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20 Jan 2009 : Column 196WH—continued

The UK Press Gazette correspondent counted 17 photographs of councillors in the last edition. A Labour councillor counted, in total, 150 photographs of Tory councillors before they found one of a Labour councillor. That is the sort of imbalance that we are talking about. That example may seem trivial, but we also see the promotion of unpopular council policies, attacks on anybody who is in an opposition role, whether it is the EU, another tier of Government or the Government themselves, and—this is perhaps the most insidious angle—no criticism whatsoever of the local council however unpopular its policies.

All of us who have been in local government know how mad people can feel when they have been criticised by the local press for making a mistake, but that is the price of public office. If the only source of local information in an area is a publication that only ever presents the local authority in a good light and suppresses anything that is counter to that, then that is a very serious attack on local democracy and one I ask the Government to consider.

Mr. Vaizey: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the council newspaper to which he referred was started by the previous council, which was a Labour council, and despite the propaganda in that local paper, it failed to keep in office a woeful Labour council that had racked up the council tax?

Mr. Slaughter: The hon. Gentleman does not do himself any credit. Given his tone of voice, he could well get a job working for the local paper that my Conservative council produces. That is absolutely not the case. I do not want to be hypocritical about the matter. I have run a local authority, and local authorities produce publications. I am not saying that that is necessarily a bad idea, but it must be clear who is producing them and from where their information and views are coming. I am talking about a piece of subterfuge that prevents the public from knowing the truth in a locality. The hon. Gentleman would do well to follow the example of Boris Johnson rather than the insidious example that I have given. If that is the view of the Conservative Front Bench, that is to be regretted.

I am sorry that that intervention has caused me to take so much time. This is a serious problem, which is growing partly because of the recession, but principally because of the actions of some local authorities. At the moment they are mainly Conservative and Liberal Democrat, but I make the point against any local authority that wishes to subvert democracy in such a way.

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Several hon. Members rose

John Cummings (in the Chair): Order. Three hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, so I advise Members that we must start the winding-up speeches at five minutes past 12.

11.49 am

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on securing this debate. He was right to say that newspapers are the lifeblood of our local communities. They have an important role, because they provide a source of local news and advertising that is not replicated anywhere else, and include such things as court reports, reports of council meetings, and the achievements of local people, schools and groups. Also, as all hon. Members will know, they are an important medium by which to get our message across to our constituents, and also by which our constituents hold us to account.

Local newspapers are also important when it comes to holding Governments to account. I can speak from both sides of the fence, because as well as being in Opposition here and in the Scottish Parliament now, for eight years my party was in power in the Scottish Parliament, when local newspapers held us to account. It can be uncomfortable, but there is an important role for local newspapers in our democracy.

Local letters pages are an important source of local debate. As other hon. Members have said, importantly, local newspapers run campaigns on behalf of their local communities. They are often champions of local communities on a range of issues, which the internet and video media would never replicate. Local newspapers are embracing new technology, and nearly all have web pages these days, but running campaigns and providing information cannot be replicated by the internet.

Newspapers are socially inclusive. The price is still relatively low, and they are placed in local libraries, so people who perhaps do not have access computers can go to their local newspapers and read the paper for nothing.

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that the people least likely to be able to access other forms of media or the internet, such as the elderly, are completely reliant on local newspapers?

Mr. Reid: My hon. Friend makes an important point: newspapers are very important for the elderly.

What can the Government do to help? They could do a lot by advertising—I am talking about public information, not propaganda. For example, they could advertise advice on where to apply for benefits such as pension credit, healthy living campaigns, notices of road closures, and consultations on planning applications and traffic management scheme proposals. Such things have got to be advertised in the local press. Simply putting planning applications, and traffic management and parking proposals, on the council’s website is not good enough.

In the recession, there will be pressures on the public sector to cut back in all areas, and it could be tempting to cut back on advertising. However, I would urge the Government—they could encourage the whole public
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sector to do likewise—not to cut back on advertising in the local press. That is an important means by which the public sector can get its message across and engage with local people, and it is important for the survival of local newspapers, which are heavily dependent on advertising. Clearly, the recession has meant that commercial advertising is decreasing, so public sector advertising is important.

I am delighted that the BBC Trust and Ofcom have come out against the BBC local video news proposals. They would have meant unfair competition, so I hope that we have seen the end of them.

