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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:00 pm on 19th March 2015.

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Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy (Jointly with Department for Business, Innovation and Skills), Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy (Jointly with Department for Culture Media and Sport) 4:00 pm, 19th March 2015

Before I move on to the meat of the debate, I would like to mention an excellent newspaper, the Yorkshire Post, which has a fine track record of many years.

We are speaking somewhat light-heartedly about a serious subject, namely the health and well-being of our local newspapers. I absolutely understand the points made by hon. Members and hon. Friends about the threat that local newspapers have faced. We have rehearsed many times in the House the reasons for that threat. We have discussed whether it has been caused by existential factors such as the rise of new technology and the changing way in which consumers access the paying parts of the media landscape, namely classified advertising, or whether it has been caused by bad management. Some hon. Members have referred to bad management in relation to bad investment decisions or what some might term asset stripping, which others might describe more neutrally as taking investment in different directions. When the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington spoke, I was reminded of our debates about football clubs. Local newspapers are community assets, in the broadest sense, with a huge following of loyal supporters. Most people want owners who understand the place of a local newspaper in a community, and who invest accordingly.

If I can say so without risking too much opprobrium, perhaps the death of the local newspaper has been exaggerated. It is worth recalling that there are still 1,100 local newspapers in this country with 1,700 related websites, and that 31 million people read them every week. The Johnston Press reaches 25 million people every week. A third of local newspaper readers do not read their national paper. Local newspapers have the distinct advantage that the advertisements that they carry are more likely to be trusted and acted on than those in other newspapers. The readership of the print edition of local newspapers is declining, but the readership of the digital edition is increasing. Some newspaper groups have seen a rise in readership of between 30% and 50% a year, albeit from a low base.

It is worth paying tribute to the hard-working editors, local directors and journalists who have kept local newspapers going, and who are going through the same kind of transition that has been seen in other areas, such as the music industry or film and television, as we move ever more quickly towards digital platforms. Those people continue to work very hard and to consider difficult issues to which there are no easy answers. If there were easy answers, they would have been implemented already.

The Government must do what they can to help, and part of that role is to get out of the way and clear away hurdles or, to put it another way, to try to level the playing field where there is unfair competition. I do not mean unfair competition in the sense of anti-competitive behaviour but in the sense of burdensome regulations on local newspapers that may not exist for other outlets. Let us start with the Chancellor’s welcome announcement on rates relief in yesterday’s Budget. The spokesman for the Official Opposition ended his excellent speech by asking me detailed questions about that. We have held a number of meetings with local newspaper groups, which the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington helped to facilitate. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has also engaged with local newspaper organisations. There is an appetite to act.

Why focus on business rates? One reason is that it removes unfair competition. Local newspapers, by definition, often have large buildings with large numbers of staff, whereas smaller local newspaper websites have fewer physical overheads. Reducing business rates is an obvious way of targeting relief and reducing costs. The consultation will be published after the election, and I cannot say exactly how it will be framed, but the definition of a local newspaper might parallel the one set out in the requirement for statutory notices to be published in local newspapers. There are plenty of potential definitions, but it seems obvious to use an existing one.

When the next Government publish that consultation, it could form part of a more wide-ranging discussion about the future of local newspapers. The next Chair of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport may decide that it is worth holding an inquiry at the same time as that consultation. That gives me an opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon for his excellent chairmanship of that wonderful Select Committee over two Parliaments, and hon. Members will relish any opportunity to hear him tell a few anecdotes from those 10 years.

Levelling the playing field through targeted rates relief would be a good thing. Continuing on that theme, the Government have two other achievements. First, on the town hall Pravdas—the free newspapers effectively paid for by council tax payers that are often made to look very like a local newspaper both visually and tonally— we have published a statutory code of conduct to ensure that councils do not produce publications that compete unfairly with local newspapers. As the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington mentioned, the Government have acted, where appropriate, when councils have breached that code.

Secondly, as far as I can recall, statutory notices have been a live issue for this entire Parliament. There was a threat that statutory notices would be withdrawn from local newspapers, for which statutory notices are obviously an important source of income. That has not happened but, nevertheless, there is still a debate to be had on statutory notices. The debate is not binary in that we would either take away statutory notices from all local newspapers or simply keep the system as it is. The debate has become more nuanced, and the Government have provided £1 million to pilot new ways of publishing statutory notices, which could include using local newspaper websites more effectively to bring statutory notices to the attention of a wider public. We could even potentially issue e-mail alerts about statutory notices via local newspapers. We want to continue with statutory notices, but we need to modernise them. That should not be seen as simply cutting off funding for local newspapers.

At the moment, the Government do not believe that conferring community asset status would be easy, and it is obviously important to remember that local newspapers are still private organisations. We remain open to persuasive arguments about whether community asset status could be a route to save local newspapers. I note the shadow Minister’s comments on the hoarding of newspaper titles. When a newspaper closes, its title and the value of its brand are not made available for local communities. The door remains open on that, and the Government do not have a fixed view. We remain open to persuasion, but we can see no clear way forward at the moment.

Finally, the BBC charter review will sit firmly in the next Government’s in-tray, and it is important that work on that gets under way as soon as possible. The BBC is clearly making overtures to local newspapers. For example, the BBC has a local working group—the local live partnership—with newspapers in Leeds, west Yorkshire and the north-east. The BBC is considering the potential opportunities for sharing training resources, for example, with local newspapers, which is another way to alleviate costs. In another part of the country, I gather that the BBC is auditing how often it uses local newspaper sources to generate its own news output, which should give the BBC a clear idea of how much it depends on local newspapers, thereby providing a potential route for accreditation or click-throughs to local newspaper sites.

At the other end of the spectrum, many local newspaper groups would welcome the opportunity to use BBC content, particularly video content, on their websites. The relationship between the BBC, local newspapers and local newspaper groups should be explored in the next charter review, although I am aware of the caveats in effectively extending licence fee funding to local newspapers. That important and subtle debate will form part of the charter review discussion.

I am grateful for the extensive and learned contributions on local newspapers by so many hon. Members and hon. Friends. I am glad that we have made progress, albeit at the end of this Parliament, on making a potentially meaningful change for local newspapers. We need to consider a range of different issues, and I hope that local newspapers will be high on the next Government’s agenda.