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Westminster Hall

Thursday 24 June 2010

[Mr Joe Benton in the Chair]

Local Media

[Relevant documents: Fourth Report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee Session 2009-10 HC43-I, and the Government response thereto, Cm 7882.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Miss Chloe Smith.)

2.30 pm

Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair): I call Mr Ed Vaizey. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear!"]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (Mr Edward Vaizey): What a great pleasure it is to open this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I thank hon. Members and hon. Friends for their early support for my remarks, which may have been heard as "noises off".

Mr Don Foster (Bath) (LD): On a point of order, Mr Benton. I apologise for interrupting the Minister. Would it be in order for hon. Members to take off their jackets?

Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair): I see nothing wrong with that, as long as they have a decent shirt on.

Mr Vaizey: Thank you, Mr Benton, for that important ruling, which was effectively ex post facto, as I noticed that Opposition Members had already pre-empted it.

This is an important debate about a very important issue-the future of our local and regional media-and I am delighted that we will have the opportunity in the next three hours to examine in detail the landscape before us and the opportunities that we could have to reinvigorate local media and, through local media, local communities and local democracy.

I am delighted to see so many important members of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee here today. Towards the end of last year, the Select Committee issued a very important report on local media, and the Government have recently responded in some detail to it. That response is now available at the Vote Office and I am sure that all hon. Members present will have read it in some detail.

As is clear in our response, the Government welcome the Select Committee's in-depth investigation and analysis of the issues affecting local media-indeed, we broadly agree with most of the Committee's conclusions. I must say, albeit in his absence, that I have been a great admirer of the hard-working Chairman of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), and of one of its more articulate members, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who has had a strong and independent voice in Parliament and looks set to continue to have one for his foreseeable
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parliamentary career. That is very welcome, particularly as Parliament gains powers and responsibilities under the coalition Government.

I am grateful for the Select Committee's emphatic support for local and regional media-above all, local journalism. Westminster Hall is full of quality today, but I had anticipated more quantity, in terms of the number of hon. Members present. I say that because debates on the local media give all in this House a chance to praise our local newspapers and local media organisations, in a desperate attempt to curry favour with them. In fact, during the four Westminster Hall debates in which I participated as a member of the Opposition, I went out of my way to praise my local newspaper, the Wantage and Grove Herald. In response, I am delighted to say that it put details of my expenses on the front page and campaigned vigorously for an independent candidate to stand against me.

So let me instead use this opportunity to praise Oxfordshire's JACKfm, a local radio station that is enormously successful. To be serious for a moment, JACKfm won two awards this week at the Arqiva commercial radio awards. [Interruption.] I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley may indeed have been present at the awards ceremony. JACKfm won two awards. The first was for Ali Booker's "Cancer Diaries". Ali Booker is a constituent of mine, who is a very well known local personality and radio DJ. She has been recording her battle with cancer on JACKfm and it has been an extremely moving and highly popular programme. JACKfm also won the commercial radio station imaging award. I must confess that I am not quite sure what an "imaging award" is, for a local radio station.

I also want to thank Arqiva for sponsoring those commercial radio awards. I am a huge admirer of Arqiva, although our relationship is somewhat strained at the moment, because my local television antenna in Oxfordshire, which was built by Arqiva to enable the digital television switchover, unfortunately caught fire and burned down as it was being erected. That has affected the local television coverage of many of my constituents. A new antenna is being built, but it will not be erected until September and I am in constant dialogue with Arqiva about the situation.

I wanted to use the opportunity of this debate to talk about some of the themes highlighted in the Select Committee's report, in the light of the Government's approach to this vital part of the media landscape. As I am sure all hon. Members will agree, we have a fine tradition of excellent journalism, provided at a range of levels through a wide range of media. That tradition is as important at the local level as at the national level. Indeed, survey data from Ofcom indicate that four in five people rate local news stories as very important. Although they were tragic, awful and unprecedented, one thing that emerged from the terrible events in Whitehaven recently was how important the local newspaper had been.

Indeed, I remember the floods in Oxfordshire in July 2007, when BBC Oxford radio became an incredibly important source of local information, with people able to ring in to the station to talk about the situation on the ground. As a result, the radio station became a vital hub of local communication at a time of crisis.

