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15 July 2009 : Column 117WH—continued

15 July 2009 : Column 118WH

I want to finish with a brief point about Welsh-language newspapers, which, for me, offers a glimmer of a way forward. With his close family connections to my constituency, the Minister will know that Caernarfon was once the epicentre of Welsh-language publishing, but I am afraid that that is no longer the case. We now have two weekly Welsh-language newspapers and various inserts in other papers. As the hon. Member for Ceredigion said, however, we do have a network of community newspapers. They are not "newsy" newspapers, but they at least tell people what is happening in their communities.

I recently visited Barcelona with the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, and we looked at community newspapers there. The key to their success is community involvement coupled with high quality. We should be looking at places abroad where newspapers succeed. I have an interest in minority languages, and what is happening in areas such as Catalonia, which are struggling to maintain interest not only in newspapers but in minority languages, is a great spur. There is much to be learned from such areas, including about the use of new technology.

3.19 pm

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): I am grateful that I have been squeezed into the debate and I will limit myself to a single point in my five minutes. I want to expand on the point that I made in my intervention on the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams), who has rightly given us another opportunity to debate the serious issue of the abuse of power and the misuse of public resources by local authorities.

In saying that, I do not underestimate the other factors involved, such as the appalling action by Trinity Mirror in my area, although I know that other groups are involved in these things. Such groups have caused long-standing titles to collapse and have then closed them, sacking highly respected and dedicated journalists.

The local authority role, if not the most significant, is certainly the most dangerous and insidious in undermining an independent and free local press. In making those comments I hope that I shall attract support from the three Front-Bench spokesmen. I say that for two reasons. First, the last time I debated the issue in this Chamber, on 20 January, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) made some slightly graceless and rather parti pris comments on the matter. He may crow at the moment because most town halls are under Conservative control, but that changes over time, and he may come, in time, and I hope sooner rather than later, to agree with the view that hon. Members of all parties have been expressing.

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): What the hon. Gentleman characterises as graceless was merely my pointing out that when he was leader of the council he published a free sheet to go to constituents, which cost council tax payers £300,000. Therefore, he is carping slightly in criticising the current administration for publishing a free sheet at no cost to council tax payers. Perhaps he will give a guarantee that if, God forbid, his party were ever to come back to run Hammersmith and Fulham, he would close the free newspaper.

Mr. Slaughter: The hon. Gentleman has not learned his lesson, but perhaps by the end of my speech he will have done. The second of the two reasons I wanted to
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set out was that there is an early-day motion in the name of the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway), and an amendment in my name, signed by members of all three parties-in fact, members of four parties-which clearly puts Labour and Tory councils in the dock for their publications. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) has signed it.

In the brief time that I have, I want to use the example of Hammersmith and Fulham's H and F News, which is published, although one would not know it, by the local council. It is a 64-page newspaper, fully underwritten by the taxpayers, with hidden subsidy-all the costs that a local paper would have, in accommodation, staffing and so on, are covered, and completely underwritten by public money.

I think that the marketing strategy goes further than hon. Members have so far said. The paper crows about what it calls the poor quality and low circulation of local newspapers-it says it can deliver to every door in the borough once every fortnight and claims to have nearly 10 times the readers of the nearest equivalent-and about its advertising offer, its huge splash and everything it can do, all of which is done by professional marketing people and, to their shame, journalists who have taken the shilling to leave the independent sector. It is quite brazen about it. The chap who edits it, who used to be a local journalist, says:

That is rather like a kerb crawler saying he is simply providing a service to young women who otherwise would not have their sexual appetites satisfied. I think that we shall treat it with the contempt it deserves.

As a consequence, two long-standing publications, the Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle and the Hammersmith and Shepherds Bush Gazette, each with more than a century of independent publication behind them, are now effectively merged, and a shadow of their former selves. Their chances, against the competition-if we can call it competition-of a new newspaper starting up, are effectively nil.

If there is any doubt left about what I am saying, I end with this example. There was only one story in Hammersmith and Fulham last week. It had two pages in the Evening Standard under the headline, "Plot to rid council estates of poor", and the editorial and an article in the Daily Mirror under the headline, "Tories plan homes 'social cleansing'". Of course, it also had the front-page story in the excellent Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle under the headline "Thousands to face losing homes". That story was by Aidan Jones, an excellent local reporter. I predict that no mention of that story will be found in the council newspaper. A story about how the courageous council is regenerating the scheme with the full support of MegaGreed plc might be found-but not the truth. That is the problem. What is happening is undermining, corrupting and corroding not just local democracy but the democracy in this House, and the hon. Member for Wantage should bear that in mind.

