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20 Jan 2009 : Column 182WH—continued

I would like to reassure the House that we continue to invest in ways to eradicate the disease: £20 million will be spent over the next three years on vaccine development,
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and the bovine TB eradication group was established in November. I want the Government and the industry to work together on eradicating the disease, and I am pleased with the positive engagement there has been with that group. It has agreed that it needs to consider different approaches for different areas. It wants to look at the spread of the disease at the edges of high-incidence areas, and the various drivers and risks, and seek to define the overall aims for each of those areas in order to focus its work programme.

Although a licensed cull of badgers has been ruled out, I seek to reassure colleagues that I very much want to encourage the eradication group, and that my mind is open to all the suggestions that might be made for finding solutions to this appalling disease.

Changing the arrangements for sharing the responsibilities and costs of animal health have been under consideration for some time and would be of enormous benefit to the south-west of England. We hope to consult in the near future on specific proposals.

The economic downturn is of concern to all of us, and farmers are no exception. However, we can assume that the demand for food will not be as volatile as for some other products, but the impact of recent financial shocks on personal pension plans may be a problem for some farmers. The National Farmers Union conducted a useful survey of some 400 of its members to assess the impact of the credit crunch and the availability of credit to farmers. It produced some encouraging results that bear out the comments of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) that, counter-cyclically, farming and farmers are not as badly hit by the availability of credit. They appear to receive better treatment than other UK businesses when they seek credit.

Some other factors will help farmers. The reduction in the base rate will help all businesses by reducing the
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cost of borrowing, and farming stands well placed to benefit from that. The current exchange rate is good for exporters and increases all farmers’ income from EU payments. The Rural Payments Agency is making good progress on completing its single payment scheme targets. I gave information about that last week at oral questions so will not reiterate it today.

I shall not go into detail on electronic identification, as we had a separate debate not that long ago on the subject. As the time remaining allows me to deal with only one other matter, I shall reserve it to touch quickly on food labelling.

However, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome expressed his interest in and concern for bees. All that I will say now is that I hope that the Department will soon be in a position to make an announcement that will be of great encouragement to all those Members who have written to me expressing their concern about the decline in bee numbers. We need to be concerned about all pollinators, not just bees. Therefore, I hope that the imminent announcement will be welcomed by both sides of the House.

Labelling is one of the hottest topics to do with food at present. I am working hard with officials to see what we can do, given the constraints under which we have to work—constraints in respect of the free flow of imports across Europe with which we would all agree. However, there are things that we can do to improve labelling of country of origin. In particular, I hope that the pork industry will be encouraged by some announcements that I expect to be able to make very soon. They will bring forward benefits, perhaps not going quite as far as the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire—

John Cummings (in the Chair): Order. We must move on to the next debate.

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Local Press

11 am

John Cummings (in the Chair): I advise hon. Members that some seven people are trying to catch my eye and in order to give them all a fair chance, perhaps they could be brief.

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): I want to put on record my thanks to Mr. Speaker for granting me this important debate. I am so happy to see so many hon. and right hon. Members in the Chamber, because this is an important issue. I shall try to be brief, but I have important issues to flag up regarding my area.

I am sure that all hon. and right hon. Members in the Chamber agree that a thriving local press is essential for a healthy democracy. We may not always agree with the views and opinions of the local paper serving our constituency, but most of us would regard local papers as representative of our communities and of their needs and aspirations. It is clear that this role is now under threat as never before.

Recently, the chief executive of one of my local newspapers described the situation as a “perfect storm” engulfing local press. The situation is now so severe that many titles may disappear unless corrective action is taken. So today, in this debate, I want to raise two important, simple matters. First, I will outline the pressures and threats facing local titles. Secondly, I will suggest some remedies that, with the co-operation of our Government, may provide some help for our local press to survive.

I shall say a few words on problems and causes. What has caused the current situation? First and foremost, it is the economic downturn. The headlines in the online magazine for the local press, “Hold the Front Page”, illustrate the current situation effectively, and I shall provide a few quotations from a sample that I took last month: “Gutted reporters facing forced relocation”; “Yorkshire weekly closes—Ripon Gazette sister paper ceases publication”; “Reporters sacrifice pay to save colleagues—Journalists offer to reduce their hours to prevent redundancy”; “Brand new editor handed redundancy notice”; and “Daily newspaper to close after 25 years”.

The area that I represent has not escaped these cutbacks. On Teesside, we are served by two excellent daily and evening local newspapers—The Northern Echo, based in Darlington, which is a regional paper, and the Evening Gazette, based in Middlesbrough. Both papers were founded in the heyday of Victorian provincial newspapers and have served our communities through war and peace, boom time and recession. I know that the reporters and editors on those papers are determined to continue doing just that for the coming century, but editors and managers on both titles have been forced to ask for redundancies and axe branch offices, which is a move that many journalists and I feel will affect story generation and sourcing for the worse.

