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15 July 2009 : Column 111WH—continued

2.54 pm

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) on securing this debate, and I agree with the main thrust of his argument. I am sure that the world would be a poorer place without a healthy Tivy-Side Advertiser in Cardigan, and that his constituents would be confused and bereft without the latest bulletin on the state of cockle-dredging and scallop-dredging in Cardigan bay. Such matters are important locally.

I am speaking today to share my long-standing view about how to reform society and improve our democracy. In my constituency in 1839, 20 Chartists were shot during their campaign for a charter. A few years ago, I drew up a charter for the 21st century. One element was to impose on our media a duty of balance in the same way as we do on broadcasters. That is crucial because the media generally-not just the local media, but the national media-have an outrageous right-wing bias. If they ask the country for the same sort of subsidies that the broadcasters receive, particularly the BBC, that responsibility must go with those subsidies. We can all think of examples from our local and national press of how they behave.

A neighbouring MP complained to the editor of a local newspaper that of the 14 press releases that he sent in this year, none was published. That MP is a former editor of a newspaper, and does not send in vacuous press releases. Newspapers are often empty of political news-they do not consider it worth reporting-or they
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are heavily biased, and rarely towards the left, the radical or the progressive side of politics.

We must consider seriously the other influences on advertising. Another newspaper said openly that it would not write fair reports on the Welsh Assembly, but attack it because it did not provide enough advertising when it advertised jobs. That is an example of the newspapers' editorial line depending on advertising. We are in dangerous waters if we are talking about intervention. There is even a vested interest in respect of MPs. Some of us use local papers and our communication allowances. Does that mean that newspapers are more disposed to us? If they were, that would be wrong. They should take the same unbiased line that they take on other issues. We are all aware of a softening of criticism. How newspapers treated the recent reports of our immaculate expenses might have been influenced by the fact that MP A advertises in the paper, and MP B does not.

Many hon. Members want to speak, so I shall be brief. My main point is that I support the argument that local papers are valuable. They are immensely important in communications and in keeping communities together. In Welsh-speaking areas they are vital. However, we all know that the news that is trusted comes via broadcasters, not from local or national papers.

David Taylor: My hon. Friend is a renowned blogger who is widely read by many people in the political sphere. Does he agree that one way in which local newspapers have responded to their problems in recent years has accelerated the difficulties? They have failed to invest, to train their staff, and to pay and recruit decent staff, with the result that the problem that they responded to has worsened. The Mayor of London receives the chicken feed, as he described it, of £250,000 for 50 articles a year. Should we not balance the payments a little?

Paul Flynn: Indeed we should. Local newspapers are described as local, but many are run by the appropriately named Gannett Company, to which the hon. Member for Ceredigion referred. Decisions are made not in Ceredigion, Newport or Birmingham, but in America, for financial reasons. It is not imperative for local papers to be local any longer.

We are all sad about the disappearance of local journalists and the training ground where the seed corn of journalism was provided. It would be a great shame if local newspapers went under, but we know the realities of market forces. How many of us receive our news in the morning not by holding up pieces of paper, but by going straight to the website and seeing tomorrow's papers the day before? The point is that we cannot have subsidies for the press without imposing a condition of political balance.

Several hon. Members rose-

Ann Winterton (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the next speaker, it may be helpful if I point out that at least six hon. Members and probably even more wish to speak, so if hon. Members could make their comments in five minutes or even a little less, everyone will be able to speak. We also have to have the winding-up speeches. Obviously we have to leave the Minister time to respond to the various points. I call Lembit Öpik.

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3 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I shall be guided by your request, Lady Winterton. As we heard in the outstanding speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams), the local press is the key vehicle in reporting accurately and fairly on local goings-on-in scrutinising the workings of local councils and local courts. Unlike many national journalists, local reporters tend to live and work in the communities on which they report, so local people trust them as a source of news. They do not need to tap people's phones or mobiles to get exclusives, because people trust them and talk to them, and people read the results of what they have investigated and what they write about, knowing that they are reading accurate reports about their own world.

The County Times, which is the weekly in my area, is a classic example-a role model for how what I have described can best be achieved. It is 130 years old; it was founded in 1879, in the same year as Montgomeryshire elected its first Liberal MP, Stuart Rendel. Two great and revolutionary leaps forward occurred in that same year.

As my hon. Friend rightly suspected, two journalists-Richard Jones and photographer Phil Blagg-have been here from the County Times,because they believe in reporting accurately and seeing at the coal face what, in this case, their MP does, but they also do that in many other environments, whether industrial, educational, cultural or social. That is because they want to get it right in a way that I am sorry to say the national press seems not as concerned to do.

As we heard, the problems are very serious. The County Times is part of North West News Media and is facing real difficulties. Northcliffe has just announced 30 more job cuts in Wales. I understand that the constrictive merger and takeover laws prevent some changes from taking place that would protect local newspaper jobs. Someone who works in the media in my area put it simply:

I agree with that sentiment.

