Proposed Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity - Communities and Local Government Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 39-79)

Roy Greenslade, Jeremy Dear, Simon Edgley and Lynne Anderson

6 December 2010

Q39   Chair: Good afternoon and welcome to our inquiry. For the sake of our records, could you please begin by introducing yourselves and the organisations you represent?

Professor Greenslade: I am Roy Greenslade. I am Professor of Journalism at City University, London. I write a media blog for the Guardian and a weekly media column for the London Evening Standard.

Jeremy Dear: I am Jeremy Dear, General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists, which represents people who work for council publications and local newspapers.

Simon Edgley: Good afternoon. I am Simon Edgley, Managing Director of Trinity Mirror Southern. We publish a range of about 30 to 40 local newspapers and websites around the M25 area.

Lynne Anderson: I am Lynne Anderson and I am Communications Director at The Newspaper Society. We represent about 1,200 regional, local and independent newspapers.

Q40   Chair: You are most welcome. You probably heard some of the evidence we have already had from local government. One thing they raise is that these days local newspapers give very little coverage to affairs in their local councils. I can remember being a councillor in Sheffield in the 1970s and 1980s and there would be reports of sub-committee meetings, let alone committee meetings, and now there is hardly a mention of the council meetings themselves. Do you think that is a legitimate criticism and one that opens the way for councils to do more in terms of information?

Simon Edgley: No, I don't. The way people source their information now is very different from 10 or 15 years ago. From my perspective and certainly within my own newspaper group we have a significant number of journalists who still attend council meetings. Quite clearly, they are not able to do that in ways they used to. The newspaper industry has gone through an incredibly difficult time in the last three or four years. We have just been through the biggest downturn we have all seen in the last 30-odd years. We still have front-line journalists in our particular patches. One thing it is important to state is that we have had a lot of criticism for not having offices in local areas. One of the gentleman mentioned that earlier. In our own organisation we have just turned all our journalists remote, so they spend more time in the patch now than they ever used to because they are given technology to be more local than they used to be. I do not take that as a criticism. We are still at the heart of everything local and we intend to continue to be so.

Jeremy Dear: I disagree entirely. Council publications cannot replace independent local journalism, but the fact is that 68% of editors in a Society of Editors survey believe that they now cover council functions less than they used to, so it is a fact that there is less coverage. When I was a working journalist rather than a trade union official I covered sub­committees; I covered planning committees. The vast majority of the stories we got were from council meetings and council coverage. It is just not the case that there are people dedicated to doing that. Despite the best efforts of newspaper companies and journalists, they simply do not have the staff any more to be able to cover it in the way they did. You see the correlation between that decline and the expansion of a whole number of different council publications.

Lynne Anderson: The industry still employs about 10,000 journalists and they still cover council activities and decisions as their bread and butter. There has been a documented change in terms of the Local Government Act 2000, which introduced Cabinet-style council meetings where we are told a lot of decisions are taken behind closed doors. To have a local Government reporter sitting in council meetings just to get perhaps one small, down-page story is quite unproductive. The way councils are covered has changed; readers' tastes and attitudes have also changed, but they are still out there doing it and they are the only voices who can hold local authorities to account. Certainly, council newspapers are not capable of doing that themselves.

Q41   Chair: Where residents do not have a local newspaper, isn't it reasonable that the council in its effort to communicate with its electorate, its citizens, should produce information in some form, whatever that form might be; otherwise, those local residents will have nothing in writing about what is happening in their local council?

Simon Edgley: I think that is a key point. As a local newspaper publisher, we have absolutely no issue with a council's statutory right and indeed it should be able to communicate with its residents on issues of council business and information. We believe the issue becomes clouded where councils have weekly publications that are effectively weekly newspapers that cover gardening, what is on and all that type of thing. That is where the issue arises. The issue becomes stronger where they start to compete with us for local advertising. They are able to run these publications on a completely different model from any commercial organisation. In my own area, you may be aware that we have been at the forefront of a campaign against Hammersmith and Fulham News, which is a publication that costs the ratepayer a significant amount of money and is out there. I was interested to hear earlier the figure of £1.2 million worth of advertising going to council publications. Hammersmith and Fulham claim that its number alone will be something like £400,000 in 2010-11.

