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David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The Leicester Mercury is a Northcliffe newspaper, and an excellent one. One of the subjects that my hon. Friend has described is creeping out of its coverage—local issues at sub-county level are getting much less coverage, not least because such newspapers are in slow-managed circulation decline. Therefore, advertising is providing a higher proportion of income.

Mr. Mitchell: That is going on throughout the country. It weakens local democracy and local newspapers. It also weakens local interest. There is less analysis of what we are doing. There is less discussion of
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politics; less discussion of what the local council is doing; and less discussion of what senior local figures do at local power centres.

If one does not have the journalists on the required scale, fewer journalists cover stories. They do not go out—they stay in the office to cobble together press releases using the glossy spin that companies and institutions produce to say that they are doing well when, in fact, they are not. Those companies are concealing the truth, and the journalists conspire in that concealment. There are fewer specialists, including health specialists and even sports specialists. Spin wins—the truth does not prevail—and, as a result, the electorate is less well-informed.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am sure that in preparation for this debate my hon. Friend has read the Forest of Dean and Wye Valley Review, which usefully explains what is happening in my part of the world. The Citizen has been moved to Gloucestershire Echo territory which, as anyone who knows Gloucestershire will realise, is like revisiting the civil war. The Western Daily Press and the Evening Post are fine newspapers, but they have been pushed together. Journalists have been threatened with the sack, sub-editors have been removed and so on. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is not acceptable?

Mr. Mitchell: I would give my hon. Friend a standing ovation if I were capable of standing to applaud him. It is a weakening of local influence and local information. It is a weakening of democratic debate in the localities at a time when we are desperately trying to strengthen local democracy and transfer power from London to the regions. There is talk of the new localism, communes and new local leadership groups, but local democratic debate will be harmed by the cutting of newspaper staff and reporters.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): In view of the success of my hon. Friend's correspondence with Lord Rothermere, may I invite him to write to the Hillingdon & Uxbridge Times, which is putting to the knife a number of journalistic and other jobs in my local area? That, too, will lead to the creation of a near-monopoly as one paper folds and another does not. Is not the true problem the fact that profitability is so high that obscene wage awards are given to chief executives? The chief executive of the Trinity Mirror group, Ms Sly Bailey, has slashed jobs in the past few months but earns a salary of £550,000 and gave herself a bonus of £495,000 this year.

Mr. Mitchell: I agree that that is obscene, and it produces lethargy in the local press when we want dynamism, drive and competition. There can be no healthy local democracy without a healthy local media, particularly healthy, efficient and effective local papers staffed by good journalists who develop stories and provide information for people to make democratic decisions. The people suffer, and we suffer, because we cannot communicate our views and policies to the electorate. We cannot make the case for the kind of society that we want to achieve. Newspapers can always be sold if they are filled with sex, celebrities, the more interesting bits of Abi Titmuss and extruded pap in place
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of news. However, one cannot educate or inform the people on that basis, as one is peddling lies, which are blandished as spin in place of honest information, inquiry and serious analysis. One cannot build a healthy local democracy on that basis.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), has the invidious job of responding to my tirade—his Department is the only one with any regulatory power in this field—and I hope that he accepts the need to look at the issue of profiteering by local monopolies. I hope that he will consider trying to give newspapers a different status in takeovers, and will try to restrict the growing power of the chains, which are attempting to push up profits. I hope that he will investigate with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport how we can encourage and increase diversity in our local newspapers and media, because that is the only healthy way to encourage local democracy.

Localism is becoming extinct and centralisation is growing. High streets are dying, post offices are closing, and the whole world has been taken over by massive supermarkets. We need to bring democracy back to our people, and we can do that only with the help of the local media.

7.35 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) on securing this debate on a subject that is very close to his heart following his years in journalism and the media. I am happy that he had special dispensation this evening to remain in a sedentary position because of the recurrence of his old injury from a parachute jump 30 years ago. That shows how adventurous he can be. As he said, he is a member of the National Union of Journalists and chair of the NUJ group here in Parliament, which plays a positive role in trying to ensure that the news gets told as it should, not only in local journalism but in the national media. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

My hon. Friend focused on the role of provincial newspapers. I speak with some practical experience of that world. In my younger days, I worked for our local newspaper, the Bradford Telegraph and Argus, as a display advertising clerk. My role was to go up to the editor and explain how much space he had left for news, because the advertising revenue was important to the paper. Later on, I was a full-time trade union officer in the printing industry with the SOGAT union, so I am aware of the importance of local media to jobs in our communities. My hon. Friend is right to point to the importance of our having a healthy provincial newspaper sector.

