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2.45 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): We have already heard about the crisis in the local and regional news—news that is trusted and valued by our constituents, and, as the Minister said, lies at the heart of the democratic process. That crisis has been brought on by the current economic difficulties and the resulting reduction in advertising spend—a reduced advertising spend that has to be spread ever more thinly as we increase the number of outlets, not least with the growth of online content. It is interesting to note that some analysts suggest that Google now has more UK advertising revenue than ITV.

Local and regional news provision comes, of course, from television, radio, newspapers and increasingly, as I said, online. Figures suggest that 24 per cent. of young people now get their news predominantly from online sources. We have a real crisis in all four of those outlets, and it has led to something like 2,000 job losses in the last 12 months.

In television ITV, along with the BBC, is one of the key providers of regional news, yet we have seen its recently announced £2.73 billion pre-tax loss for the last financial year, due largely to a downturn in advertising revenue. We have also seen the number of regions for regional broadcasting brought down from the original 17 to nine, which I think amounts to a real loss for our constituents. In Bath, for example, my constituents will now get their local news from as far away as Penzance—and I have to say that, frankly, they are about as interested in that as they are in news from Bolton, which is the same distance away from Bath.

Commercial radio, too, is facing huge problems. We know that five local stations have been forced to close in the last 12 months, and RadioCentre predicts that between 30 and 50 stations are in imminent danger of closing. There have also been a number of mergers, which have undermined the value to local communities.

As many people have reported in recent debates, newspapers have fared no better, with 60 titles closed in the last 12 months and a 14 per cent. reduction in the
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work force. Many of our valued daily newspapers, such as the excellent B ath Chronicle, have had to become weekly rather than daily publications. I am sure that all Members speaking in this debate will be keen to sign, if they have not already done so, early-day motion 916, offering support for local journalism, and also early-day motion 1044, which reports the concern of many of us about the recent decision of the Guardian Media Group to reduce the number of offices serving local communities in the Greater Manchester area. Even online provision has been affected.

The question, then, is: what can be done? We are in a difficult position, midway between the preliminary report by Lord Carter on “Digital Britain” and the final result, which is due out in the early summer. Many of us were disappointed that we did not get more detail in the preliminary report, but it is worth placing on record my belief that it is possible to move forward in a number of areas.

In the case of television, it is clear that major structural changes are needed. I do not want to see the BBC’s licence fee being top-sliced and I do not want to see the crazy Conservative proposal to freeze the licence fee implemented. If the best they can offer the British people is a £3 per household cut as their solution to the current economic crisis, that is a bit bizarre. It is particularly bizarre to do that at a time when the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) claims that he welcomes the conversations, discussions and agreements going on between the BBC and ITV to share resources and facilities that will help ITV through its difficulties.

Mr. Vaizey: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for conveying the Liberal Democrats’ message that there will be no help for the taxpayer from them during a recession. If he honestly believes the propaganda that spending £68 million would lead to a single job loss at the BBC rather than a cut in some very expensive salaries for “talent”, he really is a prisoner of the BBC’s corporate affairs department.

Mr. Foster: I hope that the hon. Gentleman took the time this morning to read the report of today’s speech by Mark Thompson, who heads the BBC. It gives full details of the major changes and cost savings that the BBC will make. Those savings will help to support other commercial public sector broadcasters, which I welcome, but I hope that the Minister will also be prepared to help ITV by, for instance, relaxing the rules governing its contract rights renewal.

The Secretary of State’s unwillingness to consider the possibility of product placement, which could have brought additional money into broadcasting and, perhaps, removed some revenue from online services, was antediluvian. The Minister might also consider allowing more flexibility, not in the total amount of advertising time on our commercial channels but in the time slots in which advertisements are placed.

I hope that the talks between Channel 4 and the BBC will continue, because, among other things, they may help to protect ITN.

Attention has already been drawn to the problems of radio, but we should now concentrate on the issue of cross-media ownership. There is an urgent need for us to consider ways in which the rules can be adjusted if we are to protect commercial radio stations. I hope that that will involve the introduction of a new localism test
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for stations applying for licences. The current test to establish whether a radio station is truly local does not deliver what my constituents—and, I suspect, many others—want.

We must also think about newspaper ownership, and try to find ways of supporting newspapers. Many newspaper owners were concerned about the proposals for BBC Local, which they rightly feared would damage local newspapers. Perhaps the proposal could be reformulated: the BBC could offer financial rewards to local newspaper and radio journalists in return for what they could provide. There are many good ideas to be explored, and I hope that the Minister will explore all of them.

2.52 pm

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): This subject is crucial to us as politicians, and to the nation. It involves our roots, and it involves local democracy. In this country, power is much better scrutinised at the centre by a well-organised and energetic national press than it is in the localities, where it is hardly scrutinised at all—and that scrutiny is becoming weaker and less adequate.

The local and regional media are fundamental to local democracy, to community—a local or regional news medium represents a community talking to itself—and to the provision of local information. They provide what people want to read about in the localities. We must therefore try to find ways in which we can serve and help the threatened local media.

