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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:03 pm on 19th March 2015.

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Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Liberal Democrat, Colchester 2:03 pm, 19th March 2015

I apologise to you, Sir Hugh, and to the two Front-Bench spokesmen; as I have said, I will have to leave before the winding-up speeches due to a prior engagement. I thank John McDonnell for the detailed way in which he presented the case, and the National Union of Journalists and the House of Commons Library for all the background provided to this debate.

I declare that I am a former secretary of the north Essex branch of the National Union of Journalists. Some 51 years ago—I know you will find it hard to believe, Sir Hugh—I was a trainee reporter for what was then called Benham Newspapers, which included the Tuesday Colchester Gazette, long before it became an evening and then a morning paper, and the Friday Essex County Standard, which I am pleased to say is still going. When I hear stories about news-barren areas of the country, I think that perhaps north Essex has been spared the worst. I shall come to that in a minute.

The East Anglian counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, as I understand it, still have a locally owned newspaper group, Archant, which runs the Eastern Daily Press, primarily in Norfolk, and the East Anglian Daily Times, primarily in Suffolk but also in north Essex. The Saturday edition is the one to buy, because page 41 features Sir Bob’s diary recounting what has happened in the last week.

As has been pointed out, local government, local magistrates courts and local community activities are going unreported. It is bad enough that social historians will have less to dip into. I cut my teeth on those things; in fact, I can probably blame Brightlingsea urban district council for my interest in local government and for my ending up here in Westminster.

At the age of 21, having become a qualified journalist through the National Council for the Training of Journalists, I became news editor of the Braintree and Witham Times, which was part of the Benham Newspapers group and known affectionately as the “Brainless and Witless Times”. Just before my 22nd birthday, I became editor of the Maldon and Burnham Standard, in which distinguished organ some of the parliamentary activities of my hon. Friend Mr Whittingdale are covered. Mrs Russell, as she was in those days, our infant twin sons and I lived in a flat above a shop at 107 High street, Maldon, long since gone.

Benham Newspapers then merged with another group to become Essex County Newspapers, which was then acquired by another group. That was acquired by another group, and it is now under the American-owned Newsquest. I can vouch for the fact that capital asset stripping has taken place. I pay tribute to the journalists who still work on those local newspapers, but they are few in number, and not so long ago there was another cull and photographers were made redundant.

To me, the local newspaper is a key ingredient in telling people what the local council and local democracy are doing, but it is not unknown now for a council meeting, let alone a committee meeting, to go unreported. For a journalist to turn up at a court hearing is a rare occasion. To my mind, a newspaper cannot be replaced by electronic media; the internet and social media should be in addition to it, not instead of it.

Fifty years ago, in virtually any town—it was certainly the case in Colchester—the number of front doors was smaller than the number of newspapers sold. I will not say that there was 100% penetration, but it was in the upper 90s, because some people bought more than one paper. Today, it is about a quarter of that, if we are lucky. What has made it worse is that when we go around knocking on doors, we find notices saying “No junk mail”. Not only are people not buying local newspapers, they do not want to receive communications from their local councillors or Members of Parliament, irrespective of which party they are from. We will now have a few weeks in which candidates from throughout the spectrum will be trying to get their message across, and residents will be saying, “I don’t want any of this rubbish, because you’re all the same.”

We have a serious issue. A large part of the population are cutting themselves off from the community in which they live. The community is no longer what it was. We must go back to education to find out why schools are not engaging sufficiently to get families to buy newspapers. Compared with the cost of other things, local newspapers are still relatively cheap.

Clearly, I am concerned about the loss of titles and the loss of jobs, and not only editorial jobs but printing jobs. The Colchester Daily Gazettewas started in 1970 as The Colchester Evening Gazette. Like many other evening newspapers, it is now a daily newspaper and it is no longer printed in the town; it is printed elsewhere in the country and then driven into Colchester.

I used to be a sub-editor, but now the sub-editorial side of things is quite often done—not always, but quite often—as a production-line job many miles away. We see that when we read the local newspaper. We find that villages and roads have been put in the wrong place, and if someone knows that those things are wrong they then start to doubt and question the accuracy of other things. So, we have an issue in that regard.

Following on from a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington made, where does the legal buck stop with those newspapers that do not have sub-editors or, seemingly, an editor? I ask that because one day something will go seriously wrong and somebody will be held accountable, but I am not sure who that person will be. Presumably, it will be the managing director, because the editorial control will not be there.

Eventually, I ended up working in London, first at The Evening News, which is no longer with us, and then at the Evening Standard. Today, more people read the London Standard than at any time in its history, but nobody pays for it. It is all free, but of course somebody has to pay for it, and obviously that is the advertisers. In a huge city such as London, that can be done.

I can remember the time when many of our provincial cities had not one but two evening newspapers, as well as the morning newspaper. Norwich and Ipswich have bucked the trend in that sense, so something has happened there. However, there is often a lack of local identity within our newspapers. I am not criticising that; I am just making an observation. It used to be that advertising revenue was coming in, which meant newspapers could employ journalists to cover the council, the courts and all the other things. The pagination of the newspapers was such that they could cover lots of social “good news” stories as well as the day-to-day things.

In summing up, I look to the two Front-Bench spokesmen, Chris Bryant and the Minister, to see if there are any solutions. We will not get back to where we were 50 years ago, when we had 100% newspaper penetration, but something has got to be done because we have a disconnected community. Those who buy and read their local newspapers are clearly much better informed than those of their neighbours who do not do so, and all MPs will have constituents who raise issues with us not knowing that we have already taken those issues up, dealt with them and sometimes even solved them. Nevertheless, we then get a letter saying, “Why don’t you do something about so-and-so?”, and it has been widely reported in the local paper.

I end with a plea to both Front-Bench spokesmen—there must be a coming together to see how we can help local newspapers. They are a vital part of our society, they are crucial to democratic accountability, and we are all the poorer when the circulations of newspapers fall and, even worse, when titles go.