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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:53 pm on 19th March 2015.

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Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Conservative, Harborough 2:53 pm, 19th March 2015

I will not take up my full allotted time, Sir Hugh.

I congratulate John McDonnell on initiating the debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy for taking a real interest in this aspect of his portfolio. Few Ministers have had the length of service in one job and have therefore come to know a great deal about their subject; I am grateful to him for that. I also thank the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Whittingdale, who has brought great wisdom and knowledge to this subject, as we have witnessed today.

One of the dangers that I will relieve the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington of having to face is my being here for the entire debate—as he anticipated, a number of us cannot stay for its full length—but there is still danger that we will appear to the outside world as a collection of retired colonels, regretting the past. If we give the impression that the newspaper world should never change and that it is immune from the ordinary laws of economics, we are doing it a disservice, just as we are doing ourselves a disservice.

I have an interest to declare in that, for the past 40 or so years, I have been a member of the Bar who specialises in newspaper cases—newspaper and media law. I have acted for and against many local newspapers and I have understood, both as a consumer of the product and as a person being paid by them, the value that they provide throughout the country to local communities. It does not matter whether one is in Scotland—Mr MacNeil mentioned his local paper in Stornoway—Northern Ireland or any part of England and Wales; there is no community that has not over the years benefited in some way from its local press.

Of course we regret the demise of the local press and the way in which it has changed. In my own county and constituency, the Harborough Mail, a weekly paper that has been going for more than 100 years, is now running from a hub—to use an expression used earlier—and is using shared content. It is no longer based in Market Harborough. It is part of the Johnston Press company, and our editor is now the editor of a number of local titles and he is based in Kettering, so we do not have that immediate local connection. Although Kettering is only 15 or so miles down the road, there is a psychological gap that has been created by the rationalisation—to use that awful expression—of the newspaper world.

My local daily paper, the Leicester Mercury, which was mentioned a moment ago, is in the same group as the Derby Telegraph. At one stage the whole production of the Mercury and all the journalists, as well as the outlying offices, were connected into the main office on St George street. When I first became the Member of Parliament for Harborough, the newsroom was noisy, bustling, full of paper and all that sort of stuff. Now, the newsroom is quiet, not only because everyone is typing on word processors and not the old Imperial typewriters, but because fewer people are in there, and as someone has mentioned, they are drawing on press releases, cutting and pasting.

I do not ascribe that problem only to the Leicester Mercury. When I worked in Fleet street newspapers—I am talking about the late 1970s—I remember listening to a City journalist on The Guardian complain that all he was doing was cutting and pasting or reproducing company press releases. He said, “That’s not journalism. That’s just copying.” If we do not get the training at local level for the journalists who translate to Fleet street and become the great national names of journalism, we will lose something, but I do not think that we will repair that loss by getting the state to subsidise the press, as I think Austin Mitchell might have been implying. The press should be utterly free of Government interference. Yes, the Government—Parliament—should regulate the world within which we all operate, but the day that we get the Government paying for the production of newspapers is a day that I think we would regret.