I am not greatly concerned about the threat to radio. It is a real threat, but I am not particularly bothered about financing and supporting our local juke box. There is no reason why that juke box should be placed in Grimsby—or, for that matter, in London, although the BBC, with Radio 1, is well qualified to place it in London. We happen to have some very good local radio stations in BBC Radio Humberside, Compass FM and Lincolnshire FM, although perhaps I am prejudiced because they are in my area.

I am, however, worried about the threat to regional news on television and the regional production of television programmes, especially given the announcement of the closure of the television centre that brought television production to our area and put Yorkshire and Lincolnshire on national television screens. The closure will mean a loss of jobs and a contraction of local news services. Yorkshire Television, the ITV licence-holder in the county, is shedding 40 of the 100 jobs in regional news. That must mean that there will be a less adequate service and less adequate competition with the BBC.

I am also concerned about the pressing newspapers problem. The National Union of Journalists estimates that 900 jobs have been lost in local newspapers since June last year. Since that is its estimate of vacancies and redundancies notified to it, it must be an underestimate, so I should think that well over 1,000 jobs have been lost in local newspapers. They are struggling. There are two reasons why, and it is important to differentiate between them. The first is the effect of the recession, which is affecting advertising revenues, particularly from estate agents and the local property market. The second is the growing competition from the internet, with classified adverts being placed on internet sites. It is important to differentiate between the long-term trend threatening
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the long-term viability of the local press, and the immediate problem of threats caused by the recession. Both, however, have produced a steady process of job shedding.

Those problems have also resulted in the local press moving down market. The local press has become much more tabloid—much more interested in rape, murder, arson and other sensationalist aspects of local news. That might boost circulation in the short term, on a one-edition basis, but it becomes jading as a constant diet, and people do not want to read it. This has also produced an over-emphasis on populist politics. It has driven politics—and us as MPs—out of local newspapers, which used to be our way of reaching our electors and our community. That trend is overdone.

The complaints from the media owners about loss of profitability, and whether they can survive, are also overdone. The figures show that. The NUJ has compiled all the figures. Trinity Mirror had an operating profit of 19 per cent. last year, and the figure for the Johnston group was 29 per cent. We should compare those figures with the figure for Tesco, which is 6 per cent. Why do these companies want to make such huge profits out of the local media? We should also take into account the excessive competition from freesheets, and the waste of money involved in the London freesheets competition.

How can we help the organisations concerned through the current situation? First we must bring the parties—the editors, journalists and owners—together to discuss what is wrong, and we should involve the BBC, particularly in training and media studies. We must try to develop a strategy for the industry, with the industry.

2.57 pm

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) said that freezing the BBC licence fee would not do any good, and that it would be a gesture. Perhaps Mark Thompson would like to make a gesture, too, with the £816,000 package he gets? A lot of people in my constituency have to scrape hard to pay the licence fee, which will be £142.50 when the increase comes through next month. Freezing the licence fee would send the right signal. Everybody else has to tighten their belts. Indeed, the local newspapers, that we all love, are doing so, because they have to. As the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) said, their advertising in areas such as employment, cars and property is shrinking. Therefore, they are making journalists redundant—some of whom have, no doubt, worked on the paper for a long time. There will also be fewer opportunities for young journalists leaving media courses, as they will find it more difficult to secure employment with such newspapers.

We cherish these newspapers, and we must see what we can do to give them some support. In my patch, we have the Lancashire Evening Telegraph and the Lancashire Evening Post, and the weeklies, The Longridge News and the Clitheroe Advertiser and Times. They have internet sections as well, and they must do that for the future; they must see the internet not as a problem that will put them out of business, but as an opportunity that will give them great potential for the future, with advertising online as well as in the newspaper. Goodness knows what will happen in 40, 30 and 20 years’ time.

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Will newspapers in the form that we know them today survive at all? Perhaps all the local news will be accessed via iPhones, BlackBerries or goodness knows what other devices that we can only imagine now. There are probably kids in silicon valley working on the next device that everybody will be buying to download newspapers. We must ask what can be done in the meantime to ensure the viability of local newspapers, so that they are still around to embrace the new technology. There is nothing worse than seeing a newspaper that was established 100 years ago or more going to the wall because of the current financial crisis. We must do everything possible to support local papers.

We use local papers to get our messages across, because the news is local to people and they savour finding out what their politicians are doing. We get lots of opportunities to get stuff in the local papers, whereas it is far more difficult, although not impossible, for us to get stuff in the national papers or on to the national TV or radio news. People want to know what is happening locally—in their own communities—and thank goodness we are helped by journalists who are employed here in Parliament and are basically conduits for us to get our messages across. I should also mention the team of expert journalists who work for these papers in our own constituencies, because they know our patches as well as we do and, thus, when we talk to them they know what we are talking about.