Q42   Chair: You have made a point about weekly papers, but there are only two weekly council papers in the country. That is a small number of examples but the code deals with everything and every authority.

Simon Edgley: There are certainly more than two in London; it is a significantly greater number.

Q43   Chair: I am told there are two weeklies and seven fortnightlies.

Simon Edgley: Seven fortnightlies give rise to the same issue, don't they, because they are competing?

Q44   Chair: It is still nine councils?

Simon Edgley: Yes.

Q45   Chair: So, we shouldn't generalise on the nine, should we?

Simon Edgley: But the point I make is that there is a significant number of council publications that take third-party advertising. Third-party advertising is incredibly important to the local newspaper industry. Therefore, they are competing on an entirely unfair basis, when we are running a business on a commercial basis and they are not.

Jeremy Dear: It is important to look at the whole relationship. The figure I have is that £68 million of advertising goes from local authorities into local newspapers, and print contracts are worth about £80 million across the UK. Simon's company, Trinity Mirror, has a £4.1 million print contract for eight publications in London for councils, including one of the ones he is complaining about, presumably East End Life. There is very much a mutually beneficial relationship as long as there are restrictions—I agree with him on those points—about some of the content and nature of the publications that try to emulate local newspapers. They should not be able to do that.

Professor Greenslade: The problem here is that East End Life is a unique publication. What has really concerned The Newspaper Society and the commercial sector is that it represents the thin end of the wedge. If we allow East End Life to stand and do what it does, it will be emulated elsewhere; at least at the moment by fortnightlies but maybe by weeklies in future. I know that Barking and Dagenham council saw that as very much a template. You have to see East End Life as a template. It is quite clear from all we know that East End Life—in fairness, this is the only example I can find—has had as marked effect on the sales and revenue of a major commercial newspaper, the East London Advertiser, a paper I remember from my youth that was once very successful. But we know that East End Life is in that sense unique. For instance, I came across a situation in which one of the reporters at East End Life had sought to obtain a pass to cover a royal event by claiming that they represented Trinity Mirror. How did they do that? Trinity Mirror happened to be the printers of East End Life. There is an irony involved in this. The main problem here appears to be about six or seven publications of which East End Life is the leader. It is that that concerns the industry so much. Around the rest of the country, it is not at all as prevalent.

Q46   Mike Freer: I go on to the issue of what drives the decline in local newspapers. Several years ago, Trinity Mirror, or rather Newsquest, its American owners, had a policy of deliberating disengaging from print and going to an online version. They encouraged residents to post their own stories, and to move away from print was marked strategy. Therefore, are you not a victim of your own success?

Simon Edgley: In spite of what others have said before me, our life is about maximising audience. People choose to gather their information in very different ways from the way they did before. As to paid-for newspapers, there is the very good example in Mr Blackman's constituency of the Harrow Observer. That has traditionally been a paid-for title, and as a result of ensuring that we maximise our audience in that borough, we have just turned that paid-for newspaper into a free newspaper. Our strategy in a borough like Harrow is to make sure we reach the maximum audience both by the printed word that goes through the door and through our websites. Effectively, the strategy of most publishing companies now is to move to a model where they reach audience by a combination of platforms. It is very interesting to hear the public notice argument at the moment. Our belief is that we have to deliver information in whichever way people require and wish to receive it. The public notice argument is incredibly important. There will be people who would want to receive that type of information online; equally, there is still a significant number of people out there who would wish to read that in their local newspaper. When two or three years ago we lost the public notices to Newsquest from the Ealing Gazette we received a significant number of phone calls from residents asking where the public notices were. We must have the ability to deliver that information in whichever way people require it. But our strategy going forward is to maximise audience as far as possible. That is both an online and print strategy.

Q47   Stephen Gilbert: If I may explore an issue with you, Jeremy, on page 2, second paragraph, of your submission you say: "But there has been an inevitable reduction in quality and local focus leading to a spiral of declining sales amongst local newspapers." It may be there is a regional difference in this, but that is just not a picture I recognise in my constituency. I am blessed to have five weekly titles, three are Northcliffe and two independent. There is healthy competition. The two independents are fairly recent entrants to the market. The journalists are unremittingly local and imbedded in all the local issues, often attending not just full council meetings but others. In most cases the year-on-year sales of the newspapers are going up. All five of them are excellent ambassadors for what a good local newspaper should be. I would say that, wouldn't I? The question is: is there regional variation in the picture you describe? Is some of this a London or urban-centric issue, and the more rural parts of the country and places like I represent have thriving local newspapers with journalists doing their job?

