On a point of order, Mr Nuttall. Is it in order for the debate to proceed without a Minister present on behalf of the Government, or is it simply a gross discourtesy to the House?
Further to that point of order, Mr Nuttall. On the second part of my point of order, is it considered a discourtesy by the Chair?
It is very nice to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr Nuttall.
I begin by thanking the National Union of Journalists for helping me to prepare for the debate, which forms part of its week of campaigning on local news, called Local News Matters. I must also point out that I chair the NUJ’s parliamentary group. The arrangements for the group’s secretariat are set out in my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I am sure that all hon. Members agree that local news is essential for our democracy. It is through local news that people like us get our messages across to our communities, but more importantly, it is the way that communities hold us to account. However, local news is not only about democracy and boring council meetings or boring court reporting, important though those are; it is about the way that communities are bound together. It is through local newspapers and radio stations that people know what is going on and identify with their local communities.
As it happens, my experience of the local news media in my constituency and in my part of the country is extremely positive. My local newspapers have not only covered issues that national outlets would not have been interested in covering; they have made a significant difference to the community. For example, in my constituency is the palace of the Bishop of Durham. When the Church Commissioners wanted to flog off its paintings by Francisco de Zurbarán, it was a campaign that I ran with The Northern Echo, which put the paintings on its front page for several days in a row, that pushed the Church Commissioners back and made them realise that people wanted and loved those paintings. The upshot has been far greater than we could ever have imagined. The story came to the attention of a philanthropist, Jonathan Ruffer, who put £50 million into the castle, and we now have a whole regeneration project. That would not have happened without the initial support of The Northern Echo.
At the other end of the scale is a newspaper, owned by the sister of Lord Barnard, called the Teesdale Mercury. It has a small circulation of 10,000, but it has been running campaigns to save local village schools. In effect, it saved the Forest of Teesdale Primary School.
My hon. Friend makes a compelling case for our local press. Over the past year, the Liverpool Echo and Wirral News have movingly told the story of the Hillsborough campaign for justice. The Liverpool Echo has been a campaigning newspaper on that issue, it has highlighted the local crisis in the NHS and it has mounted a food poverty action campaign called “Share Your Lunch”, which has raised thousands of pounds from the generosity of local people and raised awareness of that important issue. Does she agree that, as she mentioned in her opening remarks, it is crucial for our national democracy that we have local papers that shine a light on the impact of what we decide here in Westminster and how that rolls out across the country?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was about to point out the role that Bishop FM, the local radio station, is currently playing in the campaign on the sustainability and transformation plan and the possible closure of Darlington memorial hospital’s A&E, which is a matter of great concern to my constituents. Bishop FM and the local and regional news outlets were also the only outlets to cover the potential closure of Vinovium House and the loss of 80 jobs there.
I agree 100% with my hon. Friend, but what she says applies not just to local newspapers, but to excellent local radio stations—both the BBC stations and the commercial independents, such as Star Radio, which operates from Darlington. I am sorry to say that one of the community stations in my constituency, Teesdale Radio, was forced to close. Will the Minister comment in his response on whether it is fair that community radio stations are not allowed to advertise? Every parish magazine has advertisements, but community radio stations do not. That does not seem right.
Local news outlets make a reality of localism. Communities are very diverse and different; they are not homogenous. This country is extremely diverse, which is reflected in our local newspapers. They are the voice of people, but they also reflect back to people what their community is like.
The NUJ has commissioned, and this week published, a piece of research, “Mapping changes in local news 2015-2017”, by Dr Gordon Ramsay, who is part of King’s College London’s excellently named Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power—something I am sure we would all like to get hold of. He was supported in his work by the Media Reform Coalition, the Political Studies Association and colleagues from Goldsmiths University. The research shows a continuing, if not accelerating, decline in the number of local newspapers. Some 200 local newspapers have closed since 2005. In the past 18 months, 22 have closed and 13 have been set up, which is a net loss of nine. Unfortunately, that involved the loss of 418 journalists’ jobs.
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My hon. Friend makes another very good point. It is a matter of concern that 58% of people in this country have no local daily newspaper. That hollowing out is dangerous. Newspapers are not really local if they are run by such a small number of journalists that, in effect, they are four pages of local news wrapped around centrally-produced content, which is mainly lifestyle articles and listicles.
Where real journalists are involved in the production of local newspapers, they are becoming exhausted. I had a meeting with people from the South London Press before Christmas who were busy campaigning against reductions to their numbers. Such journalists also suffer significantly from low pay. This is a profession, and they need to be properly rewarded for their skills, energy and efforts.
It is a vicious circle. If we hollow out the quality of the local newspapers, they become more boring, so of course the readership will fall, whereas if we maintain the quality, people will want to keep reading them. The absence of local newspapers is dangerous too. As my hon. Friend Margaret Greenwood said, people will lack information and will not be able to hold local institution to account. Communities will suffer a loss of identity. That creates an environment in which fake news can flourish, because there is no real news. What we need, across the board, is good-quality information and journalism.
Another very interesting thing that came out of the research by Dr Ramsay is the growing concentration in our local newspapers. That, too, is dangerous. I do not suppose many people are aware that four publishers are responsible for three quarters of the local newspapers in this country: Trinity Mirror, Johnston Press, Newsquest and Tindle. One of the absurdities is that they take over local newspapers and then either close them or shed more jobs. Of the 400-plus jobs that have been lost, 139 were cut by Newsquest and 102 by Trinity Mirror.
While I do not wish to appear not to be a true socialist internationalist, foreign ownership in this arena can be quite dangerous. It means that decisions are taken about the way newspapers are run and the closure of newspapers in boardrooms in New York by people who have no idea that Sunderland and Newcastle are two different places. We need to get back better control of the way newspapers are run and restore the idea, most recently voiced by Harry Evans, that journalism is a sort of public service. It is not purely a commercial enterprise; it is also a public service.
Why have we got into this mess? Obviously technology is part of the reason. More things are moving online, and more advertising is moving online. There is a change in the readership and habits of the public. However, that is not the whole explanation. The problem from the newspapers’ point of view is that 80% of their revenue comes from their print editions and some 12% from their online work. Facebook and Google are expected to have a three-quarters share of the advertising market by 2020. I wonder whether the Competition and Markets Authority ought to look at that, and whether it can look at the behaviour of these big international corporations after Brexit. It would be interesting to know whether the Minister has any insight into that.
Technology is not the only explanation for what is going on. Some people might call it greed, and others might call it unrealistic expectations, but too much money has been taken out of local newspapers. By way of contrast, Tesco—one of the most successful supermarkets in this country—makes a 7% return on its capital each year. These publishers are extracting between 20% and 30% each year. That is what they expect. If they cannot make that, they say the papers are uneconomic. Of course, the papers are not financially unsustainable; they are perfectly financially sustainable. They are making enough money to keep going and even to expand; they are just not making whopping profits of 30%. If these people were content to make the kind of profits that our supermarkets are making, we could have a flourishing of local news across the nation.
Let us look at what has been done so far about local news. We continue to require local authorities to put statutory notices into local newspapers. That is very positive, both financially and in terms of providing people with information. Newspapers have a VAT exemption as well.
The Government have done two things to try to provide direct support. The first was the initiative by the previous Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to set up local television franchises. I am sorry to report that the research shows that three quarters of those licensed areas sought a relaxation of the requirement for news provision. On every single occasion that relaxation was granted, so the initiative is not having the positive effect that was intended.
Now we have a new initiative: democracy reporters. The licence fee is being top-sliced, and the BBC is providing 150 local democracy reporters across the country. There is a question mark here. It is really important that there is a system to ensure that those posts are genuinely additional. We do not want the BBC to send two people into a local newspaper and for the managers of that paper think, “Fantastic! We can sack two of the people we were paying.” We absolutely cannot have that, and we need a system to prevent it from happening.
The Minister must also ensure that the Government initiatives and all the things we want to do are not sucked up by the big four publishers. What we want is more variety, more diversity and more new ventures. We need to ensure that the things we do reach those people, not just the big multinational chains.