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Mr. Vaizey rose-

Mr. Slaughter: I have to stop now.

Mr. Vaizey: The hon. Gentleman mentioned me.

Mr. Slaughter: I am being told to sit down. The hon. Gentleman should come back on the point; he has the opportunity of a 10-minute speech and I have had the opportunity of a five-minute speech. I invite him to come back on the point, but ask him please to be a little contrite and considered in his comments when he does.

3.24 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) on initiating the debate, if only because it provides hon. Members with an opportunity to ingratiate themselves with their local newspapers. I shall resist that temptation, because my local journal is so intelligent that it would see through it straight away; it reads me like a book.

I recognise that all local journalists are having a hard time. They are losing jobs. There is a fall in advertising. They have competition, as has been mentioned, from the web, local radio and television. They struggle to get the younger generation on board. I do not see the Local Government Association as a significant long-term threat, as most councils will soon be so strapped for cash that they will not be able to put out any pieces of paper at all. However, I recognise that local newspapers are strongly supportive of their own economies, which contrasts quite well with national organisations such as the BBC, which lose nothing-as they are cushioned by the licence fee-from talking down the economy, something a local newspaper would never do.

Papers are essentially business. They sell information, of two kinds: information about products, which is called advertising; and information about communities, which is called news. Those are obviously linked activities. However-this point was made by the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey)-they provide a cement for the community. They inform and provide a forum for discussion; they air problems and campaign for solutions. They may not do those things in a perfect way. From time to time they are, indeed, guilty of bias, and are not a mirror but a refracting medium, but they cannot be that way for long, because they need to stay in touch with the community that they serve. That, I guess, is what local journalism is about-turning everyday life into everyday news. That requires lots of journalists-what I would call community journalists, who have the same status, I think, as good classroom teachers. Their status needs to be elevated. They tell the story against a potentially vast news base. My hon. Friend illustrated all that that might involve in his speech.

We might compare that with national papers, which exist almost entirely in the Westminster bubble, relaying chitchat and recycling the same material again and again, and giving us endless doses of celebrity-watching: by going on the tube, I learn more about who goes in and out of Boujis than I strictly speaking need to. We see more and more stuff being syndicated and more and more pressure on newspapers to sensationalise and, where they cannot do that, pad everything out by piling on comment instead of facts.

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If local journalism is troubled, journalism itself is in trouble. We shall get down to increasingly limited information, circulated anonymously, to anomic and remote communities. A foretaste of that can already be seen in some regional papers. I picked up a Nottingham evening paper at the weekend and for no apparent reason it included very little news about Nottingham, but it did have a picture of Barack Obama meeting the Pope. It was not even on the day he met him; it was just there because it occupied space.

We should not underestimate the genuine interest that communities have in themselves. If local journalism goes, not only will journalism go, but communities will change. In contrast to the Nottingham example, I had the delight of reading, the other day, the Westmorland Gazette. I do not know if any hon. Members are familiar with it, but it is a broadsheet time warp newspaper, full of enormous detail about the community. It is very successful, because community journalism can and does work. I am sure that it will morph, and become more web-wise and interactive, but I hope that it will not disappear, because I am certain that it has a key role, and it must survive.

Ann Winterton (in the Chair): If the last two speakers can possibly contain their remarks to about three minutes, everyone will get in.

3.28 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I shall try to speak in less time than that, Lady Winterton.

This is the fourth or fifth debate on the topic in the past 18 months, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams). I am the secretary of the NUJ trade union group in Parliament. To save my speaking, hon. Members can find the latest updates about job losses by looking at the NUJ's latest briefing. When we debated the matter 12 months ago, 1,200 jobs had been lost. I think that we are near 2,000 now. Things are the same in my area, where Trinity Mirror has lost its office and a number of staff, and that is undermining the papers, because a spiralling decline begins. If journalists are not there, the news cannot be covered, so people cannot read the news and circulation declines and people will not advertise. We are in that cycle.

What I resent is that Trinity Mirror, to use it as an example, is still a profitable company. It had profits of 16.6 per cent. up to 2008, and the figure for Johnston newspapers was 19 per cent. at one point. They are still profitable; indeed, comparing them with Tesco at 5 per cent., they are very profitable. At the same time, however, they were cutting staff; 31 per cent. of their production and journalistic staff went in the seven years before 2008. There is an element of crying wolf, but we nevertheless want to preserve the local press.

