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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:04 pm on 19th March 2015.

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Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales) 3:04 pm, 19th March 2015

Diolch yn fawr, Mr Rosindell; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate John McDonnell on securing this debate and on his excellent opening remarks.

Against the better judgment of my agent, who, when he heard that there were no votes this afternoon, wanted me back home campaigning in west Wales—especially as the weather happens to be sunny at the moment—I wanted to be here today to show a degree of solidarity with local newspaper journalists, because I think they are vital to the work that we do as elected Members. They are often the link that communicates the work that we do here in Westminster to our constituents; they are also often the forum in which our constituents hold us to account between elections.

Before I go on to discuss local newspapers, in Carmarthenshire in particular, I echo the comments of Nia Griffith, who mentioned the incredible contribution of the national print media in Wales. I will take this opportunity to mention two journalists in particular. One is Martin Shipton, who has made a huge contribution to Welsh public life in his work with the

Western Mail

. He is currently that newspaper’s chief correspondent and also serves the NUJ in Wales with great distinction. The other is David Williamson, who is the parliamentary correspondent for three titles: the

Western Mail

, which largely serves south Wales, the

Daily Post

, which serves the north of my country, and the

Liverpool Echo.

I pay tribute to his incredible work in reporting on events here in Parliament.

In 2012, I was elected the first secretary of the all-party group on the Welsh media. The group was set up following a crisis in the local newspaper industry in Wales, with the closure of a series of titles. The group has not been as active as we should have been, although I am glad to see two members here, Chris Bryant, who is the group’s chair, and the hon. Member for Llanelli. Perhaps, following the election, we should reconvene and take up the task once again.

In June that year, I spoke about the need to expand the scope of the Localism Act—I believe it was in a question to the Minister here today—to protect newspapers by giving them community asset status, a position that was supported by the NUJ. Giving newspapers that protection would mean owners could not close a paper down overnight, as happened to the Neath Guardian. A consultation on a newspaper’s future would have to be held, allowing potential new owners—perhaps even a co-operative—time to bid for the paper.

As has been said already in some excellent speeches, local newspapers are vital elements that bind our communities together. They are also vital for local democracy. Not long after my contribution on the subject on the Floor of the House nearly three years ago, my local newspapers, the South Wales Guardian and the Carmarthen Journal, were holding Carmarthenshire county council to account about what were, according to the Wales Audit Office, unlawful payments made to the authority’s chief executive by the Labour and independent executive board. Those local newspapers were instrumental in the sharing of information with local residents and in holding local politicians to account for their actions. The South Wales Guardian was threatened with having its advertising withdrawn if it continued to publish stories that were critical of the council, but I am pleased to say that under the strong editorship of Mike Lewis, the paper held its nerve and did not give in to the bullying. The conviction of local editors such as Mike demonstrates why local newspapers are the most trusted source of news. Democracy cannot survive without effective scrutiny and accountability. At local level, local newspapers are key players in the democratic system.

Today, the South Wales Guardian and the Carmarthen Journal have new editors—respectively, Steve Adams and Emma Bryant—who have brought new and exciting ways of delivering local news to their readers and maintain their papers’ position at the heart of the community. In my discussions with the editors, what I have found most interesting is how they have to work to very tight revenue deadlines. The primary role of an editor is to raise revenue for their newsgroup rather than to work on editorial content. That puts huge pressure on them as news editors.

The Tivyside Advertiser, which has been the pillar of communities in the Teifi valley, has regrettably abolished its editor’s position due to increasing financial pressures and is now being edited outside the county. The former editor, Sue Lewis, was a huge asset to the newspaper and I wish her well in future. Just two weeks ago, my local newspapers were joined by a new kid on the block, as the hon. Member for Llanelli mentioned, the Carmarthenshire Herald. From its initial editions, it seems the paper will be pulling no punches in holding local politicians to account, which might worry us slightly on the eve of an election.

Unfortunately, those vital publications continue to find themselves under threat for a number of reasons. First, an all-powerful BBC, via its website operations, is trampling on the traditional territory of local newspapers. Publications trying to embrace the new opportunities of the internet have undermined themselves by providing their content for free, hence hitting circulation. The ideas put forward by the Chair of the Select Committee, Mr Whittingdale, on how local newspapers and the BBC could work together were therefore quite interesting. Despite being pure propaganda sheets for senior directors and ruling councillors, local authority publications that are paid for by the public directly undermine local newspapers by sucking up vital advertising revenue. One of the welcome steps the Government have taken is to ban council propaganda sheets here in England; unfortunately, they are still available in Wales.

Local papers in Wales are owned by three large groups based outside our country, including Media Wales, which is part of the Trinity Mirror group. As the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington outlined, Media Wales is financially very well resourced and hugely profitable, but the number of its journalists has been cut drastically. The centralisation of the newspaper industry has led to a higher percentage of turnover being demanded in profit for shareholders, and that is often achieved by putting huge pressure on local news teams’ human resources, with a direct impact on content. Essentially, the model for our local newspapers is one of asset stripping, and that is what is being rolled out across the sector in the UK.

Yesterday’s announcement by the Chancellor that the Government will consult on ways to support local newspapers via the tax regime is to be welcomed, and I look forward to the consultation. While we await its terms of reference, I hope the Government will take the opportunity to look at all ways to support local newspapers, including taking action to stem job cuts and attacks on journalism, especially by public bodies threatening to remove advertising if publications criticise their actions; looking at new models of community journalism; and looking again at my 2012 proposal for protecting newspapers as community assets.

Newspapers in Wales are a treasured part of our heritage, reflecting a mix of local news, views and sports coverage. They are a place where many excellent journalists work and become part of their communities. They are, in every sense, community assets, and they should be considered as such in law. Diolch yn fawr.