In addition, more measures can be taken. The Government introduced the Localism Act 2011, which enables people to deem an asset an asset of community value and run it themselves for the benefit of the community. Normally that is done with pubs, but it would a good idea if, before a newspaper closed a title, it was required to offer it to the local community as a community asset. As I have said, many local papers, such as the Camden New Journal, could be run on a financially sustainable basis—for example, by co-ops of journalists—and we need to put that option on to the statute book.
Many of us think it is reasonable, in the current climate, to tax the large social media organisations such as Facebook and Google, and others as well. I know everybody wants to tax them because they are evading their taxes and everyone has schemes for spending the money that would be raised, but I think some direct read-across to the very industries that those companies are undermining would be reasonable.
The House has taken a considerable amount of time over the last six months to consider the proposed Fox takeover of Sky. That is extremely important, and we are all very worried about it. However, we have not taken the same amount of time and care to look at what is going on in local newspapers. The concentration in local newspapers is also very serious. The final suggestion I would like to make is that we have a short inquiry that looks specifically at what is going on in local media.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall, and a pleasure to follow Helen Goodman. I had a fantastic season, while I was at BBC Radio Cleveland, reporting on the fortunes of Bishop Auckland football club. At the time, there was no ISDN line at the ground, so to report goal updates, I had to go into the clubhouse and on to a landline and wait for two minutes. Sometimes there would be a big cheer from outside while I was on air, and once the presenter back in the studio said to me, “Jason, has there been a goal?”, and I said, “No, Joe has just dropped the jackpot on the one-armed bandit.” That really is local news and local reporting at the heart of the local community—and I cannot remember whether Joe bought a round or not.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting our request for a debate on the future of local and regional news providers. We are in a great time of change. There are great challenges ahead, but there are also great opportunities. Therefore, it is more important than ever that as many people as possible have access to quality, trusted news sources. That means a big role for local and regional news.
I must declare that, as I have just suggested, I am a former BBC local radio reporter. I went on to work for ITV television as a broadcast journalist. I am now chairman of the all-party parliamentary ITV group and—just for balance—I am one of the vice-chairmen of the all-party parliamentary BBC group. I am a former National Union of Journalists member. I was father of the chapel at ITV Yorkshire and I took my members out on strike, because job cuts were being forced by the poor business decisions of the then ITV boss, who was still raking in his £9 million bonus. I am now a Tory MP and that fat-cat boss is now a Labour peer—what a funny old world.
I am a keen consumer of local news. I wake up in the morning with Liz Green on BBC Radio Leeds. I get a paper edition in my constituency office of the Huddersfield Examiner and follow it online—I also follow the Yorkshire Post online. When I am with my girls in the car, we are listening to Capital radio. It is great that that independent radio station has a news team. They often ask me and fellow Yorkshire MPs to record clips and send them via our iPhones. That is a good use of innovative technology. We have two excellent regional TV news programmes: “Calendar”, which I used to work on, and “Look North”. Sometimes, if there is a big local news story, I make a point of trying to watch both—one at 6 pm and the other at 6.30 pm—to see the different ways in which they cover their news stories.
We have a very local free newspaper, the Holme Valley Review, which has been around for about two years. Again, I have to declare an interest: I have a monthly column in the Holme Valley Review. It has an excellent reporter, Olivia, who is always ringing me and other people, asking for local news stories.
I would like to focus on local newspapers for a moment. As I said, I am very lucky to have in my town the Huddersfield Examiner, with its dedicated band of locally based journalists. They produce six editions a week, Monday to Saturday, and they are very good at holding Kirklees Council to account—it is run by Labour, by the way—whether the councillors are parking illegally while they go on holiday for a few weeks or damaging town centre trade with their disastrous bus gates scheme.
However, it is with their campaigns, as the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland said, that local newspapers come to the forefront of their communities. My local paper has also been backing an NHS campaign, the Hands Off HRI campaign, which is trying to prevent the accident and emergency department at Huddersfield royal infirmary from being downgraded and moved to Halifax to fund the disastrous private finance initiative deal that was signed there. That campaign is led by local campaigner Karl Deitch and, with the support of the Examiner and the community, we are still hopeful of getting our clinical commissioning group to listen.
More positively, the Huddersfield Examiner puts on two fantastic awards ceremonies every year. The Huddersfield Examiner community awards celebrate the best in our community—campaigns, charities and volunteers—and in the autumn the Huddersfield Examiner business awards celebrate the best in local small and medium-sized enterprises and bigger businesses, connecting up the business community. That means that we have an unemployment rate that is below the national average, and textiles and engineering are doing well in our part of the world. I commend the excellent coverage by the Examiner of my beloved Huddersfield Town. As we chase promotion to the premiership, every bit of injury news is followed closely by Huddersfield Town fans.
One big challenge that local newspapers face is changing technology—the changes in the way people get their news. However, the Examiner is responding to that. It is now very much a digital newsroom, producing strong stories not only for the print edition but for the website, which it updates regularly with videos. That is surely the future—print supported and enhanced by digital output, not replaced by it. The Examiner is recruiting a video production editor, but of course its big challenge is providing engaging and challenging content for two very different audiences. With that in mind, the Examiner is also embracing social media.
The debate has been triggered by a worrying trend for local and regional newspapers. There was a net loss of nine regionals between November 2015 and March 2017. As Opposition Members have said, the number of UK local authority districts with no daily local newspaper coverage has risen to 273 out of 406. There is also the loss of plurality, which we are concerned about. The five largest publishers, including Trinity Mirror, which owns my local newspaper, now account for more than 77% of all UK newspapers. We need to halt the decline and to look at new models.
As a member of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, I have been questioning BBC bosses on their development of the plans for 150 local democracy reporters. I echo many of the excellent questions that the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland asked. Those reporters will be funded by the BBC and employed by qualifying local news organisations to cover councils and local public services, but will they enhance and be an addition, or will newspapers be tempted just to use them as a cut-price replacement for their existing services? The BBC has also announced the formation of the NewsBank, which will give online media organisations access to BBC video and audio. In total, that will be an investment from the licence fee of up to £8 million. I and others will be following those developments very closely.
For the vast majority of adults, their main source of news is still television, and we need a plurality of providers. I have talked about the BBC. I welcome ITV—as I said, I chair the all-party group—investing £100 million a year in national, international, regional and nations’ news. As I said, in Yorkshire we are lucky to have two quality regional TV news programmes: “Look North” on the BBC and “Calendar” on ITV Yorkshire, which I used to work on.
I am listening with interest to the hon. Gentleman and support what he is saying. Does he agree that local radio and local television are not the same, and cannot provide the same detailed coverage, as local newsprint, and that we need local newspapers as well as local television and radio?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I am saying that we need all the different news sources. We have talked about Sky and about the strength of the BBC in the regions, but we need plurality. We need different local newspapers—we need dailies and weeklies. We need them online, but we also still need the print editions. Obviously, many hon. Members are au fait with social media, but a lot of our constituents are not and they still need to know what is happening in their community—what is happening with charities, with their hospital and council, and with planning applications and so on.
Having worked in both the BBC environment and an ITV newsroom, I know that there was healthy competition between the two. There was an eagerness to be first with the story and to cover it best, which increased the quality of journalism and drove up audiences. We need that kind of healthy competition.
I will bring my comments to an end to allow other Members to speak. I began by talking about challenges. One big challenge is accurate and trusted news sources. We are in an era of fake news and I am pleased to say that my Culture, Media and Sport Committee is starting an inquiry into it. By the way, I remind everyone that fake news is false news with false facts, and not just news that someone does not like—that gets bandied around a lot.
Finally, I echo the thoughts of the NUJ general secretary on the Localism Act 2011. Former council buildings in my patch are being taken over as community assets and I would certainly support ideas and developments on that model for taking over local newspapers. I am very open to innovative ideas for new local journalism models. I would look at levies on social media and online companies—the internet—tax breaks, investment funds and community trusts, because after all, for the sake of our democracy and our constituents, local news really does matter.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Cadeirydd. As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall, and I thank my colleagues and the Backbench Business Committee for granting us this debate.