The local newspaper business model relies heavily on advertising, as we heard. It accounts for about two thirds of local newspapers' turnover. In recent years, advertising spend has been in a general decline of between 10 and 20 per cent., but since the recession hit, advertising in key sectors such as housing, cars and jobs has plummeted. Newspapers are desperately exposed because of the trend towards advertising online. In 2007, all media sectors except cinema and radio lost market share to the internet. We can give many examples, but the mood music is clear. Local newspapers need to have more consideration than they have had so far if they are to survive.

My first request, therefore, is for the Minister's observations on the report by Lord Carter of Barnes, which earlier this year did not seem to go very far in relaxing laws on mergers and takeovers. Surely it is better to allow mergers and takeovers to occur than to lose local newspapers altogether. I would welcome the observations of the Minister and others in that regard. We are talking not about Murdoch-style empires, but
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about local businesses that just want to make ends meet, with journalists who are not well paid but have a passion for their work and their communities.

My next point concerns the shift of local government notices and job adverts towards websites and local government magazines and publications. Only about 1 per cent. of the councils that responded to a recent survey produced a magazine once a week, so if we want to get information out quickly, in about 99 per cent. of local authority areas the local newspaper is still the best way to do that. I would be grateful if the Minister let me and the House know what action he is taking to investigate that change. Local newspapers are a vital source of knowledge for local people in finding out where and how their council tax is being spent-and they are independent. On that basis, there is a strong political and democratic case for supporting local newspapers.

Of course, many newspapers are published daily. The Shropshire Star, which very sensibly bases an excellent journalist called Anwen Evans in my constituency, provides a counterpoint to much of the information that is blandly and inaccurately described in the national media. Again, we see the daily newspaper suffering in just the way that my local weekly newspaper, the County Times,is.

I shall therefore end with another question. Is the Minister willing to hear from a delegation from mid-Wales? Obviously, that is my interest. Is he willing to hear from editors such as Nick Knight and others about what they would like the Government to do to protect these vital services? As I said, none of them wants a handout. They simply want a hand-up, so that they can carry on serving the communities that they have served for more than a century. They have done that with a dignity, nobility, accuracy and grace that it would behove the national press to reflect.

3.5 pm

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) on securing this interesting debate. He is right to say that local newspapers face a grave crisis. Seventy newspapers have closed in the past year and analysts have warned that up to half the UK's local and regional newspapers may be shut within the next five years.

The recent "Digital Britain" report pointed out that

The importance of strong local and regional news came through in "Digital Britain". Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport described it as

No one is saying that the standard of journalism in local papers is perfect, but local reporters are close to the community and they do try to provide independently verified stories in print. Local newspapers provide more diversity and access for different groups than the new army of bloggers could ever hope to achieve. The problem with blogs as a source of news is that they are self-selective and provide the view of one individual, not a balanced view. They often carry more opinion than facts and it would be a pity if they became one of our main sources of information.

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The local newspaper is more than news. It is a way of binding our communities together and of archiving the history of a community. My local paper, the Stockport Express, has archives going back more than a century. It is difficult to see how the internet will provide such an archive in 100 years.

Research shows that local newspapers are the most trusted of all media, yet ironically, according to figures obtained by the Newspaper Society, of the £193 million that the Government spent on advertising in 2008, only 3.3 per cent. was spent in regional press and local newspapers. That was far less than was spent on radio and TV and less than half what was spent on posters-7.6 per cent.

Departments, which are already encouraged and expected to connect with local communities by engaging with local and regional media, should also look favourably on local and regional media, rooted within those communities, for advertising campaigns, recognising the unique public value, trusted environment and effectiveness that such spend offers, with resulting benefits for the local community.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, who is the former Culture Secretary, said recently that he believes that there is a significant public benefit in Departments putting more ad spend into local newspapers. I agree. The loss of advertising to online media, coupled with the recession, is one of the main causes of financial problems for newspapers.

I have had experience of that in my own constituency with job losses at the Stockport Express and the move of its office and journalists to the Manchester Evening News head office. I objected to that because I fear that, in the long run, the unique nature of the Stockport Express and its long connection with the Stockport community will be undermined. Instead of being a newspaper in its own right, it could become a slip edition of the Manchester Evening News. That would be a shame, as the Stockport Express is one of only 25 paid-for weekly papers in the UK to have increased sales from readers, who love its grass-roots coverage.

I recently tabled a series of parliamentary questions to all Departments to establish how much the level of advertising in weekly and regional newspapers had gone down in the past five years. Some Departments provided more detailed information than others. The key findings were that spending on weekly and regional advertisements had clearly gone down in the major Departments of Health, of Communities and Local Government, for International Development, for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Northern Ireland Office. It has also slumped heavily at the Foreign Office, where the Minister responsible explained that the fall was due to a large increase in the use of internet advertising and a large reduction in the number of recruitment campaigns from 2006 to 2007. The Home Office figure was also down on 2004-05, although it was up on the previous three years. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Defence provided no figures, and the other Departments were not clear.