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Independent journalism and news distribution have a clear and vital role in democracy at every level. In an international report on the newspaper industry, published by the OECD last week, the industry was described as:

I recommend that hon. Members read that excellent report, if they can. To put a finer point on it, as the Select Committee said in its report:

Democratic accountability has never been more important. As we roll back power from the core to the periphery and from central Government to local government, and as we empower local government and local people to take more and more decisions, reporting on those decisions, or on the environment and climate in which those decisions are made, will be a vital role for local news sources.

For example, we intend to introduce locally elected police chiefs. It will be vital for local newspapers and local media to participate in the debate on that issue. We also intend to have elected NHS boards, to give new powers to councils, to publish local Government spending, and to unlock local and national Government data. That presents a huge opportunity for the local media in getting hold of that information, leading the debate or providing a forum and platform for important debates at the local level.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, has said:

However, as the Select Committee report makes clear, there are significant challenges ahead for our media. Newspapers have been particularly hard hit. A report last week-I think that it was the OECD report to which I referred earlier-noted a projected 26% fall in overall UK print advertising revenues for 2009, the steepest fall in Europe. Since 2004, regional newspapers have faced a much steeper decline in circulation than national newspapers. Not only newspapers, but local radio and regional TV news programmes face significant structural challenges-shifting to meet audiences online, developing effective new advertising models and carrying the burdens of onerous ownership restrictions. Those have been exacerbated by the cyclical pressures brought about by the current economic climate.

It is obviously important for the industry to adapt to the changing economic and technological environment and, in debating this subject, we should not lose sight of the fact that these are, by and large, commercial companies that were able to make substantial and significant profits in the pre-internet age. It is therefore only right that they, as commercial companies, should be prepared to adapt and change their business models in a very different technological climate.

I was interested to note, for example, that yesterday the Evening Standard announced that it has started to move into profit after having adopted a free distribution model. Those are the kinds of changes that newspapers
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may have to consider. However, it is also incumbent on the Government to ensure that there are no barriers to enterprise-we made that point again and again in opposition-and to provide the necessary independence and vision to enable a commercially successful and publicly valuable local media economy to develop. In that regard, we have stood still for too long, even in the face of the vast changes that I have mentioned.

That is why, as a coalition Government, our priorities in this area are to find ways to improve local media provision, and to enable the development of partnerships across the local media landscape. As elements of local media increasingly converge through digital means, it is vital that we see the landscape as interlinked, so we have to be active across all areas. That means a programme of action across television, newspapers, radio and the internet.

Importantly, we do not think of the issue as a zero-sum game-we are not going to be moving the deckchairs about on the deck of the Titanic. As I said earlier, even in the face of the downturn, we know that the digital age presents real opportunities to grow and strengthen local media. There are opportunities to support the plurality of news, hold local government to account, strengthen democracy, participate in and lead debates, and aggregate data at a local level. There are also opportunities to reconnect people with the work of their local voluntary and community sector, with job opportunities and local businesses, and with neighbourhoods.

We believe that the issue can be dealt with without straightforward subsidy. In fact, we take the view that Government patronage can be a problem-it can create dependence and threaten impartiality. Local media should be given the opportunity to become commercially viable and sustainable in the long term, but they should also have commercial and editorial independence from the very institutions that they are meant to scrutinise.

So what does such an approach look like in action? First, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently announced that we are going to implement the recommendations that Ofcom put forward at the end of last year. We will therefore significantly relax local cross-media ownership regulations, and I hope that that relaxation will be in place by the end of this year. However, we would like to go further, which is why we have asked Ofcom to look at the scope for removing the remaining rules and what the implications of that would be.

If any barriers to local media growth and sustainability are to remain, we want to be absolutely clear about whether they are necessary. Local journalism and the local media economy will benefit from more permeable boundaries between different types of media. That will help to achieve greater economies of scale, to follow consumers as they move between platforms and to develop innovative ways of communicating with audiences.

Secondly, we have a commitment to building a strong broadband network in the UK. Broadband also has a crucial role to play in supporting local media. As I have already pointed out, media at every level-national, regional and local-are converging online, and local media's ability to connect with audiences will increasingly depend on fast internet connections. We want to ensure a basic universal service and to explore ways to introduce super-fast broadband in rural and urban areas. We will
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work to accelerate the roll-out of super-fast broadband, particularly by using existing infrastructure-the pipes and poles in every neighbourhood-to improve fibre-optic access.

Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): Will the Minister do me the honour of defining the term "super-fast broadband"?