Jeremy Dear: With the best will in the world, all of us wherever we come from would probably recognise that there has been a significant decline in the numbers of sales of newspapers; certainly, there has been a significant decline in the numbers of journalists over the past three or four years for the reasons Simon mentioned: the newspaper industry has been through an extremely difficult time. We would put different reasons for that. We believe there is less local ownership of newspapers. We mentioned the American ownership of Newsquest but there is also now City, hedge fund and private equity ownership of groups of newspapers that are less local and therefore less accountable. But wherever you have these five competing papers with increasing sales and more journalists, it is some kind of paradise that is not reflected in the vast majority of the rest of the industry. We have given some figures about the thousands of journalists' jobs that have gone recently and the titles that have merged. Titles have been closed down or taken out of the areas they represent. Some towns now have no local newspaper covering them, so it is a very difficult time for the industry. I do not recognise what you are saying as being the norm.

Q48   Stephen Gilbert: So, there may be regional variations, which is the point I am trying to make?

Jeremy Dear: There may very well be.

Professor Greenslade: By the way, where do you live?

Stephen Gilbert: Just to the north of Newquay.

Q49   Mike Freer: A lot of the thrust of this evidence is that it is unfair competition by local authorities, but what the Committee looks for is data and evidence, not anecdote, which it has yet to receive according to my understanding. First, can we be provided with information that precedes the current burst of local authority activity and clearly shows a correlation between the fall in advertising as well as readership and this activity by local authorities, or that the decline started long before local authorities became more active? Second, in terms of advertising revenues, can we be provided with hard data to show that the trend is not just symptomatic of the recession? When I speak on a regular basis to the editors of my local papers, the Hendon Times, Finchley Times and the Barnet Press, they tell me that their biggest loss of revenue is estate agencies and car sales, which is recession-driven and not local authority-driven because a local authority publication does not take paid advertising. Therefore, can we have hard evidence to prove your case on those points?

Lynne Anderson: I do not think anyone suggests that local authority publications are responsible for all of the challenges that face the newspaper industry. There are 1,200 regional and local newspapers and they cover every part of the UK. The industry has faced significant challenges during a crippling recession, but even in the worst year of closures, which was 2009, we saw a net reduction of 60 titles out of 1,200. That was approximately 5% of the total. Nearly all of those closures were free weeklies that were second or third in their local marketplace. This year we are seeing more launches than closures of local papers. There has been a lot of publicity about the prediction by Enders Analysis that half of the industry's titles would close down in five years' time. They have now publicly retracted that forecast, saying that it was unduly pessimistic. We need to put things slightly in perspective in terms of the so­called decline.

There have certainly been job losses among journalists but I would say that other job functions have been much harder hit. I know that publishers endeavour to keep front-line reporting jobs particularly wherever possible. Our statistics show that the proportion of editorial jobs to the total workforce has grown quite significantly over recent years. In the past 12 years it has grown from about a quarter of editorial staff to approximately one third. To put that in perspective in terms of the industry and what it is going through, we do not want to wait, as Roy said, until we have versions of East End Life across every borough and locality in the UK. In a crippling ad recession, with all the other challenges that are well documented—Google and various other threats from the internet—you do not need your local council competing with you for scarce advertising revenues. Those are the very advertising revenues that keep those journalists in their jobs. We would say that councils should not be in the business of competing. Some hard evidence of this emerged from the Audit Commission, which admittedly did not have very much financial data in this area. It said that it could not in its report really look at the impact, but it did show that 150 council publications in England alone took private-sector advertising. That is advertising that could have gone into local papers and that is unfair, damaging competition.

Q50   Mike Freer: Those are 150 council publications out of how many?

Lynne Anderson: I believe it said it was roughly half of all English council publications. I believe it said that 90% of all councils in England produced some sort of periodical and approximately half took private sector advertising, which obviously could have gone to the independent local media and is competing with it. I stress that The Newspaper Society and its members have absolutely no objection to the traditional type of council publication like an A-Z of council services or newsletters published up to four times a year. I am slightly curious about why quarterly is not sufficient, when the Local Government Association's own submission said that the majority of council publications are quarterly or less, so obviously it works for them.