The uncertain future of local news providers is particularly significant in Wales. Unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland, the Welsh national press is relatively limited, confining Wales to getting much of its broadcast news and its newspapers from London. I am proud to say that I am a former news reporter with the Holyhead & Anglesey Mail, the Caernarfon & Denbigh Herald, Herald Môn and Herald Cymraeg. I, too, have memories, for example of putting photographs on the bus to get them to the head office.
Historically, Wales has a strong national and local press tradition. In 1966, the people of Wales could turn to a plethora of news publications, with 1 million morning, evening, weekly and bi-weekly local newspapers in circulation—that is, the total circulation. By 1990, that had fallen by a third, and now there are only six daily papers in any shape or form—morning or evening papers—in the country. The people of Wales have become increasingly reliant on the London-based media for their everyday news. To illustrate that, despite the Daily Mirror seeing a 50% fall in circulation between 2008 and 2015, it still has a daily readership of over 700,000 in Wales. However, the daily national paper of Wales, the Western Mail, sells only 17,815 copies a day. That gives hon. Members an idea of the newspapers’ reach and the impact on democracy.
Despite the widespread readership of London titles, interestingly, those newspapers no longer produce Welsh editions and there has been a steady decline of journalists based in Wales for London newspapers. There is the question of how the stories that are relevant to the people of Wales reach them. Perhaps they are seeing stories that give them a different perception of what affects their lives.
Interestingly, Welsh-language journalism is experiencing a revival in the form of online content, with BBC Cymru Fyw and Golwg360 attracting over 57,000 readers a week between them. However, only two national Welsh- language newspapers are now in circulation. Y Cymro is based in Porthmadog in my constituency, although it was announced last week that that is at risk of closure unless new owners are found by June, and Golwg is a magazine based in the constituency of my hon. Friend Hywel Williams. Both publications appear weekly.
The robust tradition of community-based Welsh language news continues in the form of papurau bro, and I must list them. These are voluntary activities, and I am honoured to record the hard work of teams of volunteers and dedicated individuals who work monthly to produce—forgive me, Hansard—Llanw Llŷn, Y Ffynnon, Yr Wylan, Llafar Bro, Llais Ardudwy, Y Dydd, Dail Dysynni, Y Blewyn Glas and Pethe Penllyn. Those are all in one constituency. We also have a weekly newspaper in Welsh, Y Cyfnod, although that is up for sale—it is looking for owners—so hon. Members can see the vulnerability.
Clearly, with the decline in commercial print media, Wales urgently needs redress through broadcast media. The UK Government have committed to having a “Scottish News at Six” programme, without considering making similar commitments in Wales. The media provide a crucial role in holding Government to account for their actions and flushing out weak policy, corruption and self-interest. Wales’s democracy and our national institutions will not flourish in darkness. Politics is strengthened by the light of scrutiny and grows stronger in weathering the storm of public interest. It is always a temptation for Governments to avoid the awkwardness of public accountability—it makes for an easier life—but the long-term cost is disengagement from democracy, which is a far greater threat. A “Wales Six” should be just the beginning. We need more opportunities to hear our own stories, and to celebrate and mourn with the world through our voices in both the national languages of Wales.
On the significance of local journalists and publications in representing the lives and needs of the communities they serve, Wales has seen its local newspaper groups being bought out by giant multinational companies, as has been mentioned of the UK as a whole. Our communities deserve better. Local newspapers play a fundamental role in keeping people on top of the issues affecting their communities. The Cambrian News—the local weekly bilingual newspaper distributed in mid-Wales—has managed more or less to remain an independent voice. Certainly, journalists such as Alex Jones do not shy away from posing awkward questions, and Arwyn Roberts, of the Herald newspapers, has portrayed the communities that he loves in his photojournalism over the years.
As a local MP and a former local news reporter, I recognise the democratic value of a regional newspaper to hold politicians and local councils to account. The local journalist, by recalling campaign promises and doing the mill work of attending council meetings, makes politicians accountable to the communities they purport to represent. Despite the Daily Post being the best-selling regional newspaper in Wales, it suffers from the perpetual problem of dwindling staff numbers due to “continuing tough business conditions”, to quote one of its reporters. Cuts have become the default business strategy to survive amid the falling revenues and print sales and the boom in free online media. Its newsroom has been stretched thin, with journalists having to work longer hours under significantly more pressure to keep the publication alive. I am sure that that scenario is not unique to the Daily Post.
In conclusion, I call on the UK Government to hold an inquiry into the future of Welsh print media, to assess the current levels of distribution and the state of current publications. I also ask them to review the potential of an increased role for the Welsh Government in safeguarding the existence and independence of struggling community newspapers and ensuring media plurality. We cannot let print media outlets close down and do nothing about the serious void that that would leave in our communities. Their absence would be a major loss, not only to individual readers but to our civil society as a whole. I am sure you would agree with me, Mr Nuttall: democracy needs watchdogs with a powerful bark.
We are having this debate because of our deep concerns about the increasing erosion and loss of local news sources, but I am very blessed in Castle Point. I have a huge number of local papers, such as the monthly Canvey & Benfleet Times; at least three weeklies that cover my patch, the Yellow Advertiser, the Rayleigh, Rochford & Castle Point Standard and Essex’s The Enquirer; a small publication called the District News, which is exclusively for Canvey Island; and, still, a daily paper, The Echo, part of the Newsquest group.
The Echo actually produces two different editions for my constituency, including a specific edition just for Canvey Island, which is incredible when we consider that it is an island of fewer than 40,000 souls. Moreover, a daily paper is a hungry beast—it is very stretched, and it is hard work to keep filling a daily paper. As a politician, people might think that I am constantly trying to get my face in the press, but actually, on several occasions I have found myself apologising that I have not given papers news stories, which is a no-brainer and would have been helpful. I therefore feel a responsibility, in speaking up in support of local newspapers, to remember to ensure I give them news.
The success of the papers that we have kept is because they have the right local and community formula. The fact that they continue to be supported might be due to the strong sense of community, but it is clearly a two-way street, in terms of the local paper helping to reinforce a sense of community spirit, which is what makes them so important. As has been said, they carry information that would not otherwise be covered.
It is sometimes easy, when looking at other people’s local newspapers, to laugh and deride the total parochialism of the “cat stuck up a tree” story or, more often, the local councillor in a lanyard and high-vis jacket pointing angrily at a pothole, but without local papers and radio stations, a lot of issues that matter enormously to local people would get no coverage at all. As Helen Goodman pointed out, local media are often critical to important local campaigns. I have often had reason to be extremely grateful to my local media. I am indebted to them for their support of local public campaigns with which I have been involved, including saving the Deanes secondary school in my constituency. Although the suspension of postal deliveries on unmade roads affected few people, it was incredibly important locally. It would never have got any coverage except in the local paper, but that helped hold Royal Mail to account.
Local media are unbiased compared with some of the nationals. I have rarely read anything in a national paper about which I have known the inside track that has been accurate in every respect, but I have often been quite pained by the accuracy of my local paper, as have local residents. I do not understand why they want to report accurately the age of everyone mentioned in the paper, but they seem to get those ages right, which we do not always appreciate. That also relates to the issue of clearing up misleading rumours—fake news has been mentioned—which can easily prosper in online forums. If not for investigation by honest, trusted, dedicated local journalists who can be relied on to put the facts straight, there would be a lot of misinformation out there and a lot of harm caused by rumours.
I return briefly to the community function. In my experience, the value of local papers cannot be stressed enough. They keep democracy thriving, keep local organisations and businesses under proper scrutiny, support local charities and community groups, and provide a platform for issues and organisations that otherwise would not have one. Elderly residents find them incredibly important to countering the risk of loneliness and a sense of isolation. It would be an enormous loss if we did not have thriving local media in this country.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this important debate, which has given us the opportunity to highlight how valued, valuable and appreciated the work of our local newspapers and press is. After this debate, I will be able to go back to complaining about them.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I will not speak for long, because I know that others wish to speak.
I support the National Union of Journalists in its campaign. I am a member of the NUJ parliamentary group and, as a strong trade unionist, I think it is important to support it. I am concerned about the suffering of many NUJ members who have lost their jobs or the possibility of career advancement due to the decline of local newspapers, but I am equally concerned about the decline and loss of local news outlets and reporting. I am amazed by what Rebecca Harris said. In my town, which has 200,000 people, newspapers have declined, been squeezed and disappeared. They are not all gone, but they have certainly declined dramatically over a long period.
