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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:21 pm on 19th March 2015.

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Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Vice-Chair, Conservative 1922 Committee 2:21 pm, 19th March 2015

The turnout in this debate reflects the concern felt throughout the United Kingdom, which is replicated in every community. I will answer the hon. Gentleman’s question in a moment. I do have some suggestions about what can be done to assist, which I will mention shortly.

The decline of local newspapers has been attributed to many causes that have undoubtedly played their part, including: the growth of local authority free sheets, which sometimes masquerade as local papers and are not obviously publications of the local authority, although they are, of course, paid for by the council tax payer; the decline in public service notices and public service advertising, which has removed some revenue streams; and competition from the BBC, which I will mention. Many local papers resent the fact that not only is the BBC competing with them by providing online news reports free of charge, but frequently those news reports are taken from local newspapers without proper attribution. The attitude of the competition authorities is another concern; they have adopted a very narrow definition of competition, which has in some cases prevented consolidation, which represents the best chance of creating viable local media companies.

The internet has changed everything. More and more people are accessing their news online and not paying for it. Local newspapers have rightly followed that trend and almost every local newspaper has developed its own online distribution, but it is still provided for free, and therefore revenues have declined. At the same time, the advertising on which local papers depend has migrated away from them, and to the internet.

On the way here this morning, I bumped into Mark D’Arcy, the BBC’s excellent parliamentary correspondent, whom I suspect will be familiar to all hon. Members in this Chamber. He told me that he began his career on the Leicester Mercury. At that time, the paper had a section for property advertising that was a couple of centimetres thick. “Now, of course”, he said, “it is all on Zoopla.” That is reflected right across the board. Classified advertising has been in steady decline as ever more is done online. That is another source of reduction in revenues.

Local newspaper groups are seeking to adapt to this new world. I heard the critical comments of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington about David Montgomery’s company, Local World. I have to say that I spent a morning sitting in on its news conference and was impressed with the way that he is trying to ensure the integration of the online news coverage with his local newspapers. There is no question but that the business models have to change. In this world, the old business model is simply not going to work. David Montgomery is making a valiant attempt to develop a viable news model when other former newspaper group owners have withdrawn, as the hon. Gentleman knows.

The decline has left some areas with just one paper, and some with none at all. I will not repeat what has already been said about the dangers that that holds for accountability and democracy. In five weeks’ time, we do not just have national parliamentary elections; in many areas of the country, including mine, we have local elections that in some ways affect people’s lives more than whom they elect to send to this place. How are they supposed to reach a judgment on the performance of local authorities if that is no longer covered in detail by the local paper? That is why local papers matter so much.

The same thing applies in the court system. It is a fundamental principle that justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done. That means that the proceedings of courts need to be reported, as do those of health trusts, education authorities and the new local enterprise partnerships. Nia Griffith was absolutely right: as we devolve more power out to these different institutions, we have to ensure accountability by having coverage of them.

To go back to the points made by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, one or two things can be done to help. First, I congratulate the Chancellor and thoroughly welcome his announcement yesterday on the possibility of business rate relief for local newspapers. There is no question but that that will help. It is gratifying that the Treasury has listened and acknowledged the importance of this matter, but more needs to be done. In 2010, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee welcomed a proposal put forward by the Press Association on what it called public service reporting. The idea is that journalists sit in the local council chamber or the local court and make factual, independent content available to any news outlet that wants it. Those journalists would be funded by a public service fund. There was a pilot to introduce that, and it offers a potential way forward.

There is an additional element to that proposal, which I press on the Minister. In the Committee’s recent inquiry on the future of the BBC, we received evidence from the chairman of the KM Group, Geraldine Allinson, to whom my hon. Friend Rehman Chishti referred. She suggested that the BBC should commission content from local media. Rather than just taking it and not paying for it, the BBC would commission content and so support local media. We received an excellent submission from the South West News Service, which extended the idea with an interesting suggestion. The BBC has an independent production quota for drama. It has to place 25% of its commissioning outside the BBC with independent production houses. SWNS’s suggestion was that we should consider extending that measure to local news, so that the BBC would be required to contract out part of its local news coverage to outside media groups. That could be done on a competitive basis and would be a way in which the BBC, which is extremely well financed by the licence fee, could be part of a solution, rather than being seen to undermine and damage newspapers.