Q51   Mike Freer: To clarify that point before we move on, there is not a correlation. You are concerned that it does not get worse but you do not blame all of the ills of the newspaper industry on local Government?

Lynne Anderson: No; we never have.

Professor Greenslade: Mr Freer, to be absolutely frank about it, there is no data. There are two examples, one of which I have quoted, East London. But you would need to correlate those figures and I have not done that. The other is probably Hammersmith and Fulham, although I think you would agree that the local paper there started from a very small base. Therefore, I do not think those data exist.

Q52   Mike Freer: I just wanted to make it clear before the Minister came in.

Professor Greenslade: We do not want to get in a pickle.

Jeremy Dear: Tabloid editors, eh. What can you do?

Q53   Clive Efford: Local authorities want to get their message out to people in the areas they represent. They would say that their distribution is better than yours and more extensive, so why should they rely on very minimal coverage of bought local newspapers? What is your answer to that?

Simon Edgley: The numbers that I heard quoted earlier of about 20% to 30% are not ones that are familiar to us. We cover a market in a variety of ways, as I described earlier: through websites or through paid for or free. As a general rule of thumb—again, I quote Harrow as an example—we cover about 60% to 65% of households in that particular market. Interestingly, at the moment in Hammersmith and Fulham we cover 92% of households in that market. As you probably know, we had a particular objective in that market and it appears we are moving forward on that, but the vast majority of local newspapers have significant coverage in their particular localities. It varies regionally. As you know, in London, where the issue has arisen in particular, a significant number of local newspapers have now gone to the free model. You can look at what we have done in Hammersmith and Harrow. To quote another example of one of these types of newspaper, Greenwich Time, that publication has about a 60% to 65% penetration of the market.

Q54   Clive Efford: I know Greenwich very well because I am a Greenwich MP. The council beats the free local newspapers hands down in its coverage. I can talk to my constituents and they will have read Greenwich Time. Many of them do not get the free newspapers.

Simon Edgley: Yes. As you know, the local newspaper in that particular area used to have the contract to distribute Greenwich Time.

Q55   Clive Efford: And lost it because they could not provide the coverage.

Simon Edgley: Just because we don't happen to distribute a newspaper through a particular door, we have the ability to do service distribution as well. I hear what you say, but I do not think coverage is a complete argument in terms of saying we cannot reach the ratepayers that you wish to reach.

Professor Greenslade: Mr Efford, do not forget that Greenwich Time has a record of being, to use the Minister's own phrase, a town hall Pravda in the sense it does not cover, fairly and honestly, local matters. We have to come back to content on this question, too.

Q56   Clive Efford: I have been quoted locally as saying that I would not describe it as a local newspaper because, for instance, it is restricted in the number of times that I can be in it.

Professor Greenslade: But does it purport to be a local newspaper?

Q57   Clive Efford: I would not have thought so. In terms of Trinity Mirror, don't you want your cake and eat it? You want the revenue from the advertisements but also the income from printing local Government newspapers. As we heard in earlier evidence, the poor old local taxpayer would have a bigger bill because they would have to pay you for statutory notices and other items but still would have to pay the cost of producing various information sheets that would have to go out. Are you not asking for more money from the local taxpayers?

Simon Edgley: I make two points. The number quoted earlier of £543,000 seemed an extraordinary number. In my 30 years of working in newspapers that is not a number I have ever heard a local authority spending. It is fine to discuss the rate card rate for a particular set of public notices, but I have been in negotiation with various councils for a significant amount of time about what they should pay for their public notices and clearly the negotiated position I get to is very much adrift of the rate card. I would be surprised if a newspaper group continued on that front. Perhaps you would repeat the second part of the question.

Q58   Clive Efford: The second part of the question is that it is the ratepayer who gets hit.

Simon Edgley: Trinity Mirror's position is that we are a contract printer; the contract printing business is there obviously to sell business and to take on business that comes its way. Quite clearly, as pointed out earlier, the manufacturing division of Trinity Mirror does have the contract for a significant number of council publications, but it almost adds strength to our argument. To say we fully support the code that suggests that these publications go out a maximum of four times a year, which would represent a significant hit to Trinity Mirror's revenues, demonstrates how strongly we feel about this point.

