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[Sir Hugh Bayley in the Chair] — backbench business — Local Newspapers

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 19th March 2015.

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Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 1:30 pm, 19th March 2015

The BBC has entered into relationships with the local press in some areas, and the dissemination of information in that way has been fairly constructive. The NUJ is calling for a short, sharp inquiry on the future of local newspapers because we want to look at the whole architecture in which local media operate.

I repeat the statement in the NUJ briefing, which was sent to all of us. It believes that journalists should be at the heart of local communities, speaking and listening to readers. It believes that there is a strong future for local papers that enjoy high levels of trust among their readers, but the sector is in a precarious position. That is why year-on-year cuts, pay freezes and increased work loads are creating low morale among journalists at local papers and undermining the product that companies are seeking to sell. Professional journalism, community journalism and investigative journalism could be casualties in the coming years if we do not act soon.

The NUJ has been running a country-wide campaign with Co-operatives UK and the Carnegie Trust to consider how good journalism could be funded. An issue that has come up, including at our seminar, is that the NUJ believes that this Government’s Localism Act 2011, which we supported, should be amended to give local newspapers protected status as community assets to prevent newspaper titles from closing overnight and allow new owners—including, as my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn said, co-operatives and other community initiatives—time to put together bids for the paper. Newspaper groups should not be allowed to close a paper and lock away a title that has resonance in the local community. Legislation is also needed to prevent newspaper owners from refusing to offer titles for sale before closing them. They should at least be offered to others who might want to make them a going concern.

The NUJ asks the Government to open an inquiry into the future of local papers to explore how Government could support new models of ownership, such as co-operatives and community ownership by readers, and investigate how Government subsidies and tax advantages could work for local newspapers. I welcome yesterday’s statement, but tax concessions and reductions in business rates should not be allowed to go towards featherbedding companies with increased shareholder dividends or into high salaries for executives.

We should consider how local papers could be funded or part-funded, as others are, on a public service model. If local papers receive public subsidies through tax concessions or otherwise, there should be a public benefit test. Do they report council meetings? Do they report what is happening with local statutory agencies, and hold them to account? We have also been proposing for a while that the use of industrial levies should be investigated: for example, a 1% levy on pay TV operators such as Sky and Virgin Media would bring in about £80 million a year to fund the development and transitional costs of the local newspaper sector. A 1% levy on the five big mobile phone operators could generate £208 million a year. On boardroom greed, one proposal that has been debated is to link chief executives’ and executives’ pay not just to performance but to their employees’ pay, and to ensure trade union and proper representation on remuneration committees, so that there is more transparency and openness.

As we have seen today, despite all the travails of the local newspaper sector, the recognition of its importance is prompting Government and all parties to consider seriously how we can intervene to support it in this period of transition into the new digital age. It will survive and thrive only on the basis of preserving and promoting quality journalism. Without that, a local paper is undermined as a product and will wither on the vine. I urge whoever is in government next to seize the NUJ proposal of an open and engaging inquiry involving all stakeholders into delivering a way forward to enable an essential public service to flourish once again.