My message to the Government and the whole public sector is this: promote the local press, ensure that it is protected from unfair competition, and use it for advertising and consultations. Local communities and our democracy need a free, independent and vibrant local press.

11.54 am

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on securing this important and timely debate. Regional and local papers are facing exceptionally hard times. I intend to talk about York’s local paper, The Press, but it is clear from other hon. Members’ contributions that the problem affects local and regional papers the length and breadth of the country.

Last summer, The Press made 23 redundancies, including 4 journalists, which was a cut of more than 10 per cent. of the work force. Two years before that, nine journalists were made redundant. This month, The Press announced that it will no longer print in York and that, instead, it will print the paper some 40 miles away in Bradford. All the printers’ jobs at York will go, although I hope that some of them will be able to transfer to Bradford—that is currently under negotiation between the management and the trade unions. This month, the posts of editor and managing director were combined, in a new post of managing editor.

At one time, The Press had a Lobby correspondent here in Parliament. I am deeply envious of the situation in Shropshire where such a post has been maintained. I know, Mr. Cummings, that we are not supposed to pass comment on who is listening to our debate, but one only has to look at the Press Gallery to see how lean the regional media’s presence is at Parliament.

I do not want to cover ground that colleagues have covered, but the local and regional press face two enormous challenges: the economic downturn and the pressures of technological change. Twenty-seven years ago, when I ran a small, independent television production company that made programmes for Channel 4, or whoever would buy them, I introduced, for the first time in television, a telephone phone-in. I dread to think where that has led, and I am horrified to see rigged telephone polls and premium-rate calls being used to fleece viewers. Twenty-three years ago, when I was first selected as a Labour party candidate in York, The Press was printed by letter press by the hot metal process, but moved to offset litho and bought the new presses in its new works in Walmgate, which are sadly going to be scrapped, as I said.

Technology will not stop, and its advance cannot be wished away. I believe that we will still have printed newspapers in 20 years, but that there will be a rather different content. Electronic media by that time will be
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more user friendly and better for distributing news, but I believe that the Government need to support local printed newspapers through the transition. For instance, the state could, appropriately, invest in training.

Mr. Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Hugh Bayley: I will not because we have limited time.

I have spoken to local journalists in York and the regional management of Newsquest. Of course, there is no appetite for public subsidy, but the company would welcome more Government and local government advertising, as my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland said. There are some legal requirements on public authorities to advertise things such as planning applications, road closures, other legal notices and so on, but I should like the Government, local authorities and public bodies such as health trusts to advertise more jobs in local papers. That could be made a statutory responsibility. If it was, regulation of charging regimes would be necessary, because many local papers have monopolies as paid-for printed papers in an area, but that could be resolved by negotiation between the Newspaper Society and the Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) said that local authorities, health trusts and other organisations that publish their own reports should use local papers to print supplements instead of producing parallel publications. Rather than issue our own parliamentary reports once a year, which are paid for by the communication allowance, MPs could do something similar.

There needs to be a public debate about the scope for public funding for independent, private sector media. As I said, I see no problem with greater public sector advertising or with support for training. Public ownership of independent local papers would, I think, be wholly unacceptable—Pravda and Izvestia did not live up to the English translations of their titles, “Truth” and “News”, so public ownership is out. However, a case can be made for some degree of cross-subsidisation. When I produced programmes for Channel 4 in the 1980s, hundreds of millions of pounds of Channel 4’s revenue came from a levy on the ITV companies, and the fact that the Broadcasting Act 1980 guaranteed most of Channel 4’s revenue—it was my most important customer—did not in any way undermine my editorial freedom, or that of Channel 4.

My programmes were pretty political. In 1983, shortly after the Live Aid concert, one programme made the case that famine in east Africa was not just bad luck or an act of God, but the result of climate change brought about by human behaviour. That is now a commonplace, but more than 20 years ago it was seen as a dangerous, left-wing idea. I made a programme about miners’ wives at Bentley colliery during the miners’ strike, documenting how they fought back by writing and publishing poetry.

[Hywel Williams in the Chair]

The only time I faced direct censorship from Channel 4 was when a passage was removed from a light entertainment show. I had offered Channel 4 Ben Elton, French and Saunders, Rik Mayall and others at a knock-down price as they were performing a charity concert to raise funds
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for Nicaragua. I had added a small political insert explaining where Nicaragua was and why funds were being raised, and that was regarded as unsatisfactory, but on artistic rather than political grounds.

