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20 Jan 2009 : Column 189WH—continued

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There are issues about the balance of help that goes to small, local newspapers, as against help for titles owned by bigger media plcs. Of course, checks and balances would be needed to prevent the bigger and better-resourced media groups from hoovering up the pool before the smaller groups can get their applications finalised. As a further guarantee, any receipts from that pool must be seen to be wholly additional to internal media group funding and not used as a way to reduce corporate support.

I know that a lot of hon. Members want to take part in the debate, so in conclusion I have tried to highlight the problems and difficulties facing our local newspapers. I have made some far-reaching suggestions to the Minister, and I fear that if those ideas are not considered, we could be in serious danger of seeing the collapse of a large part of our unique local press. I am not trying to be dramatic, but that would certainly be disastrous. I know that the Minister has listened carefully to what I have said. Local newspapers are the lifeblood of our communities and part of our cultural heritage. They are absolutely essential for our areas and towns, and once lost they would be difficult to restore. Certainly in my area, TheNorthern Echo is an excellent regional newspaper and the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette has been serving our people for nearly 150 years. The Minister should take my suggestions very seriously, as I have expressed the concerns of people in my area and the spirit of what our local papers are saying and the worries that they have.

11.23 am

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on securing this important debate. For me, the importance of local media is about scrutinising Back Benchers and ensuring that we are accountable to our constituents. As the debate was starting, I received a text message from somebody in my constituency to say that there is now a campaign among the local media to find out how Shropshire MPs will be voting on the issue of MPs’ expenses. Constituents are being asked not to vote for MPs who vote to withhold that information. I love that sort of scrutiny. It is essential to have a mechanism for local people to challenge their MPs and for the newspapers to do that vital job.

In Shrewsbury we have two excellent newspapers, the Shropshire Star and the Shrewsbury Chronicle. In the Lobby, there is a correspondent, Mr. John Hipwood, who works for the Shropshire Star and other newspapers. He is always in the Members’ Lobby on Wednesday before Prime Minister’s Question Time, asking us what we have done during the week, probing and scrutinising. I always look forward to my interactions with Mr. Hipwood in the Lobby, and it is important to have somebody in the House of Commons who scrutinises what we do and reports back to our constituents in an impartial way. We need more than MPs’ propaganda through their newsletters to constituents.

I depend on my local newspapers, the Shrewsbury Chronicle and the Shropshire Star, for highlighting the outrageous way in which the Labour Government are treating Shropshire. They help me to raise issues that are pivotal to the people of Shrewsbury, such as the fact that every child in Shrewsbury receives £3,300 per annum
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for their education. In other parts of the country, particularly in Labour seats, that figure is £9,000 or £10,000—three times what my children in Shrewsbury get. As a result, village schools are under threat from closure.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman recognises that newspapers are impartial. Does he share equal enthusiasm for the way in which local papers lambasted the former Conservative Government when they tried to introduce a poll tax?

Daniel Kawczynski: I look forward to next year, when the Conservative party will get into power, and I expect my local paper to be as critical in its scrutiny as it has been with the Labour Government.

Sometimes, there are controversial issues. Yesterday, I met the chief executive of Veolia to talk about an incinerator in my constituency—or a “waste to energy facility”, as people like to call it nowadays. Such issues are complicated and emotional. People raise health issues, and it is the role of the local newspaper to try to crunch all the information and present it in the most effective way.

I agree with the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland, who secured the debate, about the need for Government to spend more money on local newspapers. I concur totally with the concerns that he raised about advertising spending having decreased significantly over the past six months. As a result, papers have, for example, had to cut the number of photographers whom they employ, because of the lack of advertising money. Obviously, I would put a caveat on that—I do not want any more Labour propaganda, which is spewed out all over the place in the media. However, it is good to put relevant campaigns through the local media.

Bob Spink: The hon. Gentleman makes a lot of sense. Has he considered using his communications allowance to promote the take-up of pension credit, which I have done in my constituency? That is very helpful for a local community. On a more substantive subject, does he note any difference between the free press that is delivered weekly, which often addresses vulnerable people, and the paid-for, daily local press?

Daniel Kawczynski: I concur with the hon. Gentleman. With the help of my local newspaper, I am initiating a conference in Shrewsbury, with experts, to interact with the senior citizens forum, which is 5,000 people strong, and help people understand more about pension credits. I know that many people in my county are not getting what they are entitled to.

David Taylor: In order to define the lexicon that the hon. Gentleman is using, are we to understand that all information that the Government produce and publicise, perhaps in relation to the Department for Work and Pensions, is propaganda, while anything that comes from Opposition parties is a clinical and objective assessment? Is that how he reads it?

Daniel Kawczynski: It is important for Opposition MPs to highlight in a public way their concerns about Government spending, particularly in the run-up to a
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general election when there is a massive peak in such spending. It is a strange coincidence, but there seems to be a correlation between an imminent general election and the amount of Government spending. Of course it is our duty and responsibility to scrutinise whether all that information is totally unbiased, and it is very important that we do that job.

