and that will be the first bitter legacy of the present Government's media policy.
"We believed that the IFNCs' capacity to tap the talent and expertise of regional media companies to provide a viable alternative to the BBC's local news made sense for everyone...we don't see 'City TV' as a viable proposition. Our research suggests that the costs are too high and the revenues too low to support a sustainable business model."
"we are sorry to see the scheme for independently funded news consortia scrapped".
"and multi-platform coverage across the whole of Wales...We are disappointed with today's statement that the news pilots will not proceed."
I am sure that as we have a few minutes ahead of us, the former Secretary of State will not mind my intervening again. I have already made it clear that I think we would have carried on the trials were we not in coalition. The problem that we faced, and that he now has to answer, is this. Had the trials been successful, where would the money have come from? Is he saying that the Labour party is committed now, in opposition, to providing funding for the full roll-out across the country of the costs of IFNCs? If so, where is the money coming from?
We were absolutely clear about that, in our manifesto, in the "Digital Britain" White Paper and in all the discussions that we had on it-that our preferred model was to use a small fraction of the licence fee, equivalent to the fraction currently being used to fund digital switchover. However, we were also open to any other arguments in favour of sustainable, long-term and transparent funding models.
I shall come to the issue of funding now, because the Government appear also to have reversed their previous position and to have accepted what we have always said, which is that fast next-generation broadband cannot be supplied to the whole United Kingdom by the market. They have acknowledged, or at least said, that they will use the underspend from the digital switchover fund to help to pay for that, instead of for the IFNC pilots.
What I am not clear about-I do not think the Minister himself is-is how he defines super-fast broadband. I was sent a definition on my BlackBerry a couple of moments ago, but I have lost it. It did not come up with a figure, although I understand that the current Chancellor of the Exchequer used the figure of 200 megabits at some stage during the election campaign. The Minister's language involved something about a speed that would deliver the best broadband in Europe.
Either way, the Government have at long last recognised that the market will not deliver that, but I am still not clear about something. Our target was to reach 2 megabits by 2012 by using the underspend from the digital switchover, but after 2014, we were going to fund it-again, this was supported by the Liberal Democrats at the time- through a very modest levy on fixed telephone lines. That would have provided the super-fast broadband by 2018. I am not sure what the Minister's funding mechanism will be post-2014. Although the hon. Member for Bath said that it would not mean the continuation of top-slicing of the BBC licence fee, I should be grateful if the Minister confirmed that that is so. If that is not to be the funding stream, what will be?
If, after 2014, the Government intend to continue using a portion of the licence fee to fund super-fast broadband, I suggest that, having criticised the Labour Government for planning to use part of the licence fee to fund regional news with important public-service broadcasting content, using part of the licence fee to fund infrastructure would show breathtaking double standards. I would appreciate some clarity on the point.
Will the Minister also give us a guarantee-we have not had one so far-that there will be no further deterioration in ITV regional news until he and his Liberal Democrat friends come up with-whatever model they intend to put in its place? Will he also assure us of something that the Prime Minister could not assure us of yesterday at Prime Minister's Question Time-that there will be no relaxation in the rules governing impartiality for broadcasters?
We have talked about further deregulation in the local ownership market. The Minister has already acknowledged that Ofcom has recommended a relaxation of local media rules, with the exception of the same organisation owning all three media-newspapers, radio and television-in one area. Does the Secretary of State's statement at the Hospital club that he wants to go even further than previously proposed mean that the Government would be happy to see a monopoly of media ownership across those three platforms in one area or region? I would be grateful for an assurance-and so, I suspect, would the hon. Member for Bath.
I turn to local newspapers. The downturn in advertising, structural changes in the advertising market and the significant generational shift in reading habits has, as we all acknowledge, hit local newspapers hard. A number of newspaper and other media organisations were part of the successful consortiums that bid for our IFNC pilots, and as I said earlier, they are dismayed by the Government's decision to scrap them. However, the local newspaper industry is looking to the Government to act on the proliferation of local authority freesheets.
None of us thinks that there is anything wrong with local councils keeping in touch with their residents on an occasional basis, to ensure that the public are aware of local services and how to access them, and how to contact their councillors. However, as we have heard, in a small number of cases things have been getting out of hand. The hon. Member for Bath referred to the Local Government Association survey, which showed that about 15% of local authorities produce a newspaper or magazine at least once a month, and that 13% of newspapers give over more than a third of their pages to adverts, with one local authority reporting that half its freesheet comprises adverts. That deprives the local paid-for newspaper market of extremely valuable advertising revenue.