The Northern Echo, has had to axe some of its sister “Advertiser” series and reduce editions, and the Middlesbrough EveningGazette has asked for voluntary editorial redundancies. The same problem is affecting local free sheets, one of which—the Cleveland Circuit
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nearly ceased production, but the heroic work of the couple who own and manage the paper rescued it and it is now appearing again on a regular basis and will, I hope, do so for a long time to come.

The economic downturn has not led to a circulation drop. Indeed, many people want to know how their region is fighting back. However, over a longer period there has been a steady loss of readership that cannot be ignored. The British provincial press has seen a 51 per cent. drop in circulation since 1989. Coupled with that, there has been a significant drop in advertising. Display advertising from the local high street is down as the retail crunch bites. The staples of local advertising have been adversely affected as people withdraw from the property market, recruitment is put on hold and car sales stagnate. The internet has also hit sections of the readership, and fewer younger readers are staying loyal to what the bloggers call the dead-end press.

There are other pressures, too. For instance, there is a serious and as yet hardly unreported threat of big increases in the price of newsprint paper. Yet the need for good, honest local reportage is greater than ever. Look at the alternatives. Local and regional TV is going under the axe and ITV is, to all intents and purposes, decimating its regional coverage, which has led to an outcry in the House but has seemingly been rubber-stamped by Ofcom. Instead, we will be left with very broad coverage of regional news.

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and congratulate him on securing this important debate. The regions of England are well represented in the Chamber, and I am sure that hon. Members support the comments that the hon. Gentleman is making.

The hon. Gentleman’s point about the ITV cutbacks resonates strongly in Wales, a country where plurality is all the more important, whether it comes from the local press, the national press or ITV. Does the hon. Gentleman agree—he is making the point strongly—that it is welcome when, for instance, the BBC cuts its local website proposals, because it allows the local press the opportunity to diversify and put their local newspapers online?

Dr. Kumar: I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman, who has made an important point about diversity. I am with him all the way.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend mentioned a moment or two ago the threat of the internet, but in many ways it is an opportunity. At the Society of Editors conference, it was suggested that local and regional newspapers should collaborate in the development of a search engine. That would not necessarily rival Google’s 40 per cent. of advertising revenue, but something there is struggling to get out. My local paper, the Leicester Mercury, an excellent regional paper, has a website called “This is Leicestershire” that could do with development. A collaborative, alternative search engine might be helpful in maintaining the local and regional press, which we know is necessary in this country.

Dr. Kumar: All I can say to my hon. Friend is that I am sure that there is a lot of innovation in different parts of the country. However, I am only highlighting
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what is happening in my area. All sorts of new ideas have been tried, but the local press is still facing difficulties. Well done to the Leicester Mercury for the progress that it has made, but not everybody can do the same thing. I know that opportunities are there, but I am trying to highlight what is happening on my patch, because it is highly serious.

In my area, regional news means coverage from southern Scotland down to Scarborough compressed into about 20 minutes’ airtime. Radio is little better, excepting licence-fee-paid BBC local radio. Now most independent local radio news coverage outside the BBC is little more than national agency feed from the Press Association read out over the airwaves.

As hon. Members have mentioned, we must not forget the internet. The internet was—admittedly, some years ago—seen as a new and free open house for local news and comment, but most local blogs and comment sites have become a means for those who merely shout the loudest to express their views. So we have a paradox: people want local news, but increasingly the only in-depth and reliable coverage comes from our existing local titles, which are currently under threat.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): The hon. Gentleman has spoken about other media, and I agree with him. Will he go so far as to agree with me that without the local printed press, local democracy would not be able to continue as it exists today, which would be a great loss for our country? Also, has he seen that early-day motions 502 and 503, which were tabled last night, follow that theme?

Dr. Kumar: I have not seen the early-day motions, but that is the point that I am trying to make. In my area, some of the satellite offices of the Evening Gazette and The Northern Echo have been closed down. If offices close, stories that would have been picked up in the past will not be picked up. That is precisely why we need local media and local satellite offices, which help newspapers to keep stories local. I am glad that for once I agree with the hon. Gentleman.

Bob Spink: It happens more and more these days.

Dr. Kumar: Indeed.

I shall propose a couple of solutions, because it is no good my simply raising the issues. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister would like to hear some solutions and suggestions, and I hope that he will take them up. Can anything be done to prevent this dreadful situation from having devastating consequences for our local news? It is clear that there is a case for some form of rescue package for local papers that are struggling, but we have to ask what, in practical terms, can be done. Of course, the local press themselves must adapt to changing circumstances, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) has said. It needs to move away from a lazy reliance on simply inputting press releases from the local councils, the nearest big football club or local businesses.