I was first a councillor in 1972, which makes me quite elderly. I remember those days well. It was typical for the local newspapers to send reporters along to council committees. I would be chairing a committee, and there would often be journalists there from multiple competing newspapers. I knew them well. They were often highly skilled and knew their politics. I tried to ingratiate myself with them occasionally by saying nice things about them, but they said, “Don’t trust us. We’re all just the same.” It was a good, humorous, robust relationship with high-quality journalists who saw a future for themselves in journalism. One of them was Larry Elliott, who started at the local evening paper that we had in those days and went on to become economics editor at The Guardian. Not everybody reads The Guardian, but Larry Elliott, a very fine journalist, started his days at the Luton Evening Post.
Those were the career possibilities for journalists in those days. I suspect it is not like that anymore. However, local democracy is what I am really concerned about. It is important to have newspapers with different owners in the same town, so that they compete with each other. They are more truthful and accurate and try harder to get stories right if they know that another newspaper is covering the same issue.
Interestingly, all those years ago, we had an evening newspaper, which was very good, a weekly paid-for newspaper and a weekly free newspaper. The weekly free newspaper was owned by a wealthy proprietor who happened to be a member of the Labour party. I am not saying that our newspapers should have a political bias, but it was interesting. He was not just a token member—I do not want to upset my colleagues in the party—but leaned to the left as well, so we had a lot in common. Having a left-wing millionaire proprietor of a giveaway newspaper was an interesting experience. We got a genuine spread of opinion across the town. Democratic views were expressly, which was healthy.
That has changed. The free Sunday newspaper recently merged to become Bedfordshire-wide, with hardly any Luton coverage at all. We have a paid-for newspaper, but even there, the number of journalists has been squeezed and squeezed, so we do not get as much in the way of reporting. As my hon. Friend Helen Goodman said in her excellent opening speech, there is a small amount of local news surrounded by national articles and massive amounts of advertising.
During the first 15 or so years of my time in this place, every five weeks, local MPs—Conservative and Labour—were given a column to themselves. That is all gone—doubtless the newspapers have no time to sub-edit our articles, or whatever they do—and local democracy has suffered tremendously from the narrowing of news. Fortunately, we have an excellent local BBC news station and very good local radio.
I support the NUJ in its campaign to save local newspapers. We have heard a summary of its survey, but I thought I would quote in full what Séamus Dooley, the NUJ acting general secretary, said at the launch of the report this week:
“Journalism is a pillar of democracy and this survey should be of major concern to anyone who cares about local, regional or national government. The stark decline in journalism is a direct result of disinvestment in editorial resources. This survey points to a deep crisis in local and regional news provision. There is an urgent need for government and media organisations to halt that decline, to examine ways of developing sustainable media business models operating in the interests of democracy and the public interest. The price of a continuous decline is too high for citizens to pay.”
That says what we need to hear today and I hope the Minister takes note. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland on launching this debate, and other Members who have spoken for the fine speeches that we have heard, all of which have been interesting. I have never been a journalist myself, although I used to write a 1,000-word article every month for the Socialist Campaign Group News. It did not have wide circulation, but some of us, including the leader of our party, have been regular columnists for it. I have done journalism in a sense, but I was not an NUJ member, and the paper circulated among people with my opinions.
I have said what I came to say. I hope that the Government take note; that the decline in local news coverage and local newspapers is arrested; and that they will flower again in future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Nuttall. I, too, thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate, which really shows how the Committee responds to issues such as local journalism when they are at a crunch point.
I will focus on local media in York. We are well served in print by The Press and The Yorkshire Post, online by YorkMix, and in broadcast media by BBC Radio, Minster FM, ITV and BBC TV. We have already heard so much today about the excellence that local media bring. Local media are where stories are broken, where research is done, where we find out what is really going on in our communities and where people are held to account. They really prove that local news matters.
Local media are part of our local democracy and local citizenship. They strengthen the bonds across local communities such as those in my city of York. I thank the National Union of Journalists, Unite and all those who support people on the print side of media and across the industry so well. It is very hard for journalists to tell their own story about what is happening to their own industry, so today’s debate is timely and important.
As we have already heard from hon. Members, it is clear that we need a proper inquiry into what is happening in the governance and structures of local media. I will return to that point shortly, but first I want to raise the importance of local media on a very practical level. In the floods of 2015, when my community was cut off—the phone lines went down and there was no means of communicating outward—BBC radio had to move location and work night and day to get out messages not only about what was happening across the community but about public safety. It made us think back to the public service ethos that Lord Reith wanted for public broadcast. I thank BBC York for the service that it provided to the community at that time; everyone said that it provided a lifeline at that crunch point.
I want to talk in particular about print and about what we are seeing in our local paper—a story that is echoed right across the country, as the NUJ report that was launched yesterday confirms. We have a great history, as so many towns and communities have. The Yorkshire Evening Press was first published in 1882. It used to have four publications a day; people used to get their papers literally hot off the press because they wanted the latest edition with the latest news. Obviously the news process has moved on, but 17,342 people read the print edition of The Press daily, which proves that it still has a strong leadership. However, media are changing, as we know. Some 54,000 people now access The Press’s digital content—the eighth highest readership in local news. The trends are changing, but the digital content is clearly not providing the revenue, because 80% of revenue comes from print. The industry is really challenged by the shift to an online presence.
We have heard about the importance of local papers and local media in providing a democratic solution and ensuring that stories are well balanced and investigated. We know that social media can often be an echo chamber for news, where fake news is often recirculated, whereas local media really work at the craft of reporting stories and getting to the heart of matters. We also know that the industry is challenged not only by digital changes but by changes in advertising: in the economic global recession, advertising in local media dried up significantly—another financial challenge for local papers—and the market has not picked up since. Advertising has moved more online, particularly because readership is higher there, but also because there are new means of operating.
We have to come back to the issue of ownership. As we have heard, the press in York is owned by Newsquest Media Group, which has 211 titles. Printing no longer takes place in York, and nor does the editorial function. That has taken away from the local community. Although there is excellent local content—community news and events, charities, political reporting, events in the city and, not least, sports news—a lot of the content is national. People do not necessarily want to read it, but we can understand why papers have moved to that model as a means of filling space. Thankfully, there is still a lot of local content, but those pressures are building.
We have seen real cuts in the number of local journalists. Since 2008, the number of journalists at The Press has fallen by 50%. They now have to work under incredible stress, trying to produce copy constantly to ensure that they get good cover in the paper. They have to churn out content at a really high level, so although they are incredibly industrious, they are more tied to their desk rather than out in the community building relationships and learning their craft. They are also constantly worried about what the future is bringing down on them. The pressure is there.
As journalists are being made redundant, trainees are losing mentors, so they are not able to learn skills or how to avoid errors. Instead of learning their craft from senior mentors, trainees are often left on their own because there is not enough time for a proper structure to bring them through the apprenticeship—if I can call it that—of learning the skills and craft of journalism.
We have also seen a cut in the number of editors. The Press has lost its subbing sub-editor and its page sub-editor. The checks and balances in producing copy have therefore been withdrawn, which puts more pressure on journalists to ensure that everything is accurate, along with the pressures of balancing news and finding time to research and dig into stories and get the other side of the story. They have to work incredibly hard, often on low pay, to get the right story into their papers.
In my early life in politics, reporters went out and met people, spoke to them and interviewed them at length. They got to know the local politicians, the local community and the local areas; they were really in touch with the local community, and they were better for it.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. That is exactly what journalists want—to be the people who are uncovering the stories, building the relationships and really getting that personal touch into their stories—but the limitations that are now placed on them are curbing their ability to do those things.
We are also seeing a reduction in the number of photographers—a profession that has not yet been mentioned today. The York Press, which would once have had six, seven or eight photographers, now has only one professional photographer, with others freelancing. A photograph tells a story, and there is an art in being able to get that photograph well. We are often requested to send in a photograph, so readers get the typical line-up instead of the creative story that a photographer can provide. We need to remember the essential role that photographers play and the pressure that they, too, are under when they contribute their skills to produce a paper.