I would like the Government to investigate jointly with the Newspaper Society whether there are opportunities for cross-subsidising printed newspapers from e-media, perhaps by using some of the advertising revenue from the internet or putting a levy on broadband service providers.

York has had a local newspaper for 288 years. The York Mercury was founded in 1721. By 1725, we had two local newspapers. State advertising has a long history in local newspapers. In 1789, advertisements were placed in the York press for tenders to build solitary confinement cells at York castle, then used as a prison. We need to ensure that local newspapers have a long future, and I certainly want to be able to celebrate the tercentenary of the local press in York in 12 years’ time.

Several hon. Members rose

Hywel Williams (in the Chair): Order. Hon. Members should note that I wish to start the winding-up speeches.

12.2 pm

Mr. Dai Davies (Blaenau Gwent) (Ind): It is appropriate that you have taken the Chair just as I am about to speak, Mr. Williams. I add my congratulations to those already offered to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on securing the debate. I hope that this is the start of the campaign and certainly not the end. The job losses in the regional and local press over the past 20 years amount not to tens or hundreds, but probably thousands, and the loss of several of those newspapers will have had a detrimental effect on local communities.

I want to touch on three areas. First, to be local to a place one has to be located there. Any place more than 10 miles outside my constituency is foreign land, so the locality of local press is an important point. They provide a drop-in point. Old-age pensioners were mentioned. They like to drop in to talk and have that personal contact with the people in the office. Without that, the opportunity to drop in their messages will be lost. For groups that advertise in their local communities, such as schools and theatre groups putting on shows, losing that personal contact and the understanding of the press people who cover it, who know what the shows and the people are about, is an important loss.

Secondly, the most important thing that we are currently losing is the draw of politics. The point about how we are attacked in the press has been made, but that is democracy. Hon. Members have spoken many times in the House about the importance of encouraging people to be part of political debate. That is what the local press allows, but the national press does not see that and does not have that personal contact. The loss of the local press in a locality means the loss of that democratic process and, more importantly, of the involvement of the individual. The multi-nationals that have now taken over so many of our smaller newspaper groups are putting profit above everything else. We understand that profit has to be made, but they must understand that in the longer term they will lose all their profits because their papers will disappear.

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Thirdly, within the next 12 months there will be more amalgamations of small newspapers, so that they will have one editor and two or three journalists. They cannot survive in that way. I urge the Government to listen to the ideas that have been suggested today, especially those from hon. Members who talked about the Government investing in local press and newspapers. Perhaps we as MPs should also learn to invest more of our time and effort in promoting local press. It is difficult sometimes, and I guess I have suffered as much as any at the hands of the press, certainly in the letters page, but that is something we have to put up with. If we put our heads above the parapet, we are there to be shot at. I therefore urge the Government to please do all that they can to support this important part of our media.

12.5 pm

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on securing this extremely important debate. I preface my comments by declaring a vested interest: my daughter, Emma, is this week sitting her exam for the National Council for the Training of Journalists, so I hope we can do something to alleviate the problem that has been so well outlined.

The hon. Gentleman claimed that the economic downturn has caused this situation, but I disagree. The local press has been shrinking for some time. I will not rehearse the problems that have been more than adequately explained by other hon. Members, but I do want to mention the lack of journalists, because that is hugely important. I would like to sling in a word of praise for two regional newspapers in my area, TheExpress and Star and The Birmingham Mail, because they have fantastic editions that are very local and extremely well produced.

I would also like to look briefly at free newspapers. Several hon. Members have said how important those are as a source of information and advice for older people. In Solihull, we are blessed with three free papers, of which one tries to run three editions with one journalist and a part-timer. That is what the situation has been cut to there, and that is the Observer. We also havethe Solihull News and the Solihull Times, but apart from a couple of journalists, their main area has now been moved to Fort Dunlop in the centre of Birmingham. The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) stated how important it is that local journalists are on the patch, and that is a big concern.

Bob Spink: Does the hon. Lady agree that sometimes those small one-man bands are real heroes in the community because they address and deal with vulnerable groups and make information available to them?

Lorely Burt: Indeed, they are heroes and heroines alike.

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