Future for local and regional media - Culture, Media and Sport Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 240-259)


27 OCTOBER 2009

  Q240  Mr Watson: If you were arrested for corruption, for money laundering of Mafia cash, would the editorial team think it a newsworthy event that a local councillor had found himself in an unfortunate position like that?

  Councillor Loveday: I do not know because it has not arisen yet.

  Q241  Mr Watson: I think Mr Davies probably answered that one, did he not? I want to get on to the internet point. I do not think it is your job to save the British newspaper industry and I do not think you are responsible for its ills. I think Craigslist and Google probably would be ahead of you in the queue on that. You mentioned that you have broadband connectivity. Do you see yourselves as moving into other forms of media, like lifestreaming, radio, Kent TV was an example, or are you going to email and social networking?

  Councillor Loveday: I think we would like to, simply because it is a cheaper and more effective way of communicating with residents. We have a very mobile population. In some wards we have a 30% to 40% turnover in population each year. Obviously it connects with those people, transient people, much more than with the settled population. We do put a lot of work into testing how people interact with the council, whether face-to-face or internet, and, where possible, we provide that connectivity through the internet. Paying bills and all of that sort of thing we are doing as fast as we possibly can but in other areas it has proved quite difficult. We do twitter, I gather—I do not personally but we do twitter. I am not a great fan of the idea of webcasting council meetings. I think in many cases you would get a very odd person who would consider their time would be best spent by looking at that.

  Q242  Mr Watson: May I remind you that it was Mrs Thatcher's Private Members' Bill that opened council meetings up to public scrutiny.

  Councillor Loveday: The reality is that we would spend a vast amount of money and the indication is, even from those local authorities that do it, that it would not result in a huge expansion in the number of people watching.

  Ms Taylor: Can I answer your question about young people? Contacting some of our younger residents is quite difficult through the local news media. My daughter is 20 and I do not think she has ever picked up our local newspaper. She might look at the front cover but she would never read it. We have to contact them in the way that they contact each other, and that is why we were quite early into social networking. It is all a very strange world to me but I am experimenting with it and looking at it. Facebook and Twitter are the way that young people communicate with each other. We have just started a service where if you sign on for the Stevenage Borough Council Facebook reports, you will receive notices of what is going on in the town. It is an information feed; it is certainly not propaganda. It is about what is going on in the town. If there is something coming on at our local theatre, you will get it on your Facebook if you are registered. It is optional; you can choose it. I see this as about giving as much choice to people as possible in the way that we communicate with them. That is really important, particularly for some groups of residents that we could not reach in other ways. We would not reach the under-20s by putting out another news sheet or a different news sheet. There are some quite artificial things done about making it look a bit jazzier or a bit more funky, some of which work or have some success. The best way to contact them is the way that they contact each other and that has got to be through these new media—social networking and all the rest of it. I think most councils now are taking a very hard look at their websites to make sure that the websites are not only giving out the information but that they are interactive. Mr Davies made the point about criticising the council. If you can get on your council's website and say what you think about how they have swept your street or picked up your litter, or whatever other service they are delivering, that is a very good and quick way of getting that through to both the council, the councillors and the officers in your council. I am all for that. I think that is a much more interactive way of communicating with the public.

  Q243  Mr Watson: Do you know if any local authorities on-line services take advertising?

  Ms Taylor: Ours does not.

  Councillor Vernon-Jackson: Ours certainly does not.

  Q244  Mr Watson: Can I challenge your business assumptions? This might be for Mark. We may have reached the nirvana where the kind of soft subsidy to the newspaper industry through your obligation to buy advertising for statutory notices stands at probably about £40-£50 million a year nationally. If we were to release you from that obligation so that you could put that on a website and therefore do it at next to nothing or at no cost, and we get to the position where Early Day Motion 2130 [Advertising of Public Sector Jobs] is supported where every public sector job is available in an on-line, open standards format, would that affect your business assumptions with your own print media in that you are no longer essentially saving yourselves money through subsidising your own paper? Would that enhance your transition to an on-line platform?

  Councillor Loveday: I think it is inevitable. You mention in terms of statutory notices. I pick up on what Mr Vernon-Jackson said earlier that he does not actually believe that many people search planning applications by looking through local newspapers. What actually happens is that in many cases many local authorities have the facility for you to be emailed in the event of a planning application coming up in the vicinity of your property anyway, so there is an active sense. I think that is the way forward. Certainly, there is a general migration of everything to the internet because it is cheaper and more effective.