We need to think about what we want for the future of our papers. We can all agree that the corporate ownership model has not delivered the local democratisation of news, and that we need to rethink it. That is why an inquiry would be so timely: it would ensure that we could look at all the options that are now open to local papers.
I have had some discussions about what a co-operative model looks like. I both agree and disagree with my hon. Friend Helen Goodman; I think it is too late to start looking at that kind of model when a paper is failing. We need to look at it now. We need to build local co-operation from the community into papers, to ensure that there is a local eye on what is happening, not just a distant editor doing their best, possibly over a number of publications, or even just their own paper, but who is not based in the local community.
How do we bring that local voice right into the workings of a paper today? We need to raise the voices of journalists, the people working day and night on our papers, to ensure that they have real input into the shape and the future of not only their own publication but their industry, to make sure that they can use their professionalism in determining what a real community paper looks like.
I certainly support suggestions about hypothecated taxation being a means of supporting the industry in the future, ensuring that there is a real wall between content and income sources but ensuring that papers receive the injection of income that is obviously needed to keep alive the vital democracy that they provide.
We face the challenges that I have set out and we must ensure that we respond to them, because these papers and in particular their journalists, who are at the frontline, are looking to us. At the moment they are just part of the wider corporate picture, and if the money is not returned to these corporate giants, which we have heard monopolise the sector, we could lose a real element of our social democracy and we will regret that when it is gone.
I thank the NUJ for raising this issue with Members of Parliament, I thank the Backbench Business Committee for recognising the urgent need for this debate, and I ask the Minister to ensure that there is a proper inquiry into what is happening now to our local media, particularly our local print media, so that we can sustain the sector and put a proper model in place for the future.
I start by saying that I believe local media should be seen as an asset to the communities they serve. They are vital for a healthy democracy, they benefit local businesses, they provide a platform for local campaigns, they hold local politicians to account and they shine a light on some of the important local issues that matter to our constituents.
The local press promote local fund-raising initiatives, highlight local government achievements and failings, and can be found at every gala and every community event. They are the voice of their readers, or listeners, and they act as a watchdog. People trust them and see them as somewhere to go when things goes wrong or when things need to be put right. Essentially, a quality local paper or radio station can supply part of the glue that holds local communities together, giving people a sense of themselves. So the crisis affecting local news is one we need to address urgently.
More than half of all parliamentary constituencies, including my own constituency, do not have a dedicated daily local newspaper. The geography of my constituency means that we benefit from three excellent local weeklies. Each publication focuses on a different part of my constituency, each one caters for the different demographics of their unique area, and each one offers timely and balanced reporting of current events. However, each one faces challenges in what is now an extremely difficult marketplace.
The declining circulation figures of local, regional and national papers across the country have resulted in editorial cuts, job losses and office closures. As more people move online for their news, the decline in the printed press has been partially offset by website growth. However, competition for advertising means that most UK local newspapers are seeing a fall in their overall revenue, and the impact of the BBC’s expansion in online local news coverage is being felt by many local publications.
We have seen job cuts throughout the sector. The National Union of Journalists has highlighted surveys that show that journalists have been put under considerable pressure as a result of staff cuts and mergers. Some journalists have confided that they are being stretched more and more, and consequently mistakes are made and quality suffers.
In such challenging times, many local papers face the choice of shutting up shop or allowing themselves to be subsumed by a larger media group, and, as has been mentioned previously, just four publishers now account for almost three quarters of local newspapers across the UK. In my own constituency, two local papers are owned by Newsquest, one by Johnston Press, and one by Trinity Mirror, with all the tabloid news values that come with that. That brings me to a personal gripe. I do not know about others in this Chamber, but when I arrive in a part of the country that I am unfamiliar with, I turn to the local paper to give me an idea about the area. Local papers are often a great way of finding out what is going on in an area, and what local events and attractions I can visit, and they can provide a taste of what the area is like. So, when a local paper focuses almost exclusively on a combination of crime and incompetence, scandal and conflict, and when it does little more than highlight all the negatives of the community it serves, the effect is to talk the area down. Local people can start to feel negative about their community and the visiting reader is left wondering how quickly they should leave the area.
I recently spoke to a friend who had been considering moving to a new town, but scouting around the local paper left her thinking that underneath the façade of what seemed like a nice enough area there lurked a dark underbelly of crime and corruption. Quality local news reporting should highlight problems, but it should also illustrate what is good about a community and indirectly promote the area to tourists and locals alike. However, if a paper’s ownership has no vested interest in the community it serves and is only concerned with shifting product, it is inevitable that some publications will do more harm than good, and cease to be an asset.
Concern about the steadily increasing amount of news production accounted for by large corporations is nothing new, as it dates back to the rise of press barons in the days of Queen Victoria. Not only did the press barons own chains of newspapers but some of them had no qualms about using their papers to promote their pet cause or to dismiss ideas and people they disagreed with.
However, the rise of multimedia conglomerates that have significant stakes across a range of central communications sectors means that it is no longer just a simple case of owners intervening in editorial decisions or firing personnel who fall foul of their world view. News production is now strongly influenced by commercial strategies, which are built around the overlaps between a company’s different media interests, and there is a growing trend whereby different publications in a group share resources. There is a high degree of co-operation between editorial units and the implementation of group-wide policies on many issues. The general effect of the monopoly of media ownership can be seen in research that concluded that those who work for large chains are less likely to have an attachment to the community in which they work. Editorial staff can be moved around a news group, fliting from one publication to another, and failing to put down roots in any one place. For some, the media organisation takes precedence over the local community.
There is a widespread debate in Scotland about the relationship between the media and democracy, but there is a strong belief that critical and well-supported journalism is essential to a thriving democracy. We need a media environment that values, respects and promotes quality news reporting.
Finally, in a contracting industry the economies of scale take over, but it is the duty of both the free media and the Government to ensure that the local media sector delivers robustly evidenced and well-balanced news. Merging titles and laying off good journalists has an impact on local media’s ability to support democracy and high-quality debate, but we all have a vested interest in supporting this vital sector.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I thank Helen Goodman and the Backbench Business Committee for tabling this debate, which has proven to be passionate and interesting in its discussion of all the social media, local newspapers and so on that everyone has talked about. It is a matter of some interest to me, in trying to sum up the debate, that I have heard the same issues being repeated from across the entire UK. Members will have to forgive me if I do not pick up on the particular points they made.
The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland referred to the National Union of Journalists and said that local news is essential for our democracy. I think everyone here would agree with that. MPs need to get messages out—we need to let our constituents know what is happening—and our constituents need to be able to hold us to account. The hon. Lady’s local newspapers have run campaigns that helped her to help her constituents, and I think all of us in this Chamber have had the same kind of experience.
The main issue seems to be that local newspapers are no longer as local as they once were, and I say that from my own experience. I have two—I should say two and a half—local newspapers. The Motherwell Times and Bellshill Speaker are run by Johnston Press and the Wishaw Press is run by Trinity Mirror, but those local papers no longer have local newspaper offices. The Wishaw Press sends a journalist to the Wishaw library every week and asks people to contribute stories online by email, and Johnston Press has an office at the very top part of North Lanarkshire that runs our local paper, whereas Motherwell is very much in the southern part of the county.
There has been a lowering of both quality and pay, which has helped to drive down readership and led to the growth of fake news. Most local newspapers are owned by one of four publishers, as all Members who have spoken in the debate have said. It drives a wedge between newspapers and their communities when they do not have a footprint in the local area. Kelvin Hopkins referred to his time as a councillor. I, too, can remember when local journalists reported from local council meetings. That has stopped being the case, even since I was a councillor a few years ago. Journalists simply do not have the time.
Facebook and Google’s advertising revenue is expected to grow, and that may need to be looked at, because if they are not taxed properly and that money does not go back into the newspaper industry or local media in all their forms, we are all much the poorer for it.