Before the election, the Labour Government were about to issue new guidance that would have put a stop to that. When can we expect action from the Government on that front? The Minister spoke of consultation, but we have already had consultation. We had a long and full consultation last year; we do not need more. The rules mean that he cannot look at documents or correspondence from the time before his arrival at the Department, but I understand that they allow me to get hold of that information; I would be happy to give him a copy of a letter that I wrote to my colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government, giving a simple solution. I urge the Minister to implement it forthwith, without having to go through another lengthy consultation. I know that local newspapers and the local newspaper industry are desperate for something to be done. They do not want more consultation; they want action.
I should be grateful if the Minister told us what the Government intend to do about news aggregating services. They have the enormous potential to suck up news for little cost. Indeed, Google is already doing so, but Google will never pay local journalists to cover court cases or to scrutinise the workings of a local authority.
The hon. Member for Bath touched on the importance of local radio and the digital switchover. When we were in government, we recognised the pressures facing the commercial radio industry. The Digital Economy Act 2010 relaxed the rules governing the local radio market. We also provided the industry with much needed certainty on digital switchover, setting a date and the conditions that needed to be met. As the hon. Gentleman said, the freeing up of the FM spectrum for local and community radio could be valuable for local and community radio. However, the industry needs certainty.
The Minister said on Monday that the Government were proceeding with digital switchover, but were
"taking all factors into account"--[Hansard, 21 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 12.]
Will he explain exactly what that means? Are the Government still committed to switchover in 2015? Will they be setting out the criteria that have to be met before a final decision is taken? Will the Government also be deciding on a help scheme similar to that for digital switchover on television, to support people through that time?
Last but not least, will the Minister say when the DCMS website will be updated? I wanted to check what the Government's policy was on media and broadcasting, but it was blank.
This has been an enjoyable and illuminating debate. Before turning to the myriad questions put by the excellent Opposition spokesman, Mr Bradshaw, I wish to dwell briefly on some of the speeches that preceded his.
First, I thank Mr Watson for his kind comments about me. It is sometimes disconcerting to members of the public when Members of Parliament from opposite sides of the House pour praise on each other. It might come across as some sort of establishment conspiracy. However, the public occasionally say that they dislike yah-boo politics and would like politicians to work more closely together. That is obviously why we decided on a coalition.
I do not stint in my admiration for the hon. Gentleman. I have known him for many years. He has turned himself into a digital champion, and a champion of the creative industries. He thinks deeply about the subject and about the impact that the internet is having on all aspects of our lives. It is always dangerous for a junior Member to patronise a more senior MP, but I think that over the past few years the hon. Gentleman has earned the right for his comments to be heard by all sides. He always makes a powerful case. His speeches are not party-free, but they are generally independent and thoughtful. I look forward to engaging in debate with him on this subject for months, if not years, to come. I say, as a matter of praise, that I am always slightly nervous when he intervenes on me; I know that whatever questions he puts to me will probably be difficult, as was demonstrated today.
The hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to speak, perhaps in a Rumsfeldian way, about unknown unknowns in connection with the internet. It is important for hon. Members to understand that the internet is changing things so quickly, and technology is moving so rapidly, that any attempt at prescriptive regulation would be dangerous. The general consensus about the Communications Act 2003 is that it may already be significantly out of date. We certainly had interesting debates about the Digital Economy Act 2010, and there are views across the spectrum on how effective it might be.
The hon. Gentleman raised a specific point about technology advice from the Government. I can tell him-the answer was obviously in my head as he was asking the question-that there exists a creative industries knowledge transfer network. Apparently, that is part of the Technology Strategy Board. It has made an open call for proposals as part of its digital test bed. I do not need to explain this, but for the record the board is an arm's length group under the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills-or, as I learned this morning, part of the BIS family. I am sure that the board will continue to thrive in the age of austerity.
Mr Foster-perhaps I should call him my hon. Friend-and I have participated in a number of debates over the past few years, and as the select group of people who have followed them, and even obsessed about them, will know I have frequently referred to him as my mentor, and that is no less true today than it has been in the past. He is a man from whom I have learned a great deal, and he is a very important part of the DCMS family under the current coalition Government. We continue to listen closely to him and to engage in regular discussions with him. As he demonstrated in his speech, his knowledge of this sector and areas around it is second to none. I obviously concur with his view that top-slicing would be a dangerous road to go down. I heard what he said about contract rights renewal, and I can assure him that the Government are looking at that, because it has become clear that a simple regulatory reform may not be enough. He was very honest in his appraisal of IFNCs and how they came to an end. I heard his remarks on radio switchover as well, and I will return to them when I address the questions put to me by the Opposition spokesman.