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): Or MPs.

Dr. Kumar: Indeed. The business managers must show that they can adapt, attract new advertising streams and become relevant to young readers. However, even the most hard-headed and innovative business managers
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will need help, if they are to come through this difficult time. That was the point that I was trying to make to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my hon. Friend for being so generous about giving way. Will he accept that there is a paradox, inasmuch as many of the main groups that own our well loved titles are extremely profitable? They may be less profitable as a result of the credit crunch, but they have been extremely profitable. However, the people who report the news—the reporters—are paid abysmally. If one asks those who work in the newspaper industry or even in the spoken media, one finds that what they earn is appalling. In addition, people on work experience are increasingly used as a substitute for fully employed people, and there is virtually no apprenticeship scheme left. If there was investment in good journalism, would that not be the answer to many of the prayers about keeping the industry going?

Dr. Kumar: I have not asked my local journalists what they are paid, although I am sure that my hon. Friend is well informed. Now that he has raised the issue, I will ask them, and perhaps I will be able to deal with his comment.

There are small things that can be done, and perhaps a couple of big things. Let us take the small things first. The state, at both local and national level, is a big spender on advertising. Can we harness that advertising power, so that it helps both our local papers and our local communities? The Government recently announced a big cash boost to the work of the Department for Work and Pensions and the Jobcentre Plus network, so why not make part of that boost conditional on jobcentres booking space in the local papers in their area to advertise jobs and training courses? There is always a lag between new benefits or changes to benefits and take-up. Again, why not require the DWP to publicise such information in local papers, which have a much greater reach than any DWP information sheet or pamphlet?

The state—now that the state helping people is fashionable again—could help with training for journalists, too. We need to recognise that the newspaper industry has been a leader in the provision of in-service training and distance learning. That is provided by the National Council for the Training of Journalists—a body whose running costs are underwritten by the regional newspaper industry. However, I am told that that work needs to be enhanced to reflect multi-media convergence across the whole industry. That would help to deal with the consequences of the economic downturn, but it would mean higher costs. It is difficult to give precise figures for the cost of trainees in the first few years of their careers, but I am told by the Society of Editors that it could be £15,000 to £20,000. The pure training element need not be high, as newspapers increasingly take graduates who have paid for basic courses.

I come now to the big suggestions, and at this point two important words enter the debate—public money. We need to ask whether there is any reason why local newspapers should not compete with electronic broadcasters for financial support. Such newspapers provide the crucial public service of keeping a community informed about itself. I am well aware that this question is very
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sensitive in the local newspaper industry. Many editors and owners would once have dismissed it out of hand, because they were concerned that strings might be attached to a requirement to produce so-called public service content. Some would have seen that as a threat to editorial autonomy. However, I am not sure that they would reject such an approach at this time, especially if any public help came from external third parties, rather than from the state itself, and with the type of safeguards historically guaranteed to the BBC. There are precedents for that elsewhere.

In Norway, a state subsidy scheme for local newspapers has existed since 1969. The subsidies amount to between 2 and 3 per cent. of the total annual turnover of the press. Moreover, subsidies are directed particularly towards newspapers in difficult market positions. To be eligible for support, the newspaper must have a general news profile and an editor who adheres to the editor’s code. That code, set up by the editors association and the publishers association, gives guarantees for the independence of the editors.

I have no problem with state help. After all, as Alan Rusbridger said in The Guardian recently:

My approach would be based on these principles. The resource for such aid would come from the digital switchover surplus. As the Minister knows, a new auction of parts of the spectrum is coming up. That is to be managed by Ofcom, which has been charged with a duty to ensure that spectrum is not wasted. There is real money here, too. Previously, and famously, the Government did very well when they auctioned the third generation mobile phone spectrum licences, raising £21 billion for the Treasury. Now, with 16 national licences available for auction, the Government can expect to raise a fair amount of cash. Alan Rusbridger estimates that the cash from the ITV part of the equation could be £60 million, while the digital surplus element of the BBC licence fee could amount to a further £130 million. Why should local newspapers not be in with a shout for some of those revenues, rather than the money merely being shuffled around a limited pool of broadcasters?

Ofcom’s most recent review of public service broadcasting sketches a number of scenarios for covering nations, regions and local communities. That includes a network of local and regional TV news providers as well as an idea for newspapers to combine with others to provide cross-platform content, including nightly TV bulletins. It also suggests that present competition restrictions could be reviewed, which would involve asking the Office of Fair Trading to assess whether local newspapers could be viewed simply as part of a wider media market. I argue that that pool should be managed by a third party rather than a Government Department. Ofcom is a possibility, or, if it does not have the machinery in place, regional development agencies in England and equivalent bodies in the devolved parts of the UK might be appropriate, because they are perceived to be value free and in those terms would be acceptable to editors.

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