Q59   Clive Efford: Would you support the idea of a review by the Office of Fair Trading of the impact of local authority publications on independent publications?

Lynne Anderson: The OFT has already noted the adverse impact of local authority publications in its report in, I think, June 2009. The subsequent Digital Britain Report asked the Audit Commission to look into it. The commission did not really want to; it said it could not look at impact. Finally, after a lot of buck passing and delays, its report came out in January of this year. We have already experienced significant delays on this. I do not think that an OFT review would add much; it would take us right back to square one.

Q60   Clive Efford: You say that the OFT has already commented on it.

Lynne Anderson: Yes; in its local media review in the spring of 2009.

Q61   Clive Efford: Was that based on an inquiry? Did it take evidence?

Lynne Anderson: It took evidence from various parties.

Q62   Clive Efford: The information before us is that, in the last session of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, the Chief Executive of the OFT, John Fingleton, said he did not think there was a case for the OFT to consider with regard to local authority publications and competition for advertising.

Lynne Anderson: As I said, there was quite a lot of buck passing at the time and no one was willing to grasp this and take control of it. At the time we were looking for an OFT review because that would have been great, but now it seems that the Coalition Government is trying to tackle this issue through the publicity code and we have come closer to dealing with the problem of competition.

Q63   Clive Efford: So, you are happy with the code and do not see the need for an OFT review?

Lynne Anderson: As long as the code can be enforced, yes.

Professor Greenslade: I take the opposite view, which I think is the basis of Mr Freer's original question: no proper impact assessment has been done.

Jeremy Dear: From our point of view, the most comprehensive work that has been done has been that undertaken by the Audit Commission, and that does not support the argument that is being made. I think an OFT investigation would be good and we support it.

Q64   Clive Efford: Do the restrictions imposed by clause 28 of the code relating to the style, content and frequency of local authority periodicals deal adequately with issues such as web-based publishing and third-party advertising?

Professor Greenslade: We have not touched much on the web, although the local Government witnesses did. The truth is that we are moving towards a much more unmediated coverage of all sorts of things in our world. I was pleased to hear today that Southwark council has decided to allow people to record both video and audio of council meetings. I put that on my blog and I hear immediately that they already do that in Bristol, Cardiff and Cornwall. This means that we are seeing greater transparency. If you can then obtain audio and video clips, they can be put up by anyone. Southwark has been pushed to do this by a website, not the local paper, and it has been working with the council to do it. I think we shall see—of course this is not a popular view with The Newspaper Society—a huge new range of media starting up that will use these new tools to do that. This can go onto council websites as well; there is no reason why council websites cannot put up speeches, in favour or against, in the council chamber. One needs to make an appreciation of that. Whatever is decided here, over the next five or 10 years we will see a huge change, as in the previous five years, in the way we see media develop. We need to keep that in mind as we decide whether or not suddenly to take this sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Jeremy Dear: We agree with some aspects of clause 28. They should not seek to emulate local newspapers in style or content. That is something on which we all clearly agree, but there is an unnecessary attempt to restrict them to quarterly. There are regional variations in media and to use one size fits all simply does not seem to us to do the job that people are trying to do here, which is to stop those who are abusing their position and make sure that there can be both a viable local independent media but also council publications where they are necessary.

Q65   Mark Pawsey: Perhaps I may go back to statutory notices. I note Mr Edgley's remarks that he is significantly adrift of rate card but it is still a guaranteed income. Recognising that at this time of recession the industry is in a difficult position— there have been title losses—it must be very useful to your industry to retain that guaranteed income being paid for by Government. What is the case for your keeping it, and what are the consequences if you lose it over time, which presumably you must expect to happen as the new media come to the fore and it is no longer there?

Simon Edgley: It goes back to the point I made earlier. The industry has an absolute commitment that it needs to be more creative going forward in terms of the way we deliver that audience. If you go back 15 years, in most paid-for newspapers public notices would have reached 70% to 80% of the market. That is what paid-for newspapers do. Our challenge with public notices is that I think there is a challenge on rate—in other words, cost—and also a challenge on delivery, which is ensuring that we reach a similar number of eyeballs as we have in the past. That is the challenge. It takes us back to Roy's point. People choose to access information in a very different way from the way they used to. We need to be able to take local information that we have as a core strength and deliver that across a set of platforms, and I think we will have to do that in the case of public notices as well.