I thought that it was a little unfair of the Opposition spokesman to claim that there were no distinctive Liberal Democrat policies in the coalition agreement. There was already strong agreement between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives on a range of issues across culture and the creative industries, so in effect, coalition policies already existed, and they made it into the coalition agreement. Indeed, that includes policies that have crashed resoundingly in the past week. I refer to the video games tax credit, of which I was an enthusiastic supporter, as was the hon. Member for Bath. When faced with the brick wall of the Treasury, even policies that have the strong support of leading members of both parties can break like an egg and slide slowly into oblivion.
I did not come to this debate as well prepared as the hon. Member for Bath, who clearly anticipated the Opposition's question regarding which policies made it in and which were out. The only issue that we disagreed over was IFNCs, and we had a specific alternative policy to put in place. On most other things-I am sure that at any point now the hon. Member for Bath will intervene and help me out-we were in agreement.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mike Weatherley on his maiden Westminster Hall speech. He and I share a similar ambition; I have renamed my constituency "Wantage and Didcot", although technically it remains Wantage in the Official Report. Even the BBC, when I occasionally appear on it, refers to me as "the Member for Didcot". My advice to my hon. Friend is to call himself "the Member for Hove and Portslade", and in every arena other than this, he will be known as that. As I discovered at the last election, he will rack up the votes in Portslade as a result. He has had a very successful career in the media and will bring important expertise to bear on the subject. No doubt he will continue to press me for a definition of super-fast broadband to demonstrate his strong independence while he remains temporarily on the Back Benches.
I welcome the shadow spokesman, the right hon. Member for Exeter, to his place. I occasionally faced him across the Dispatch Box, and he brought a great deal of passion and expertise to his role as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Again, without wishing to confirm the prejudices of the public, I have long been an admirer of him and his work. I now have to address some of the specific questions that he was able to put to me as a result of the expertise that he gained as Secretary of State. He challenged me to cite examples of successful local television in Europe. Obviously, there are strong examples in America, but there are also very important successful commercial examples in Spain, and possibly even Sweden. He also challenged me to name any serious commentators who supported our proposals. Roy Greenslade, the éminence grise, who is probably at the pinnacle of media commentators, was full of praise for the Secretary of State's proposals on local television. No one is pretending that a solution is ready to be taken off the shelf; we are working hard on the matter. What Roy Greenslade praised, and what the right hon. Member for Exeter might bring himself to praise in a quiet and private moment, is the ambitious nature of our plans for local television.
I am grateful to the Minister for his comments, and if I was deploying Rumsfeldian rhetoric in this debate, I apologise. I hope that he appreciates that on this occasion, I have not followed through with the tanks. I am looking for general reassurance on a point. Essentially, I think that his dilemma is that very early on in his time in the Department, he will be asked to back a winner. The point that I was trying to make, obviously rather inelegantly, is that he should try not to lose some of the initiatives that are encouraging innovation and creativity. In particular, I am thinking of 4iP and the work that it has done in the hyper-local news sector, which might be revolutionary, and might be the solution that develops. Have a look at www.thestirrer.co.uk, which was set up by Adrian Goldberg. Goldberg has created a community that generates its own news content, and people participate in a community board on the back of that. I ask the Minister to resist the temptation to narrow down the options, and ask him to try to use very small amounts of investment to ensure that 1,000 blossoms can bloom.
I take the hon. Gentleman's point, and let me say that we can agree on a number of levels. As he said, we are talking about a very fast-changing landscape, so it is not the job of the Government to pick winners. That brings the focus on to why the Conservative party, when in opposition, opposed IFNCs. We felt very strongly that it was about picking winners. It was effectively keeping in place the old model of regional television with public money. In contrast, with local television, we are looking at a deregulatory initiative; it could also perhaps be called a regulatory initiative, at least in so far as it would mean setting in place a regime that allows commercial organisations to fill that space, if they think that it is viable. That is why we have asked Nicholas Shott to examine the commercial viability of the initiative, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we must not lose sight of the fact that there are hundreds of different initiatives that are involved in the delivery of local news.