Jason McCartney regaled us with his experiences as a local radio journalist and as father of the chapel. It is pretty obvious that with fewer and fewer news journalists, the quality of news goes down. He also talked about a drop in the number of newspapers and staff in his area. He spoke about how he uses his membership of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee to question how BBC local democracy reporters will be used. That is also an issue in Scotland, where we will have 80 of them. My hon. Friend Corri Wilson has already touched on how difficult the situation is and how they should not be used to replace locally based journalists.
The hon. Member for Colne Valley also talked about local TV. In Scotland, we are getting to the stage where we have local TV stations run by Scottish Television and the BBC. Liz Saville Roberts spoke about the Scottish Six. It will not be on the main BBC Scotland channel. It will be broadcast on a second channel that will only be on from 7 pm to 11 pm. It will therefore not necessarily get the viewership figures that we would want, especially in these times of constitutional debate and interest in Scotland, with Brexit and how it will affect our people. There is also interest in how the BBC will spend the money it raises in Scotland in Scotland itself. The BBC only spends about 55% of what it raises in Scotland in the country. In other areas, the figure is 75% or 80%. That is a real problem. The hon. Lady also talked about Welsh language media. In Scotland, there is an issue with the funding of Gaelic programming. I do not want to beat the drum for Scotland all the time, because what is happening there is happening across the UK.
It is important, as many Members have said, that local media are prevalent, as they are a bastion for local democracy. Local media really understand what is going on locally and can be a good force for local campaigning and fundraising. How many of us look at our children and our grandchildren in the weekly newspaper and sigh and feel very proud? I am really proud of my local papers. Last week, there was a local rally welcoming refugees to Wishaw, and the Wishaw Press turned up in force and had it on the front page. That is local democracy in action. The paper will also cover the proposed Scottish Defence League rally, and I hope it gives that the same amount of coverage, because we have to be balanced in what we say.
I may not agree with what local newspapers write, but their right to write it has to be preserved. The NUJ has highlighted that in its mapping exercise. We need to preserve and protect what we have. The Government should consider an inquiry into local media. I hope the Minister will listen to the calls that Members have made. I am not going to stand here and repeat everything that everyone has said, because although these things bear repetition, I do not think it would advance what has already been said this afternoon. This industry is vital for all of us and all our constituents, and we have to look at it in that light.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Helen Goodman on her speech and on persuading the Backbench Business Committee—I thank it, too—with other colleagues to grant this debate. She made an extremely passionate case for local media. Her proposal about the importance of treating local media as a community asset was echoed by others. She also talked about models and ways that we can take that forward in the future.
Jason McCartney told us about his career as a local journalist. I am surprised he did not get a Pulitzer prize for his reporting of the football in Bishop Auckland, but he made some sensible suggestions on the way forward for local media, and his speech will bear careful study by the Minister following the debate.
We also had a very good speech from Liz Saville Roberts. She listed Welsh language titles during the course of her speech. Fortunately for Hansard Reporters, the Welsh language is highly phonetic, unlike the English language, so they will have no problem whatever in spelling all the names of the publications she mentioned in the course of her speech.
We also had a very good speech from Rebecca Harris, who said how blessed she was with the richness of local media provision in her constituency. She castigated the local press for their accurate reporting of age, and I think we all had a tinge of sympathy with that pertinent point.
My hon. Friend Kelvin Hopkins made a strong case for local papers and told us about his column in a socialist publication. It did not sound like it had a mass circulation, but he did have the consolation that he was trying to form a mass movement.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The paper did not have a mass circulation. It had a rather limited circulation, but it was not a commercial paper, so it was not in any way undermining journals across the country.
I am sure the press barons of this country are mightily relieved to hear that.
My hon. Friend Rachael Maskell spoke with a great deal of wisdom about the role local media can play in local emergencies. She described how in the floods, the local media were a very important public service and not just reporting organisations. She was also the first Member today to mention the importance of photographers. She emphasised the value of adopting a co-operative model for local media not just when they get into trouble, but before that so that it is not just a response to a crisis. I thought that was an interesting point.
Corri Wilson expressed concerns about the monopoly of media ownership, about which she made some good points. Speaking from the Scottish National party Front Bench, Marion Fellows spoke about the “Scottish Six”, BBC funding and the new channel that will be on the BBC in Scotland. I am on record being highly critical of the amount of money given to Wales in that same announcement. Scotland got £20 million and Wales should have got £12 million, but we only got £8 million. Additional investment is nevertheless important. She also mentioned Gaelic language provision. I am an avid watcher of BBC Alba when it covers the Guinness Pro12 rugby matches. Despite the commentary being in Gaelic, I think I can pick up enough of it to understand what is going on. She made a useful contribution to the debate.
I was quite surprised that we were not joined by Mr Osborne this afternoon.
Perhaps he is too busy, as the hon. Member for Colne Valley says—we know that he has many jobs that he has to perform. I understood that the right hon. Gentleman’s purpose in taking the editorship of the Evening Standard was to bring that experience from outside the Chamber into Parliament. I would have thought that this afternoon’s debate might have afforded an appropriate opportunity for him to allow us the benefit of his wisdom and knowledge on this subject.
I think it is more likely that he has bought the NUJ rather than joined it, having looked at his entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Nevertheless, we miss him. I hope that the Minister, who I know is very friendly with the right hon. Gentleman, will send him our warm regards and our regret that he was unable to join us. I am sure he is very fruitfully engaged elsewhere, rather than being here in this debate in Westminster Hall this afternoon in our House of Commons.
I should also thank the Minister for kindly gracing us with his presence, albeit slightly late. I am sure there was a very good reason why he was not able to be here. As a man known for his humility, I am sure he will explain that to the Chamber when he gets up to address us after I sit down.
[Mike Gapes in the Chair]
Since other Members have given us the benefit of their experience, I will do the same. I started off after university as a news editor of a local community paper in my home town of Cwmbran. It was a fairly humble publication called Cwmbran Checkpoint, but nevertheless we did a lot of journalism of the kind that Members have talked about—reporting on local council meetings, holding the local council to account and publishing stories of local interest.
Of course, the media have been transformed in the 30 or so years since I performed that humble role—much more humble than that of the right hon. Member for Tatton, obviously. We had golf ball typewriters, we laid out the text using wax rollers and we had Letraset to make headlines. It was very different back then in the analogue world—the Minister is far too young to know anything about that, but he can read about it in the history books. It was a very different world than we have now. Hon. Members have rightly pointed out that the technological revolution that has taken place over the last few decades has transformed media and had a big impact on local media in particular.
We have all agreed this afternoon that regional and local media are crucial to the strength of our communities and the health of our democracy. It is, therefore, a pleasure to speak in this debate in the week celebrating Local News Matters. Whether on paper or on screen, local news has a wide readership, reaching 40 million people a week. People continue to trust local journalists, perhaps a bit more than they trust national journalists. In some ways, perhaps there is an analogy with politics: people are generally in favour of their local MP but not necessarily in favour of politicians in general. The same impact is seen sometimes in local journalism.
I am sure that every hon. Member—we have heard from many this afternoon—is able to name local papers, news websites, radio stations and even, these days, local TV stations in their constituencies that help create a sense of local pride and identity, and inform residents about local issues. In my city of Cardiff, there are many outlets, including Radio Cardiff, Wales Online, the Western Mail and the South Wales Echo, not to mention the local BBC productions and Welsh-language publications such as Y Dinesydd, all of which make an important contribution at a local level.
However, as we have heard, research by the Press Gazette suggests that local and regional news provision is reducing. Since 2005, 200 newspapers have ceased circulation and the number of journalists has more than halved. We can all wax lyrical about our constituency’s local news provision and its contribution to our local communities, but the reason we are having this debate is that the future of those outlets is far from secure. There are fewer local papers, fewer local journalists and fewer local editorial teams, being run by an ever smaller number of conglomerates. As we have heard in the debate, about three quarters of the local press is owned by a mere four companies.
It is not just about the number of papers and reporters. There is also the issue of independence and the resources available to journalists and editors to hold authorities to account at a local level. Research by Cardiff University that followed the trends in local journalism in Port Talbot from 1970 to 2015 found that over time, as hon. Members have mentioned, fewer and fewer stories were informed by journalists attending meetings in person, while the use of managed media sources, such as press releases, rose to more than 50%. Journalists increasingly quoted high status sources, with less input from members of the public. Naturally, that affects the ability of local media to scrutinise those who make decisions about their communities.