The remainder of my remarks will be brief, Mr. Cummings, because I know that you want to ensure that everybody speaks. The Shrewsbury Chronicle reports the views of its readers and the work of MPs, MEPs, and county, borough, town and parish councils. That is a very important point. We are talking about not only MPs but parish councils. I represent a rural constituency, and my local paper reports on rural, parish matters, which is very helpful especially for senior citizens living in isolated areas who might otherwise be unable to find out about various vital, local services, such as meals on wheels.

The local editor, Mr. Butterworth, has worked with political, business and health officials to improve the town. That has included campaigns to save the town swimming pool and to get signs put up for Shrewsbury on certain main roads—before I became an MP, I asked the Highways Agency how we could get a sign for Shrewsbury on the M6. It had a sign for Telford, but not for Shrewsbury. It said, “No chance; no, no, we’re not going to do it!” The local newspaper ran a concerted campaign saying how important it was for Shrewsbury to be recognised as the county town of Shropshire and to have a sign on the M6. It initiated a cross-party campaign; now thanks to the Shrewsbury Chronicle, Shrewsbury finally has a sign on the M6 directing people to our beautiful, historic town—it is, of course, one of the most beautiful in the west midlands, and I highly recommend it for summer holidays.

The Shrewsbury Chronicle has also been involved in a campaign for flood defences. However, its most successful campaign was “Let’s grow for it”, which concerned Shrewsbury’s bid for the Britain in Bloom competition. The town not only won the national title for the first time in 25 years, but won the European and world titles—yes, we hold the town in bloom world title! Not only are we beautiful, but we have lots of beautiful flowers.

In the past 12 years, the paper has raised more than £5 million for various charities, which has helped to build a new Macmillan cancer centre and a new diabetes unit at the Royal Shrewsbury hospital, and it has provided a new vehicle for the Red Cross to use in the county, a much-needed extension for the local hospice, a vehicle for a children’s hospice and a new head and neck cancer unit at the Royal Shrewsbury hospital. The paper was recognised for its efforts when the editor, Mr. John Butterworth, was awarded the MBE for services to journalism and charity in last year’s new year’s honours list. The paper has also organised many competitions, such as hanging-basket, shop-window and tots of year contests—I entered my own beautiful daughter, Alexis, in the tots of the year competition. Regrettably, she did not win—

Mr. Vaizey: Where was she placed?

Daniel Kawczynski: We shall not go into that. However, she is a very beautiful little girl.

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In conclusion, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland has secured a very important debate, and I acknowledge the work that he has done to highlight the issue. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what tangible things he has planned to help our local media get through this difficult financial time.

11.33 am

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on securing this important debate and on being determined that a Minister from the right Department should answer it.

This is a very difficult time for local newspapers; it is important not only for business, but for community cohesion, that they continue to serve communities, especially given that, as has been said, local government can communicate through local newspapers. We are fortunate in Croydon in having two strong newspapers, including the Croydon Advertiser, whichhas a long tradition of service to the town. For a great deal of time, a famous editor, Geoff Collard, managed to represent the town as well as report on it. These days, newspapers face some difficult challenges in addition to the economy and possible competition from the BBC. Croydon has much violent crime, on which the Croydon Advertiser rightly reports. However, it faces the difficulty of potentially killing the golden goose by having to report on such very difficult issues.

Although local newspapers play very important local roles, they are often part of significant media organisations. The Croydon Guardian is part of the Gannett group, which is a US media organisation, and the Croydon Advertiser is now part of the Daily Mail and General Trust stable of newspapers having been sold by Trinity Mirror. Interestingly, when it was sold, it was advised that the readership was 20,000, which is less than a third of what it was more than 15 years ago. That is a sign of the challenge facing local newspapers. Gannett has managed, through the Guardian series, to conglomerate a number of local newspapers, in the way indicated by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland. In some ways, that is very efficient. Indeed, in south London, as a local media organisation, the Guardian series employs more than 80 journalists and some 300 people working full-time on their 23 weekly newspapers.

In the world of the web, the Croydon Guardianhas been particularly successful, because its online media now reaches a monthly audience of more than 275,000 people. Thus the BBC’s proposal to spend £68 million on the creation of 65 local news video sites represents a real challenge to those newspapers. Currently, the resource provided by the BBC for local reporting in Croydon is very modest—just one journalist, who is a lady called Evadney Campbell—and its approach is very responsible. However, it is understandable that private-sector providers feel threatened by the potential of being crushed by the size of the new investment.

Those unwelcome developments come at a time when local media need to counter several threats to their future. First, there are the structural, industry-wide changes as part of the media migration to the web. Secondly, Newsquest in south London has operated
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websites for it newspapers for more than 10 years, and it continues to innovate and invest in a way that provides for an exciting digital future. However, the severity of the current economic climate is having a real impact on its core revenues—most notably, on job and property advertising. Thirdly, in the mind of the Croydon Advertiser and the Croydon Guardian, there is Government-induced support for local government to withdraw advertising from independent providers through the establishment of local authority news channels and publications subsidised by public and third-party funds. Those two papers have been very critical of Croydon council over the significant increase in its advertising spend that does not go to local media, but is spent directly.