The last time I mentioned the subject in Parliament, I was e-mailed by the local news bloggers in Lichfield, who met in the pub and now provide an ultra-local news service. Of course, there will be elements of public money available for that kind of research and experimentation. In effect, one could argue that although 4iP does not strictly have public money, a public service broadcaster is providing the service. The Technology Strategy Board is available, and the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts could potentially lead research in this area, as could our universities and higher education institutions. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that media companies might also find room to experiment.
The right hon. Member for Exeter pressed me on broadband roll-out, and how the Government were going to pay for it post-2014. We intend to have an industry day at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on
Before the Minister moves off broadband, I thought that it might be helpful if I provided him with his own definition of "super-fast", which was
"broadband of sufficient speed and quality to deliver the services that will lead to Britain having the best broadband network in Europe. The technology used to deliver this could be fixed or wireless but will represent a significant upgrade on today's fixed and wireless networks."-[Hansard, 17 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 533W.]
I hope that that is helpful to hon. Members. It will make it unnecessary for the hon. Gentleman to write to everyone after the debate. The Chancellor used the figure of 100 megabits per second in his interview with Andrew Marr during the election campaign.
The Opposition spokesman has read out my definition, and I wonder what all the fuss is about. What could be clearer? In this World cup climate, an alternative definition could be, "just so long as we are faster than the Germans".
The right hon. Gentleman also asked whether the coalition Government were planning to remove the rules for broadcasting impartiality. "Smear" would perhaps be too strong a word, but that is a long-running misrepresentation of a discussion document issued by the Conservative party in opposition. There is a real issue.
No one is planning to remove the rules of impartiality for our current public service broadcasters, but what about The Guardian or the Daily Mirror? When The Guardian does podcasts or makes broadcasts that it puts out on its website, should it be subject to impartiality rules? Common sense dictates that that would not be the case, but there is an open question about what happens with IPTV when the internet becomes effectively available on our television. Suppose that a channel run by The Guardian is on the internet, but viewed through our television-should that be impartial or not? It is an interesting matter to explore.
The Labour party was keen to speculate that we were anxious to import Fox News to this country, but that is certainly not our intention. As for whether we would be content with a monopoly of ownership at the local level, we have asked Ofcom to consult on the issue. We want to explore whether it is possible to go further, but we acknowledge that sweeping away such regulations cannot simply be a straightforward political decision. The matter has to be analysed and consulted on, and we would listen to and abide by whatever Ofcom came up with.
News aggregators are an ongoing matter of concern for the local and national media. In recent weeks, News International has decided to put pay walls around its website. Interestingly, Rupert Murdoch is always cited by the Labour party as effectively dictating the Conservative party's media policy; despite the fact that his newspapers supported the Labour party between 1994 and approximately 2009, he apparently has always been in control of the Conservative party and has absolutely no influence on the Labour party.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He knows that we have plenty of time to develop such arguments. Does he acknowledge that news aggregators are successful because they allow citizens and consumers to find content in a useful format? However, media companies do have the right to opt out of news aggregators and that really should be where the arm of the Government is in such discussions.
Absolutely. The matter is, in effect, an argument between two competing businesses and business models. Again, it is a fast-moving debate and we will see what emerges. I am not convinced at the moment that there is a case for direct Government intervention, even if such intervention were realistic or possible.
Finally, the Opposition spokesman, the right hon. Member for Exeter, pressed me on the digital radio switchover. We remain completely committed to switchover. We intend fully to press ahead with it, but it is important to take all factors into account. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bath pointed out, it is important to scotch a few of the myths that surround digital radio switchover; the idea that FM will suddenly disappear is not true. There are myths about the energy use of digital radios and, again, digital radio technology is changing rapidly to enable cheaper and even more consumer-friendly radios to be put into the marketplace. The previous Government set interesting and important targets for the percentage of the population that should be listening to digital radio before switchover, as well as the level of coverage. Those are all factors that we will take into account. We hope to announce the road map to digital switchover shortly, and by "shortly" I mean in less than three weeks.
This has been an enjoyable debate. I began by teasing my local paper, the Wantage and Grove Herald. I hope that nobody would take my remarks as criticism in any sense, because it is one of the best local newspapers in the country, and it provides an important local community service, along with its sister papers the Oxford Mail and TheOxford Times. I also, perhaps, teased Arqiva for burning down my television aerial in Oxfordshire. I would like to put on the record, as a new Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, that as far as I am concerned-and this is a tribute both to the current Opposition spokesman and his predecessors-the digital television switchover has gone incredibly smoothly. It is one life's great ironies that the first glitch just happened to happen in an area that affected my constituents.
Question put and agreed to.