Q66   Mark Pawsey: Have you made any representations about putting that data in a form that is more user-friendly?

Simon Edgley: Absolutely. We are currently working with various local authorities, including Harrow, to present their public notices both in print and online.

Lynne Anderson: And that is the case across the industry, where local newspapers are sitting down with their local councils to try to come up with the most cost-effective and effective solutions. It is important to remember that the reason why both the last Government and the Scottish Parliament in the past year rejected the idea of moving such statutory notices out of printed newspapers and have them just posted on council websites was that members of the public told them that they looked to their local papers for these statutory notices, and it is an important part of the public's right to know and access information, and not just to have these things hidden away on a council website, where sometimes it might possibly be in a council's interest to have it hidden from the public gaze.

Professor Greenslade: That is the situation at the moment but it will change over time. It is quite clear that if the Government moves broadband out in the way Jeremy Hunt suggests—I say that name very advisedly—and what he says is true, then gradually we will see a huge expansion in the take-up. As we see that expansion it will need to change. In fairness to The Newspaper Society, it also recognises that in what it has just said.

Jeremy Dear: I think you have found the one issue on which we are in complete agreement.

Q67   Mark Pawsey: Would the loss of this business at the margin lead to a loss of titles in your view?

Professor Greenslade: We will lose titles whatever happens.

Q68   Mark Pawsey: Will it contribute to it?

Professor Greenslade: Look, we are seeing a huge squeeze on advertising. Somebody has already mentioned real estate. We have not even got into sex ads, but they are now gradually being taken away from newspapers, quite rightly, and we see statutory notices under the gun. The only revenue at the moment for newspapers that is significant, especially in an era when you see more free newspapers, is advertising itself. That is a huge strain. But if newspapers can gradually transfer their brands from print, which is hugely costly both to print and distribute, to online there is no reason why in a digital future they should not still prosper.

Q69   Bob Blackman: We have had some evidence on this but I want to clarify the position: how many of the newspaper publications produced by councils are now produced by members of The Newspaper Society, that is they are printed and distributed by them?

Lynne Anderson: In terms of all types of publications?

Q70   Bob Blackman: I refer specifically to newspapers. What we are talking about now is whether a council newspaper outweighs a local newspaper compared with, say, a quarterly magazine produced by a council that clearly is not a newspaper. We are talking about competing priorities here.

Lynne Anderson: I do not have numbers, but I have always been encouraged that local newspapers, where they have a contact print facility, sit and work with their local authorities and help them with their communication needs. If that is a quarterly magazine, that is absolutely right; or, if it is something stitched into the local paper that works very well. Some of these publications have evolved into monthly, fortnightly, even weekly, and, yes, the local papers often still have the print contracts. I do not have the actual figures, but, as Simon said, the strength of feeling in the industry towards these competing publications is such that they would be willing to forgo that revenue from frequent publications, because the fundamental principle at stake here is that local authorities should not compete with independent local papers.

Q71   Bob Blackman: Presumably, taking your position, Mr Edgley, if you felt so strongly about this as a company, you could say to Hammersmith and Fulham or whoever, "We don't want your business and we won't bid for it. If you can get it printed somewhere else, good luck, but we don't want your business."

Simon Edgley: We could do so.

Q72   Bob Blackman: If you feel so strongly about it?

Simon Edgley: To pick up Lynne's point, we publish in Reading. We have a very strong and close relationship with Reading Borough Council; indeed, we publish monthly its council information sheet within the title. We do not have an issue with that because there is not an issue with content because it is very much newsletter-type. We also do not have an issue with it because it does not vie for third-party advertising. One important thing to understand, which goes back to Mr Freer's point, is that in the vast majority of cases most local newspapers have very good relationships with their local authorities. In my experience—I deal with about 11 or 12—I have regular meetings with the chief executives of those local authorities and the relationship is incredibly good. We do a lot of partnership things together for the good of the borough. At the end of the day we are in the same business of doing great things locally. That is what we do and why we have a good relationship.