On regional TV news, I am delighted that the BBC was not allowed to do what it wanted to do—develop its local TV stations, featherbedded by its £3.5 billion of licence fee payers’ money, which it gets whatever it does. The plans would have crippled a lot of our commercial newspapers and, indeed, ITV, which is against the wall at the moment, as I have seen in my region. Granada TV, my local station, does a great job with “Granada Reports” and “Party People”, which is the local political programme, but even over the past 12 months the coverage of “Party People” has diminished—instead of being on every week while the House is sitting it is now on once a month. The tremendous current affairs programming that Granada used to do, which involved great expertise, has been diminished; Granada is having to pull its horns in simply because of the financial crisis.

I hope that the Minister has some answer on giving support to local papers and regional news. I think that product placement would have been one of the answers; it would have given ITV an opportunity to get some extra cash, at least during this recession.

3.2 pm

Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): I welcome the selection of this subject for today’s topical debate, because it is clear from what has been said that we face a crisis in our local and regional news journalism. Every hon. Member has local stories to tell to highlight that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) has said, the National Union of Journalists estimates that at least 1,000 editorial jobs have been lost since last June, and many other jobs will have been lost as local newspapers and offices have been closed. We understand that at least 60 titles have closed in the past six months; indeed, only last week a group of 18 local newspapers went into administration. The estimates are that we could lose a third of all local newspaper jobs by 2011.

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It is clear that we face a crisis in this industry, and that has many implications for local communities. We talk a lot in this place about community identity and community cohesion. One of the most powerful ways in which communities achieve cohesion is through an identity that is reflected in the sharing of information about what is going on locally. If we were to see the end of local and regional press, that would have huge implications for all of us.

What we are seeing is an intensification of a process that has been going on for some time. The current difficult economic times have meant that over the past few months there has been a large decrease in the amount of advertising revenue on which local newspapers are able to rely, but in reality that trend has been going on for some time. Some newspaper groups are perhaps taking advantage of the fact that we are in such difficult economic times to go ahead with proposals that they were intending to implement anyway. The reality is that our local newspapers are owned by a number of large organisations, which, in general, are still making heavy profits. Mention has already been made of the fact that profits for local media organisations of 20 to 30 per cent. were normal, and now that profits have fallen to single figures, the organisations are not used to that.

In my constituency, for example, the Largs office of the Largs and Millport News—a historic newspaper that has been around for generations—has closed, and it now operates out of Ardrossan, which is outwith the circulation area of the paper. That story is being repeated nationally. Local offices are closing and newspapers are moving to other areas of the country with which they have traditionally had no connection. We are also seeing more common pages produced to be published in several newspapers in different areas.

We have heard calls this afternoon for the relaxation of media ownership laws and deregulation, but that is not the approach that the Government should take. Several suggestions have been made about how the Government could assist local media, including providing guaranteed advertising, but simply putting extra funding from Government into failed models is not the way forward. Local media face a huge challenge from the digital age and web-based technologies, and the answer is not international companies coming in to run local newspapers. We need local newspapers that are genuinely responsive to, and reflective of, the communities that they serve.

I welcome the comments made by the Minister this afternoon about bringing together all the partners in the sector—the trade unions, including the National Union of Journalists, and the enterprise organisations and regional development bodies in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland—to look at ways to put local journalism at the heart of the local media. We need quality media, and by bringing everyone together, I hope that we will be able to find creative solutions for the future.

3.7 pm

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): I felt compelled to take part in this debate as only last week one of my local newspapers, the Reading Evening Post announced that it will stop publishing daily and will instead publish twice a week. That will mean the loss of some 100 jobs,
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which is bad enough in itself, but the change will also have an impact on the wider community. Local newspapers are incredibly important to local communities. A local newspaper can act as the glue that binds communities together. For example, local charities, voluntary organisations, sports clubs and many other organisations rely on their local newspapers to support everything from fundraising to recruiting new members or volunteers.

The Evening Post is one of only three regional newspapers to have increased its circulation over the past year, so it is very disappointing that it faces these cuts. It has a good team—I know the editor, Andy Murrill, well, and although politically we differ markedly, I know that he is a very good editor who cares deeply and passionately about Reading and its people. His newspaper reflects his view that being involved in and supporting the diversity of the town is essential to both the present and the future of the town.

My constituency is a very diverse area with many different ethnic groups and religious creeds. Relations across those groups are good precisely because the newspapers in the town, especially the Evening Post, have taken such a positive approach to building understanding and good relationships. Andy Murrill deserves enormous credit for the part that he has played in that.

In order to weather the economic storm, local papers need both our understanding of the challenges they face and our support. I believe that the public sector has a role to play, particularly with regard to advertising, of course, in circumstances where that represents the best value. Local newspapers give councils, hospitals and the police, for example, an enormous amount of positive and free publicity, but those organisations have been switching their marketing and advertising spend to glossy in-house publications, recruitment websites and their own websites. I think that Reading borough council’s glossy magazine costs about £60,000 a year, from memory, and it is read by probably 100 people in the borough. Taxpayer-funded organisations have a duty to get best value, spending their money wisely. Why print their own magazine when two perfectly good local newspapers exist to communicate exactly the same information? It makes no economic sense at all. In these difficult times, a two-way partnership with the public sector needs to be encouraged and established in which editorial content is financed through recruitment and public notice advertising. It is much better value for money and keeps local newspapers going.

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