I do not think anyone is suggesting that we can turn the clock back to the days when I and others started out—to an analogue age when local newspapers were pretty much the only source of local information. Modern technology, starting a long time ago with TV and radio and now with online media sources, social media and so on, offers huge opportunities for the democratisation of news and the diversification of views, but also for the potential proliferation of fake news, as hon. Members have mentioned. Even though we cannot turn the clock back, we need to ensure that current and future technological developments are working to benefit everyone.
Local and regional news provision is transferring from one format to another, but local and regional services on TV and radio need support too. The National Union of Journalists has been mentioned several times in the debate. It undertook a survey of the closures of BBC district offices covering local TV and radio. I would like to share the results of that with the House today. Pointing out that the BBC is due to announce another round of cuts to the regions in the near future of perhaps £15 million out of a budget of £150 million, the survey’s results show that, over the past 10 years, more than 20 district offices have closed, and that, once the district office closes, the designated reporter is often close to follow. In many towns, the nearest BBC reporter is now over an hour’s drive away, which makes localised news coverage increasingly difficult.
For example, 10 years ago, BBC Radio Gloucestershire had three reporters: one for Gloucester and Forest of Dean, one for Cheltenham and Tewkesbury and another for Stroud and the Cotswolds. Now, only one reporter covers all six constituencies in that area, and the post has been vacant since the end of September. There is no longer a day reporter covering drive-time stories. Instead, there is only an early reporter working from a satellite car for the breakfast show and a late reporter covering stories for the next day. Likewise, 10 years ago in Lancashire, there were four district studios. Now there is only one, and only two full-time and two part-time reporters. The Newcastle, Durham, and Sunderland offices all closed in 2011, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland is fully aware.
News services that have moved or begun online often have issues too. Companies are struggling to replace lost print revenue with new profits generated online. A News Media Association survey found that 81% of media organisations’ revenue comes from print readership and only 12% from digital. However, the industry continues to close its newspapers in favour of digital formats. When one visits a modern local newsroom, as I am sure many hon. Members here today have done, one is struck by the extent to which stories and deadlines are driven by online clicks, with advertising revenue related to those trends. That sparks fear of a genuine danger that clickbait journalism will be encouraged and will replace real local reporting. It would be a genuine shame if all our local news outlets eventually mirrored the Mail Online sidebar of shame in their approach to reporting. That is the fear and the potential danger of that approach.
Be it in print or on screen, the trends that I and others have outlined are of course long term and have been developing over decades. I mentioned the NUJ’s survey of the closure of BBC district offices. Other public service broadcasters are also crucial to regional and local news. The Welsh language TV channel, S4C—Sianel Pedwar Cymru—focuses on Welsh issues and consistently features local news and views from around the country. Again, rather than wholeheartedly supporting the channel, the Government’s policies are creating uncertainty about its future. In my letter to the Minister on St David’s day, I asked the Government at least to freeze S4C’s funding until the independent review of the channel is completed, and to announce the review’s terms of reference. Instead, they have offered only a six-month freeze and further talks mid-year, and they still have not launched the review. I am afraid the UK Government are dragging their feet on setting up the review, and we want to know why. S4C and Welsh audiences deserve better.
This gives me the opportunity the right to put the Minister right on his somewhat ludicrous rewriting of the history of the establishment of S4C, which we have heard him rehearse several times in the Chamber recently. Yes, it was established under Mrs Thatcher’s Government, but only after a long and bitter campaign by Labour and Plaid Cymru, which forced them to withdraw proposals that would have breached their own manifesto.
The Minister says, “Oh, give over!” from a sedentary position. Given that he has decided to challenge my assertion, let me read him the Cabinet note from
“that the Government would withdraw its plans to share Welsh language programme, between two television channels. Instead the programmes would, for an experimental period of three years, be broadcast on one channel, as had been proposed in the Party Manifesto. He still thought that the previous plans were preferable but he had agreed to change them in response to representations, put to him by Lord Cledwyn and others, of the views of informed and responsible opinion in Wales.”
Lord Cledwyn was, of course, Cledwyn Hughes, the former Labour Welsh Secretary. I forgive the Minister, because he probably was not even born at the time of that great struggle, but it is wrong for him to glibly assert that S4C was established without a bitter fight, which some of us remember well.
I am always very happy to contribute to the hon. Gentleman’s dreams. To deal with this one right now, I am absolutely delighted that the hon. Gentleman has welcomed the Conservative Government’s establishment of S4C and has accepted that, in fact, it was introduced by a Conservative Government. We, as Conservatives, welcome the cross-party support for it.
“decided to put forward an amendment to the Broadcasting Bill in the Lords to concentrate all Welsh language programmes on the Fourth Channel…If the Lords were to carry the amdmt. it would clearly weaken our position very considerably.”
It was that pressure that led to the Government having to fulfil their commitment, which they wanted to renege on at the time.
I will not test your patience any further, Mr Gapes. As a former history teacher—[Interruption.]
I accept your ruling, Mr Gapes, although I enjoy the Minister’s sedentary remarks. They liven things up considerably.
That is evidence that S4C is not a priority for the Government. Meanwhile, the Welsh Government are providing a grant to it and supporting Welsh-language papers—the papurau bro, as the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd called them. That is because that Government understand the importance of local news to communities.
I do not want to paint too gloomy a picture. Regional and local news outlets continue to break very important stories, often of national significance, while both entertaining residents and informing them of community events and developments, but they do that despite rather than because of the Government’s action. I encourage the Minister to do more after this debate. He has had encouragement from both sides of the Chamber to do something.
The BBC has announced the local democracy reporter programme, which hon. Members have referred to, and which is going to cost £8 million of licence fee money. BBC reporters will work with local papers. Superficially, that is a welcome initiative, but in effect the Government are outsourcing a complex issue to another body rather than taking charge of the situation. Against that background, we support the call for the Government to carry out a national review into local news and media plurality. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will commit to undertake such a review? Other hon. Members have also called for one.
The NUJ’s research, “Mapping changes in local news 2015-2017: more bad news for democracy?”, which was published this month, shows a net loss of nine regional papers since 2015, and a loss of more than 400 local journalism jobs over a 17-month period. In 2015, two thirds of local authority districts, encompassing more than half the UK’s population, no longer had a local daily newspaper. Between November 2015 and March 2017, the number of local monopolies rose to 170 out of 380 in Wales, England and Scotland.
The Government are in a unique position to pull together views from across the industry—from multinationals to trade unions, civic society groups and the mutual sector—to judge the effect that these changes have on society and to discuss potential solutions. I would be interested if the Minister can tell us how he will respond to the demands set out in early-day motion 1109. Will the Government undertake to launch some kind of national review into what is going on? Setting party politics aside, we are all in agreement about the importance of local news in all its formats. It is crucial to safeguard these precious community assets into the future. The Government have a role to play, and we would be interested to hear from the Minister what role he will play in achieving that.
I apologise for my earlier interruptions, Mr Gapes, but I wanted to correct that one point before I started my full response to this very thoughtful and interesting debate. I thank Helen Goodman for securing this important debate on the future of local and regional news providers.
I do not want to labour the point too much, but while the Minister is in the mood for apologising, perhaps he could apologise to the House for being late to the debate.
Of course I am very sorry. I am glad that we managed to begin appropriately at the start of the debate.
The many Members who contributed to the debate have a clear direction of travel, which is to underline the importance of journalism and local media—especially newspapers, but also broadcast and online media. As the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland said, quoting Harry Evans, journalism is a public service. The point that was made about devolution meaning that there is need for more, rather than less, local scrutiny, which journalism obviously helps to provide, is important in this context. More decisions are being taken at a local level, and it is really important to ensure that they get appropriate scrutiny.
I thank the hon. Lady for raising a point during the passage of the Digital Economy Bill about the importance of ensuring that whistleblowers and journalists are protected from the tightening-up of the enforcement of data protection rules. The Digital Economy Bill is a very positive step, in terms of data protection. The hon. Lady and a couple of other Members rightly raised the important matter of ensuring that the law is explicit, rather than implicit, in the protection of journalism and journalists, and I am very grateful to her for bringing that to my attention.