As a result of the NUJ's meeting with the former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, now the Secretary of State for Health, and thanks to his hard work, we had a meeting-it was requested earlier-with all sectors of the industry to consider the way forward. That meeting took place two months ago. Ofcom made proposals for a news consortium that could be funded partly by the savings of digital switchover. However, the new idea is to top-slice the BBC's licence fee.

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The constructive approach of establishing a newspaper consortium is the way forward, but I have some concerns. The new Secretary of State may reconvene that meeting, so that all sectors of the industry can get together again to see how far things have gone. My worry is about where the funding will come from. Top-slicing the BBC's income will begin to undermine it. There needs to be a wider look at technology levies. We have raised the question before, and it works in other countries. How will the news consortium pilot scheme work in practice? What will happen to the staff used by channel 3 news providers? If ITV regional news is replaced, but the company is not a partner in the consortium, how will the employment rights of existing ITV employees be protected?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) said, if public funding is to go to those consortiums, how will the Government ensure quality journalism and a balanced approach to the reportage of news in the local area? If we are to subsidise local journalism, we must ensure that we invest in quality local journalism. This is not about restoring the profitability of some companies. In the good times, they made massive profits but failed to reinvest. That is partly why the industry is in crisis.

3.32 pm

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) on securing this debate.

The news has been defined as something that people do not want us to see. All who have spoken in the debate have been at the difficult end of that. The Birmingham Post required all local MPs to pre-publish their expenses. One or two MPs were rather reticent to do so, but we nevertheless complied. That shows the power of the local press. Local papers, such as the Solihull News and the Solihull Times, publish what our MPs in my area have been up to, but many are not totally comfortable with that.

The important thing is that local newspapers should report on councillors' grubby dealings. Council-run papers may publish the local news and the variety of other things described this afternoon, but they do not contain any of that hard news. They publish only what they want us to see. That is why I agree with the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter).

It is clear that the industry is in trouble. It has been in trouble for some time-long before the recession started. The Trinity Mirror group of newspapers has shrunk; on 2 July, it was announced that nine newspapers and 120 jobs in the west midlands would be lost. Staffing complements have been cut by all local papers, and advertising has dropped by 40 per cent. over the past two years and is still falling. Local newspapers are in competition with the internet for advertising, and the internet steals their local and regional news stories-another problem that needs to be addressed.

Regional TV is no longer local, and the regions seem to be expanding hugely. The only repository of truly local news is therefore the local newspaper, with regional additions. That is what we want, and that is what we need to keep. What is the solution? We have discussed mergers and the "Digital Britain" report, and I look
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forward to the Audit Commission inquiry. It would be extremely helpful if the Minister commented on that. What about collaboration? Why not use local reporters, jointly engaged by regional TV and radio? We would then have the best of all worlds.

3.34 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) not only on securing this debate but on his excellent and thought-provoking speech.

Like many other Members, I feel passionate about the importance of local newspapers, something that was summed up extremely well by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) when he said that if local journalism goes, communities will change. He meant, of course, that they would change for the worse.

I spoke earlier today with the deputy editor of my excellent local newspaper, The Bath Chronicle. As one would expect, he was totally passionate about local and regional newspapers. He said that they are important because they stimulate the lifeblood of local communities and are the bastions of knowledge and democracy, especially in holding local government to account. With high-quality investigative journalism, they are able to shine a light into dark corners, and they provide a safety valve for local democracy.

As we have heard, however, times are hard. Having been one of the longest surviving continually produced daily newspapers, The Bath Chronicle has become a weekly newspaper. The number of editorial and commercial staff has been cut, and in the last few days we heard that a number of production activities such as subbing are to be moved to Bristol, with a further loss of local jobs. As a result, it becomes ever more difficult for our local newspapers to carry out investigative journalism, and to ask the hard questions that are so crucial to shining a light in dark places and holding local councils and other local bodies to account. As the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) said, that cannot be properly replaced by biased bloggers hiding away in their darkened rooms.

My local newspaper is not alone. As we have heard, local and regional newspapers have been facing difficulties for many years, difficulties exacerbated not only by the recent recession but by much newspaper advertising being moved, particularly to the internet. In 2000, 1 per cent. of all advertising was done on the internet and it is now about 20 per cent. In 2008, we saw a £400 million drop in the advertising in local and regional newspapers-a fall of 19 per cent.-and the figures are getting worse.

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