When this debate was announced, many hon. Members asked me to mention their newspapers, but there were so many that it would be impossible to do so. I therefore generalise by saying that the Grimsby Telegraph and the Scunthorpe Telegraph are important, as are the Hull Daily Mail and the Bradford Telegraph and Argus. I am sure that the others are as well.

My hon. Friend talked about what happens when groups of newspapers come together and how that affects the quality of the journalism. I do not entirely
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share his sense of doom and gloom about that. Many local newspapers are finding innovative ways of communicating with their local communities. They have the basic product of the newspaper but are using other media to try to get the message across. The advantage that many local newspapers have is that they are a strong brand within their communities and are trusted on issues to do with local education, local government and so on. The brand name of a local newspaper, which has often been in the community for a long time, brings with it the view that it is caring for the community that it serves.

The local press is a competitive world because of the diversification of the media that is taking place. It is important that newspapers try to find new, imaginative ways of reaching the public, whether through free newspapers or other media with which they can get involved. The Government are mindful of the importance of the media, particularly local media.

The laws relating to local press ownership are found in the Broadcasting Act 1996, the Enterprise Act 2002 and the Communications Act 2003. Newspaper ownership, including local newspaper ownership, is regulated by rules under the Enterprise Act, as amended by the Communications Act. Cross-media ownership is regulated by the Broadcasting Act, again amended by the Communications Act. The ownership rules aim to avoid undue concentration of media ownership and to maintain diverse media content from a variety of sources. The Communications Act replaced the special merger regime for newspaper transfers under sections 57 to 62 of the Fair Trading Act 1973 with a simpler and more relaxed system.

The Communications Act sought to deregulate when possible to promote competition and attract new investment. The Act removed the requirement for the Government to be pre-notified of all newspaper mergers. It also removed the requirement for the Secretary of State to make a decision only following a report from the Competition Commission. That was expected to generate cost savings for business and the Department of Trade and Industry. The Department previously charged a fee of £5,000 or £10,000, depending on the circulation, for considering the merger. A reference to the Competition Commission entailed an average cost of £300,000 and imposed extra costs on businesses.

The more streamlined and less burdensome regime meant that the regulatory resources could be better focused on the transfers of newspapers that raise competition or plurality concerns. The new regime was aligned with the new system for general mergers that the Enterprise Act introduced.

The Communications Act added new newspaper public interest considerations to the Enterprise Act, thereby enabling the Secretary of State to intervene in a case and, if necessary, to refer it to the Competition Commission when it raised concerns about the accurate presentation of news, the free expression of opinion or the plurality of views in newspapers in the UK or part of the UK.

The main media ownership provisions of the Communications Act that related to newspapers were, at national level, the retention of existing limits on joint ownership of newspapers and Channel 3. At regional
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level, a parallel 20 per cent. rule was retained. No one who owns a regional Channel 3 licence may own more than 20 per cent. of the local regional newspaper market.

The rules that apply to joint ownership of national newspapers and Channel 5 were removed. Locally, a limit was retained on the ownership of local radio stations by companies that control more than 50 per cent. of the newspaper market in the area of the radio service in question and companies that own a regional Channel 3 licence, whose coverage is, to a significant extent, the same as that of the radio service. Restrictions on radio ownership by newspaper companies with less than a 50 per cent. share were removed.

I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise that the Government are concerned about those relationships and that we acknowledge the importance of local newspapers in their communities. We are also concerned about the impact on the quality of journalism.

Like all hon. Members, I know from personal experience that many journalists who work on local newspapers do not stay for a long time—there is a high turnover of journalists in the local media. In some cases, that is due to promotions. In Westminster, there are many examples of Lobby journalists who come from local newspapers. The NUJ is especially concerned about the quality of young people who are attracted to the profession and ensuring that they have long and worthwhile careers.

I note my hon. Friend's success with Lord Rothermere. I am sure that that is down to his personal performance in writing to Lord Rothermere and his distinguished career. I emphasise that we are keeping an eye on what is happening. The regulatory regime is in place if there are problems and we are always happy to hear from the NUJ and other bodies about their concerns about the quality of journalism.

My hon. Friend is right to raise the subject and to ensure that we are all mindful of the quality that we receive from the local media. I hope that he will accept that we are prepared to consider the matter and to meet regularly to ascertain why there are problems.

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