As MPs, we all understand the importance of local newspapers in bringing communities together and providing a local voice to communities, as well as holding us and others in positions of responsibility to account. I am going to follow the trend in this debate. In my constituency, I am fortunate that the local press is widespread. There are 13 local titles that cover my patch, including the East Anglian Daily Times; Eastern Daily Press; Newmarket Journal; Newmarket Weekly News; Haverhill Echo; Haverhill Weekly News; Thetford and Brandon Times; Brandon Life; Ely News; Bury Free Press; Bury Mercury; and Cambridge Evening News, which just covers the corner of my constituency. That is just the press. I also have local radio stations, local BBC radio and TV, ITV, and Heart FM. So there is no shortage of high-quality local journalism in West Suffolk, but absolutely there is pressure, which is what has been highlighted by this debate.
Everybody has had a chance to mention their local newspapers. Mr Gapes, I am sure that if you were to speak, you would mention the Ilford Recorder, too. It is appropriate that the debate is this week because this is Local News Matters week, spearheaded by the NUJ. I welcome its report, published earlier this week, into this matter, some of which was referred to by Kevin Brennan, and which highlights the importance of local news to communities across the country. Many important points were in the review, including how we get investment into good quality local journalism. One of the new ways to do that has been the initiative by the BBC to put in place 150 local democracy reporters.
Questions were raised about how the reporters were going to operate, and there was a lot of work and consultation by the BBC to develop criteria for the local democracy reporters, including making sure that they had a previous track record in public service journalism, with content provided in lots of different ways, and that the operation could work locally in practice. I heard the point about additionality clearly, and it is important that the 150 local democracy reporters are genuinely additional. I am sure that the BBC has also heard that point. Alongside that, the NewsBank will allow BBC video and audio material to be available shortly after transmission. Local newspapers have complained that they cannot use BBC material that is freely available on their websites to enhance their own material, but the NewsBank will enhance the online offering.
A data journalism hub will be created, with staff seconded from the local news industry to make data journalism available to news organisations across the media industry. The first wave of recruitment will start in the spring. So the BBC is playing its part, and I am glad that that has been welcomed. We should thank my predecessor as Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Mr Whittingdale, who at the time of the charter review ensured that that happened.
We are about to bring in a different initiative: business rates relief for local newspapers to help with cost pressures. In our manifesto we committed to consult on a business rates relief for local papers. In the Budget in March last year we announced that that would be introduced from
On the concentration of ownership, plurality of media ownership is an important consideration. Legislation was introduced to relax the cross-media ownership requirements, allowing local newspapers to be involved in local TV as part of our attempt to ensure that local newspapers are sustainable. Local TV has a role to play. Some £25 million of funding was set aside in the previous BBC funding agreement to set up local TV. Some stations, such as London Live and Notts TV, have close links with local newspapers, and a Kent local TV service is forthcoming. STV in Scotland has taken advantage of the local TV licences and is launching its STV2 services to bring together a network of its current services with localised news content as well. We have to look at local media and journalism in the round.
Commercial radio was also mentioned. Obviously, commercial radio is incredibly important and in many areas is thriving. It reaches a very high proportion of people. We are currently consulting on reducing some of the burdens on commercial radio. I was involved in a commercial radio station, Oxygen 107.9, when I was a student—I was minority sports correspondent. It attempted to be a commercial radio station, but in fact it folded shortly after I left. It was more fun making the radio than it was listening to it. At least, that is what our advertisers must have thought.
Community radio has an important part to play. Several hon. Members mentioned its importance and we have taken action on it. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland raised the question of community radio being able to raise money from advertising. Two years ago, in April 2015, we increased to £15,000 the amount that a community radio station can make without the limits on that being in place. There is a reason why there is a limit. Community radio station licences are genuinely for community purposes. We would not want them to be used for commercial radio squeezing out community providers. We increased the limit to £15,000, and I hope community radio stations will take advantage of the fact that they can now raise £15,000 of advertising revenue before any of the other limits kick in.
I want to stress some additional facts. The fact that 58% of people do not have access to a daily local press was raised, but if we take local press in print and online into account, 95% of the country is covered, according to NMA industry figures. Although clearly under stress, there is availability of local reporting, whether in print or online, right across the country. The challenge of new technology is to find a way to ensure that it provides a sustainable business model for local journalism. We cannot hold back the tide of technology. The key is how we can harness it in a way that provides for a sustainable business model, and allows citizens to access their news more readily than they could before when there was only print available. That is the big challenge we face.
The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland also asked about treating newspapers as assets of community value. The legislation on such assets, however, refers only to the land and buildings. That might potentially cover the physical assets of a local newspaper, but her point is that there is more to the assets of a local newspaper than the physical asset. I will therefore have a conversation with Ministers at the Department for Communities and Local Government, the lead Department, to see whether we can make any progress. We will have to look into the practical questions, but I understand her thrust.
Many other very good points were made in the debate. My hon. Friend Jason McCartney not only enlightened us with his experience, stressing again the importance of plurality and that the BBC proposals need to be an enhancement of and addition to what is already on offer, but raised the issue of fake news. The Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport is investigating fake news and I very much look forward to the results of its inquiry. In Government, we are well aware of it, as one might imagine, and it engages many interested parties, but we will wait for the report of the ongoing Select Committee inquiry before we come forward with anything.
Liz Saville Roberts was clear about the importance not only of English-language but of Welsh-language newspapers. That is a good point to take into account. As she said, democracies need watchdogs with a powerful bark—whether that bark is in English or Welsh, it must provide for the local audience.
I emphasise that, although Plaid Cymru is expected to talk about Welsh-language matters, we need to bear in mind that 20% of Wales speaks Welsh and 80% of Wales speaks English. In terms of plurality of media in Wales, it is equally significant to look at the accountability of democracy in English as in Welsh.
I could not agree more with the hon. Lady. I am a strong supporter of the Welsh language and of S4C—I love it so much I even had an unnecessary argument about who came up with it. It is incredibly important that people are held to account in a language that is understood by local citizens. That is what democratic accountability is all about, and that includes in Welsh. I take her point. I thought that the additional support we have announced for S4C would get a warmer welcome from the hon. Member for Cardiff West. The millions of pounds extra for S4C underlines the Government’s support for the Welsh language.
My hon. Friend Rebecca Harris and others made the point that local papers are often more unbiased, and are certainly perceived to be. They have to cater for the whole community to survive. She mentioned that they also campaign on behalf of local communities, whether about local deliveries on unadopted roads or elderly residents. In my case, a few years ago the Haverhill Echo campaigned to bring the Olympic torch to Haverhill. The paper also campaigned alongside the Thetford and Brandon Times to save the Brandon day care centre, which we successfully did this year. Engaging in campaigns of value to the local population is a classic role of the local newspaper.
The hon. Member for Cardiff West mentioned new technology. Indeed, many hon. Members have rightly pointed out that this industry is changing at dramatic speed. We need to ensure that the technology works for the public interest of journalism, and initiatives are under way to ensure that. Google’s Digital News Initiative was launched with €150 million to support digital local news journalism. A number of UK publishers, including publishers of local media Trinity Mirror, Johnston Press and The Ferret, are receiving funding from that. However, we have to see how the market develops and keep a close eye on it to ensure that it is sustainable, because local accountability matters.
On the call for an inquiry, we have to see how the BBC initiative beds down and how the business rates support, which comes in only on Saturday, works in practice. We keep this question under constant review. This area is of great significance and is of importance to the Government. Of course, I am happy to debate it in the House at any point. Rather than having a single fixed inquiry, we will keep it under constant review, and I will be surprised if the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland does not ensure that that is the case.
We have had an excellent debate, and I am grateful to all right hon. and hon. Members who took part. This is a significant issue. There was consensus today about the significance of local news for democracy and communities, and agreement that we need to keep a watchful eye on this matter. Some positive action has been taken but more might be needed. I am grateful to the Minister for responding positively to the assets of community value idea, and to the Backbench Business Committee for giving us the opportunity to look into this issue in more detail.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the future of local and regional news providers.