  Councillor Vernon-Jackson: In terms of money, we spend £40,000 a year doing statutory notice planning out of a budget of £970,000 that we put into our local paper, so it is a pretty small amount of money but it is a useful amount of money.

  Q245  Mr Watson: Where does the £940,000 come from?

  Councillor Vernon-Jackson: It is mainly advertising for jobs and things like that because we want to have them on much more prominent pages as opposed to the statutory notices which the newspaper chooses to hide at the back.

  Q246  Mr Watson: You are not statutorily obliged to spend that money?

  Councillor Vernon-Jackson: No, but we will do because we want to attract really good people from the local area.

  Q247  Mr Watson: If you do not have a great reach through the local paper, why are you making that spend?

  Councillor Vernon-Jackson: Because it does not just cover our local authority; it covers three others. It gets us to a wider job pool, and that is a better deal for us. It covers half a million people but with only 30,000 to 40,000 sales. If people are looking for a job, they may well go and buy that, or they may go on to the council's website. At the moment our choice is to do both.

  Q248  Mr Watson: Could you see a point in the future where you just switch to save the £940,000 and put it on your website?

  Councillor Vernon-Jackson: I do not think I could ever expect to do all of it there by any means. I think there is always a need from our point of view to advertise in the local paper. I do not know at what level and the size of advert. We used to do great adverts listing all the personal specifications, et cetera. Now increasingly people are just putting in adverts directing people to websites so that they can get the large content on other website.

  Q249  Mr Watson: You can get a broadband connection for £6 a month now. It would probably be cheaper for you to give the unemployed a free broadband connection than take out advertising?

  Councillor Vernon-Jackson: Possibly.

  Q250  Mr Watson: In the Digital Britain Report, the Local Government Association was asked to do a review of council newspapers. Are you involved in that at all or do you know where the LGA are at with that?

  Ms Taylor: None of us have been particularly involved with it but I know that the LGA has been looking at what the future is in terms of us communicating through digital means rather than through the paper means. We are looking at that. I think we are at a transition stage here. Councils are still looking at paper communication, but we feel the power of communicating in digital ways. I think we have to be very careful about the possibility of exclusion here. Although you rightly say that broadband connections become cheaper virtually by the week, and I certainly get a leaflet from Virgin at least once or twice a month about how much cheaper it is getting, there is a danger that people will be excluded not only because of cost but because of their skills. Some people do not have the skills to use digital media. We always have to be conscious of that and aware that we do not want to exclude people from our communications. For the time being, we will always have to use a wide range of media to communicate with the public. We have not mentioned it here today but there is also actually talking to people and having local public forums and things like that where those people who do not want to read things and do not want to go on the internet can actually come along and speak to us and that is just as important. We are very nervous about not excluding anybody. You need a very good coverage in libraries and places where people can access the internet free to try to make sure that you are not excluding anyone from this process.

  Councillor Loveday: We have done similar work trying to assess that. What the consultants, the in-house people who produce these reports, always describe as face-to-face facilities and offices have been identified as still being necessary, particularly in areas of deprivation, of which we have significant numbers in our part of London.

  Ms Taylor: One of the big benefits it has in areas of deprivation of course is that you can produce very local information for people. If you can find a point of access and you are certain that they have access to it, you can produce very locally based information, which is very helpful in some cases.

  Q251  Rosemary McKenna: I think we are in a time of great change in information exchange and there is a big difference between the kind of newspaper or magazine that you produce and going on-line and this kind of pretend newspaper because basically that is what it is. That is exactly what Digital Britain was talking about when it said that we need to examine carefully if the Government should be able to make any recommendations based on Digital Britain to look at those authorities that are over-stepping the mark in terms of what they are producing. If you look at page 5 of your newspaper, there is a clear attack on the Government. It is not an impartial article. It is about business rates. It is about the views of Councillor Loveday. People looking at that are assuming that that has been written by a local editor taking an objective stand, but it is anything but. It is your council newspaper. I think that is what Digital Britain and the Newspaper Society are concerned about. I do think local newspapers are going to have to look very carefully at what they do. I think they should be doing a lot more. I wonder, as someone who was involved in local government in the Eighties and Nineties, if this did not all start because local authorities thought they were getting a raw deal from the local press that they did not like, the kind of exposé that a newspaper is there to do.