I am mindful that other Members wish to speak, so I shall only take a further two minutes. Local papers can play a real role in giving local communities a sense of identity. If local newspapers leave, much of that sense of identity will go. Many local newspapers campaign on social issues. I am impressed by the work done by journalists on both my local newspapers, such as Harry Miller, Neil Millard, Aline Nassif and Kirsty Whalley. Such people campaign on important issues that are vital to our community—for example, they deal with issues involving the families of victims of knife crime—but given the pressures and the limited pay and resources, it is very difficult for local journalists to pursue such interests.

Local newspapers must be responsible. I congratulate the approach taken by the Gannett newspaper group to remove sex trade adverts from its newspapers. That is something that has yet to be followed by the Croydon Advertiser and something that I urge it to do. The Croydon Guardian has been lobbying hard on green issues on behalf of south London business. Those are all important concerns.

Finally, on a more light-hearted note, I thank the Croydon Guardian for publicising the charity-giving, prize-giving process related to the competition for the best Christmas lights in Croydon, which was the very heart of Christmas light provision within the United Kingdom. Providing such publicity shows how newspapers can support their Members of Parliament and local communities.

11.40 am

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): This has not been a happy new year for my local press. The Ealing Times closed before Christmas. In early January, Trinity Mirror cut its editorial staff for London and the south-east from 96 to 80. For those papers covering my constituency, that means a cut of about a third. The situation is somewhat unusual in that Trinity Mirror owns both the remaining newspaper groups, the Gazette and Chronicle series. On 7 January, it told the UK Press Gazette that all the titles will have one centralised subbing and production hub and one centrally managed photographic team. It said that journalists will be given laptops, mobile phones and new software. It did not mention desks.

Effectively, one centre will cover areas including Surrey, Buckinghamshire, and north, south, east and west London. No semblance of a local newspaper or independence will remain after those cuts. That is very sad. Both the Fulham Chronicle and the Ealing Gazette have long
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histories going back over a century, and a loyal readership that has been sorely tried over the years. Despite their common ownership, they have remained fully independent and great rivals. The quality of journalism has never been better in the 25 years that I have been reading and contributing to them. There has been a combination of experienced editors and sub-editors, and enthusiastic journalists, such as Steve Still, Rebecca Kent and Michael Russell on the Gazette and Tom Shaw and Saffron Pineger on the Chronicle. I make no criticism of them at all. What is said about the pay levels for local journalists is absolutely right. Staff turnover is high because people cannot afford to live on the salaries that they are paid.

Although it is right to say that the recession and unfair competition are the reason for the decline of the local press, the seeds were sown some time ago. The fact that Trinity Mirror and other publishers put their shareholders before their journalists and readers means that when one picks up a local paper, it no longer is that. There are a couple of pages of local news, and then one suddenly finds oneself into the next borough or county in what is effectively syndicated and generalised news. For that reason, sales inevitably go down, and the decline becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As one or two of my hon. Friends have said, investment is the answer to selling more papers and producing a better product. The successful newspapers that remain in London are the ones that contain genuinely local news that people wish to read.

I also want to draw attention to the growth of the yellow press or, as in this case, the yellow, blue and red press. Under the guise of producing information, all local authorities and parties publish what is effectively political propaganda to keep the ruling party in power. I am not talking about the traditional council publications—they are dire in the extreme—that contain information about the mayor’s engagements and are produced by one hard-pressed information officer. Probably the only thing on which I agree with Boris Johnson is getting rid of The Londoner. He did that because it was absolutely useless.

Bob Spink: My Conservative local council refuses to put even the contact details of the MP in its paper.

Mr. Slaughter: Touché. I recognise that. It has to be said that Boris Johnson did not need The Londoner because the Evening Standard is the house journal of the Conservative party and will print whatever he says in any event. However, I am not talking about such publications, but the much more sophisticated type of publication that replicates what local newspapers used to do and pretends to be a local newspaper that imparts impartial news. Several local authorities in London are now doing that, including Hammersmith and Fulham.

Why is that the wrong thing to do? First, it provides desperately unfair competition. Local authorities have huge resources with which to pay the hidden costs. They pay two or three times the amount to the journalist, and their terms and conditions are marvellous compared with those of the local press. All the costs of distribution, overheads and so forth are hidden. We are talking about hundreds, if not millions, of pounds of expenditure on promotional activity of such a kind. That is bad.

In an aggressive marketing campaign, Hammersmith and Fulham council can say, “Your local press sells 3,000 copies a week, we can deliver 80,000 copies free through your door, and we will give free personal ads
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and we will undercut any of the advertising rates.” Of course, that will lead to the demise of the local press. One may say that that is sad, but it is the way of the world.

I end on the point with which my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) started: local democracy depends on a local press. If there is no scrutiny by local newspapers, as is the case in many parts of London, no one is keeping an eye on what is going on in the town hall, and that leads to abuse and corruption.

Last summer, the editor of the council newspaper wrote a very insulting article in the UK Press Gazette about the local newspapers, and he defended his paper by saying that it was not propaganda and that

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