Mr Vaizey: As the hon. Gentleman is fully aware, I have answered a parliamentary question on that point, and I refer him back to the answer I gave him some days ago.

Mr Foster: As some of us have not had the opportunity of seeing the answer, would my hon. Friend the Minister be kind enough to tell all hon. Members what that answer was?

Mr Vaizey: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am against Government waste, and it seems pointless to repeat that answer here when it has already been printed in Hansard. I will write him a letter explaining what my definition of super-fast broadband is, but it certainly does not involve the word "megabit."

We have always been clear that the previous Government's plans for independently funded news consortia were the wrong way to go, and we opposed those plans from the beginning. We understood why the previous Government wanted to put the measures in place: it was their answer to the challenge of sustaining regional news. There is a legacy from the process that they started, in that it kindled innovative ideas among local media companies. Indeed, my understanding is that many of the consortia that formed as a result of that policy will continue to work together to look at ways of taking their ideas forward. We hope that by, for example, relaxing the cross-media ownership rules, they can follow a deregulatory path, rather than the subsidy path, to bring their ideas to fruition.

We always felt strongly that the issue of subsidy focused consortia on the best way to get access to the subsidy, as opposed to the best way to engage with viewers. That is why we opposed subsidies, and why we took an early decision not to go ahead with the pilots. The savings made from not going ahead with them will go into providing super-fast broadband, a definition of which is available in Hansard.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I agree with much of what my hon. Friend has said, but does he accept that in places such as Yorkshire, ITV regional news-the news programme there is called "Calendar"-is incredibly popular, and that there is great demand for it? Will he think again about the obvious solution that would help organisations such as ITV carry on with programmes such as "Calendar"? That solution is to top-slice the BBC licence fee. The BBC gets more and more money every year-so much money that in most years, it does not know how to spend it. That money could be given to an organisation such as ITV to do something worth while, such as providing real competition within regional news, which is much enjoyed in places such as Yorkshire.

Mr Foster: No.

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Mr Vaizey: The hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster) wants to answer the question, so I am tempted not to answer it, and simply to leave him to deal with it when he speaks. However, I should mention a number of points. First, I have always been against top-slicing the BBC licence fee to fund other broadcasters, because that is the thin end of the wedge. We have one publicly supported broadcaster in this country, but once one starts top-slicing, one effectively creates a second, and possibly a third.

I do not say that ITV is calling for top-slicing, but I say to any broadcaster that might still be calling for it to be careful what they wish for, because the BBC operates under a number of constraints and in a very public climate-something that other broadcasters are, to a certain extent, free from. We do not think such an approach is the way forward, but we believe that we have an answer for my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley: the third strand of our policy after deregulation and laying the infrastructure for super-fast broadband, the definition of which is in Hansard.

Mike Weatherley (Hove) (Con): I feel that I am missing out on some of the definitions here. May I, too, please receive the Minister's letter about the definition of super-fast broadband?

Mr Vaizey: I am delighted to welcome my hon. Friend, the new Member for Hove, who has had a distinguished career in the film industry. I went down to Hove to support him during the election and got into trouble with the Daily Mirror as a result, but I will not go into that. I like to think that my visit contributed substantially to my hon. Friend's impressive victory, and I will certainly drop him an e-mail about my definition of super-fast broadband.

After deregulation and broadband roll-out, the third strand is our major announcement on strong public service local television. Bizarrely, this country has had no real local television. As I am sure right hon. and hon. Members will point out, when they turn on their local news it is, in effect, regional news, and regional news can be wholly irrelevant to one's local area. As an Oxfordshire MP, I am used to getting news from Southampton and other places, which are fantastic, but the news is not entirely relevant to where I live. Things are very different in America and western Europe, where local television thrives. A local television network, enabled by a new regulatory regime, could form a core plank of local journalism and local democracy in a thriving multi-platform local media ecosystem. If the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) wishes to put down a parliamentary question, I will give him a definition of multi-platform local media ecosystem.

The Government's focus is on making new local media models commercially viable. We believe that local television has the potential to revitalise local media markets with new cross-media models, and as a new platform for reaching local audiences. Before I go into further detail, I want to stress that regional news will remain, for both ITV and STV, an obligation on the channel 3 licence holders. Our vision for local TV is in addition to existing regional news services. We are looking at the potential for existing public service content providers in the nations and regions to play a role locally.

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