Q73   Bob Blackman: You are moving from the sale of newspapers to free newspapers, which is where the industry is going generally, but is it not the case that that is to get coverage for advertising in general but also the newspaper might be doing reasonably well?

Simon Edgley: Yes, absolutely. It is regionally different. We publish in Guildford where we still sell 22,000 copies of the weekly paid-for newspaper. London is a very different model. If anybody sitting here 10 years ago had suggested that somebody would sit outside a tube station and give away the London Evening Standard, he would have been regarded as completely barmy. The model is changing. You are right that it is about audience because at the end of the day if we can deliver audience, we can then commercialise that with advertising revenue, which is what keeps our industry going and employs all the journalists to whom Jeremy referred earlier.

Q74   Bob Blackman: Mr Dear, you represent journalists who work for the newspapers and also now councils. How many journalists have been taken on by councils to produce these newspapers?

Jeremy Dear: We represent about 800 people who work in those different functions. How great the density of membership is in those I cannot be absolutely clear, but the vast majority of those are people who worked on local newspapers and now work on council publications. First, generally they are slightly better paid on council publications; but, second, knowing that I was to give evidence some people wrote in to say that they had become enormously frustrated at not being able to cover a whole number of things in local areas because of lack of resources. In some cases they have those resources in council publications that they do not have in local newspapers. Our argument is to try to create that balance, not take away statutory notices that mean newspapers have to close down but, equally, not to say that the vast majority of council publications cannot perform a complementary function to what local newspapers are doing. There must be a balance there.

Q75   David Heyes: The Secretary of State said he was determined to strike a blow for freedom of the local press and produced a code of practice. Is that powerful enough for The Newspaper Society in particular? Will it be enforceable in the way you want to see?

Lynne Anderson: We have raised concerns about how enforceable it will be. The spirit of it seems to acknowledge the threats and anti-competitive aspect of what some local authorities are doing. I hope that loopholes will be filled and it will be enforceable.

Q76   David Heyes: What should be done? What are the loopholes and what should be done to fill them?

Lynne Anderson: We have talked about an overarching principle. Government has advised local authorities in the past that it should not duplicate or compete with existing services that are provided by commercial companies. We need some sort of principle that makes that clear. We are assured that that can be enforceable. We understand that some local authorities might view it as advisory rather than regulatory and would seek to ignore it or find ways round the guideline, so it is a legitimate concern.

Q77   David Heyes: It is a continuing concern?

Lynne Anderson: Yes.

Q78   David Heyes: Are there any other views on that?

Jeremy Dear: I think the seven principles in the code are good. The question is: how do you put those into practice? For example, to restrict frequency seems to me not to match some of the other principles that are in the code. The principles are good but the practice would unnecessarily restrict council publications.

Professor Greenslade: We do not want to see council publications that take a single point of view, and there are odd examples of that in some of the papers in London, where they quite definitely deserve the Pravda nickname, but spin is always a subjective matter. Complaints continuously come into my blog from journalists to say that they are forced by their commercial owners to spin things in a certain way. Simon talks about working together, but there are plenty of councils that complain to me that the local papers are far too negative in their coverage. One of reasons for town hall papers, as they are called, is that they redress the balance. The area that you have touched on is the most difficult to police in a sense, because to decide what is impartial, objective and neutral is the most difficult thing for any of us to do. That takes us to the subject of enforcement. It seems to me that what is not in the consultative document is what would happen if any council defied this particular code.

Q79   David Heyes: Some would argue that the existing code has been defied already.

Professor Greenslade: I am not out of sympathy with that point of view. That is one of the interesting things about whether or not one needs this code. Frequency is one thing but content needs a closer look.

Jeremy Dear: One thing that is missing from the code is the protection afforded to people who work on local authority publications to be able to resist pressure put on them to be partisan and political because they do not have access to the district auditor to complain; they need a workplace remedy, be that a conscience clause in a code of conduct. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations has a code; we have a code of ethical practice to allow people to say that they are being asked to do party-political work and that they should be able to refuse to carry it out, rather than work about the council as a whole.

Chair: We will have to draw things to a conclusion at this point. The Minister is to come in, and one or two points you have raised with us we will put to him directly. Thank you very much indeed for your evidence.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 14 February 2011