  Councillor Loveday: The answer to that is "no". The motivation is not to get back at newspapers. I have cited the figures. Our paid-for local media does not reach residents.

  Q252  Rosemary McKenna: Maybe it is because you have taken away all the stuff that they would normally do.

  Councillor Loveday: It was declining well before we accepted advertising in any shape or form. It was way in decline before that. I can produce copies of the earlier versions of the magazine H&F News and so on.

  Q253  Rosemary McKenna: There is a difference between what Hammersmith and Fulham are doing and what Portsmouth and Stevenage are doing. There is quite a distinct difference there. That is the argument or the debate. It was the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) that said there were real concerns about this. I think that is the debate that will be had.

  Councillor Loveday: As I understand it, the OFT and the Audit Commission are both not proceeding with inquires into this area.

  Q254  Rosemary McKenna: That is a pity.

  Councillor Loveday: Obviously, madam, it is a matter for you, but the figures are there. I have shown the figures. Our local media was in a parlous state well before we took this initiative in response to not being able to use them to communicate properly.

  Ms Taylor: I think we are in a transition phase, and you are right to point that out. Maybe some of the pain that is being felt by newspaper editors is to do with local councils but I think it is more to do with the digital media and how that is taking over many of the areas that traditionally have been their territory. Gerald has already pointed to job vacancies. As for property advertising, I have a daughter who currently is in the stages of buying a house. She has looked on-line; she has not used local newspapers at all for that. That is painful for local newspapers and they have to address it. Local newspapers are also taking part in this digital process. Many of them have very effective websites. Our local newspaper has withdrawn some of their circulation of paper copy because they have found that they reach some parts of our community better through their web-based approach. They send you an email alert when the new web edition is ready. They are certainly moving in that direction. This transition phase is painful for them and I think that is more the reason for the problems than because of things the council is doing. There may be the odd council that is taking some advertising from them—I do not know about Hammersmith and Fulham—but for the most part this is to do with the interference of digital media taking over, not councils taking over.

  Councillor Vernon-Jackson: Last night for instance I met a friend who is the editor of a magazine and they just publish on-line now. They do not do any physical copies any more because that is the way in which the media has moved.

  Q255  Mr Watson: Rosemary has brought this article to my attention. There is a quote from you on page 5, Mr Loveday, on business rates.

  Councillor Loveday: I am sure there is.

  Q256  Mr Watson: It says: "Small businesses are the lifeblood of the economy and forcing some of them to pay higher business rates, just as they are struggling to stay afloat, is madness. There is no doubt in my mind that this business rates rise will unnecessarily force some small businesses to close and we are urging the Chancellor to have an urgent rethink." It goes on a little further. In this article there does not appear to be a countervailing viewpoint put by your opponents. Do you think that is a badly written piece? Is that characteristic of this paper?

  Councillor Loveday: Again, one of the oddities of all of this is that I would be surprised if you find a quote from any politician other than a member of the cabinet of the council. The reason for that is that that is the advice that has been given historically to political parties of both persuasions when producing these publications. I have a copy here of HFM magazine, which was produced under the previous administration. You will see it has photographs of various individuals in it. You will not have found, during all of the years that they controlled the council, a single photograph of one of our side. That is the advice that we are given, that the quotes come from members of the cabinet and that is it.

  Q257  Mr Watson: So the only quotes in this newspaper are from Conservative Party councillors?

  Councillor Loveday: I have not been through it but that has always been my understanding that it is members of the cabinet. Indeed, we have many complaints from backbenchers on our side who say, "I have been involved in something. I would like to have my picture in the H&F News" and we say, "I am very sorry, it has got to be on our side".

  Q258  Mr Watson: What you have is a very effective business model. It is not losing money. By the sounds of it, it could make money. You have to jiggle the figures a bit to make it break even. I am told we are entering the post-bureaucratic age. Why do you not privatise it?

  Councillor Loveday: Interestingly, I gather we have had an approach to purchase the paper, which in this current media environment, I would imagine is almost unheard of.

  Q259  Mr Watson: Presumably you would consider selling it if it would allow you to concentrate on core services?

  Councillor Loveday: It would be very complicated to do but certainly if somebody is going to pay our council taxpayers a substantial sum of money to do this, then we would be silly not to accept it. We will consider offers.

  Chairman: A pioneering council like Hammersmith and Fulham could perhaps blaze a trail in this area. I think we have spent enough time this morning. Thank you very much for your evidence.

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