The amount of advertising from the Government will heavily decrease if the obligation to place statutory notices in local papers is removed. That would be wrong
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because controversial planning notices could find their way to a secluded part of a council's newspaper or website. We need proposals to be set out in black and white in a place where all the community-young and old, web users or not-know that they can find them.

That brings me to the adverse impact on local newspapers of local authorities' increasing role in taking paid advertising to support local authority information sheets or council newspapers. I support the proposal in "Digital Britain" for the Audit Commission to undertake an inquiry into the issue. The Newspaper Society wants strict guidelines issued to all local authorities to ensure that their publications are quarterly or less frequent. It also wants the guidelines to ensure that local authority publications and websites do not take advertising or statutory notices and that they focus on providing information about council services rather than general local news and non-council events listings. Councils should be encouraged to use the local media, not compete with them.

I welcome the current consultation on proposals for a contestable element in the television licence fee to fund sustainable independent and impartial news through independently financed news consortiums. Such consortiums would include television news providers, local newspaper groups or other news-gathering agencies. That would provide a great opportunity for local newspapers to work with other news gatherers and to benefit from cross-promotion to help to safeguard their futures.

Apparently, there are to be three pilots-one in Scotland, one in Wales and one in England-and I would encourage my hon. Friend the Minister to choose the bid from the Granada area for the English pilot. The bid is being put together by a number of north-west newspaper publishers, including the Guardian Media Group, which also has experience of running the Channel m TV station. As long as the bid firmly safeguards individual papers, such as the Stockport Express, which is part of the Guardian Media Group, I will be in favour of it.

Whatever emerges from the consultation, the popular, localised aspects of newspapers should not be lost. We should not forget that regional and national news TV and radio are very reliant on stories that are fed to them by local newspaper reporters on the ground. TV must plug local newspapers and promote and credit their stories on air to encourage people to buy those papers.

In the past, there has been tension. Newspapers have not wanted subsidies, because journalists and owners felt that that might affect their independence. However, I detect a sea change in thinking, which has been prompted by the current crisis in the industry. People now realise that local newspapers are too precious to lose and that they should be entitled to some form of subsidy for providing a public service and keeping the community informed about what its local councils, courts and police, health and fire services are up to. The BBC and ITV are highly subsidised and regulated, but we do not worry about their independence. The time is right for a change of heart, and independently financed news consortiums should provide the way forward.

3.13 pm

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) on securing this important debate.

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Local newspapers are facing a hard time, and the issue is particularly acute in Wales because newspapers are published in two languages. Furthermore, the nature of daily newspaper production means that the overwhelming majority of the population-about 85 per cent.-read London newspapers. That has direct implications for democratic accountability, and particularly for the Welsh Assembly. London-based newspapers rarely report Welsh news, and their Welsh correspondents have long gone. Where there are Welsh reports, they are included only in so far as they are relevant to English or UK news or where they have sport or showbiz connotations. Otherwise, they are in the "And finally" category with the weird vegetables, the two-headed ducks and the mysterious sightings. That is the daily fare for readers of newspapers in Wales, unless they read locally produced papers.

Added to that is the fact that providing newspapers in two languages involves particular pressures. Crisis is not too fancy a word for the democratic deficit that we face in Wales, and that is particularly true of the production of television news. ITV has more or less disappeared. When I told colleagues that having two languages in Wales was a particular problem, it was suggested that we could have ITV news on Channel 4. When I pointed out that Channel 4 in Wales is S4C and that the news, although it happens to be in Welsh, is produced by the monolithic BBC, the crisis became all too obvious.

As elsewhere, newspapers are facing pressures from other news sources, and the main pressure, as has been said, is on advertising revenue. That pressure comes from other media, such as web-based media, and its impact on journalists and editors has been all too clear. I am a member of the NUJ's parliamentary group and I have a particular concern about the pressures on those who work in the industry. I recently visited my own local newspaper, the Caernarfon Herald, which, in contrast to some hon. Members, I will mention only once. I talked to the editor and the executive in charge of business in north Wales, who explained the streamlining that has recently gone on. There has, for example, been a reduction in the number of sub-editors, so journalists now write copy almost directly on to the page. There are also pressures on journalists to produce several types of copy. I was quite surprised to see that reports from the House that had appeared in the Daily Post, which is the morning newspaper, had also appeared in the weekly newspapers, although they were, of course, slightly changed. Presumably, those stories would also appear on the website. There are therefore pressures on journalists to produce all kinds of material, but there has been no increase in the numbers of journalists and certainly not in the number of local journalists.

What is lost, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion eloquently said, is local accountability-reports about local council or local court proceedings. Such things are the bread and butter of local reporting. They are often not riveting, but they are essential if local communities are to be kept informed and engaged. Without such reports, we will have a democratic deficit. That is what I fear we will see in the forthcoming Westminster elections in Wales and what we saw in the Welsh Assembly elections, when many people's ignorance of what was going on in the Assembly was all too manifest in the level of discussion and in the turnout. We ignore that decline at our peril. Given the information on web-based sites and even local web-based sites, there are questions to be asked about their accountability and credibility.

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