Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

22 Feb 2010 : Column GC193

Grand Committee

Monday, 22 February 2010.

Arrangement of Business


3.30 pm

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Brougham and Vaux): My Lords, it has been agreed that, should any of the Questions for Short Debate not run for their allotted time this afternoon, the Committee will adjourn during pleasure until the end of the allocated hour. Therefore, each of the Questions for Short Debate will start at half past the hour. If there is a Division in the House, the Committee will adjourn for 10 minutes and, if necessary, time can be added on to the time for the Question for Short Debate.

Media: Local and Regional Newspapers

Question for Short Debate

3.31 pm

Asked By Lord Harrison

Lord Harrison: My Lords, it is no wonder that the most popular items in the 3 billion local newspapers read every week across Britain are the births, deaths and marriages column, followed by the letters page. For the 80 per cent of us who still read our local newspaper, they are not just a source of information and news about what is happening in our local community, a sounding board for local views and gossip and a public square for campaigns fought locally. A local newspaper is also a companion that walks with us down our street when we leave our home for work, the shops, the match or the pub. It arrives through the front door and lies around the house for the next seven days, like a next-door neighbour who is always ready for a cup of tea and a chat.

For those of us in local politics-maybe all politics is local-the local paper is the cornerstone of democracy. It offers a fairer report of real hand-to-hand politics that matters more to local people than ever do the less-read national papers, cut off and isolated as they are in the overall hothouse atmosphere of the Westminster village. I certainly owe my political career to my local newspapers during my three decades on Cheshire County Council, in the European Parliament and in the House of Lords. My only regret is that we in the Lords are seldom asked to write newsy columns for our local papers reporting the Lords, as once, as an MEP, I reported the European Parliament to my local electorate.

Britain's 1,300 local newspapers-an unsung national treasure-now face their own cycle of hatch, match and dispatch, so I introduce this afternoon's debate on their future. Claire Enders, an acknowledged industry analyst, suggests that half of those 1,300 titles may disappear in the next five years due to both cyclical and structural threats. Indeed, some 60 titles closed in 2009, although most were just free weeklies. The

22 Feb 2010 : Column GC194

precipitous fall in advertising, the expansion of the internet and online advertising, the increase in local councils publishing their own quasi-local papers, and finally the competition from local radio and TV, including the BBC's sometimes clumsy encroachment on traditional local newspaper territory, have all combined to undermine our local papers' future viability.

The Newspaper Society offers a more sanguine view, asserting that print readership has remained remarkably stable. It rightly points out that local newspapers will have a crucial role in encouraging digital Britain's development within the new, multimedia landscape. In this fast-changing panorama, do the Government have a role in not only promoting the independence, reliability and viability of local news, but also supporting and perhaps funding the traditional values of local and regional newspapers while encouraging fresh and innovative thinking on the role of the local press? The pivotal Digital Britain report published last June by my noble friend Lord Carter suggests that they have. I turn to the Government's role and obligations.

The Digital Britain review charts the accelerating and vertiginous 30 per cent fall in local advertising revenues since 2008 for our local papers. Given that advertising provides 80 per cent of those revenues, does my noble friend the Minister recognise the need to staunch the haemorrhaging of such traditional income while encouraging the discovery of new revenue streams? Will he give guidance, for instance, to local councils now producing in-house newspapers, financed by the council tax, which thereby undermine and undercut local newspapers? While local councils must communicate effectively with their electors, is my noble friend nevertheless alarmed when local council papers include not only factual information but regular news stories? They also siphon off valuable local advertising revenues from the private sector. Where do the Government draw the line?

Secondly, will the Government continue to resist the repeated proposals to remove the current law obliging statutory notices to be posted in the local paper? Its abolition would imperil revenues, as well as depriving the local public of a trusted and familiar source for such notices. Local newspapers' advertising revenues have been further undermined by the downturn, and are unlikely to be restored in the upturn. For instance, local estate agents now typically pay only a tenth in fees to papers to advertise homes for sale. "For sale" signs are now found typically on the web, not in the paper.

Will the Government also ensure that their own advertising in the local media is maintained, given the unparalleled reach and trust that the public have in their local newspaper? Moreover, the Government should not neglect those of us older and less technologically adept, who are not part of the Gadarene rush to the web and the internet. We, too, have a right to be properly informed through the familiar channels.

Is my noble friend alarmed by the loss of experienced journalists, formerly embedded in the community, the closure of high-street offices, the indifferent salary structures and the redundant road blocks placed in the path of trainees eager to enter this vital profession? One local editor explained to me the distinct advantage of having his newspaper office visible in the high

22 Feb 2010 : Column GC195

street, as well as having most of his journalistic staff living on the patch that they report. Cutting down on local offices saves money but deprives good reporters of their vital contact with the news-giving public. The sad result of all this is the temptation to report by press release; it may save the expense of an experienced journalist but it impoverishes the trade of good journalism.

Will the Government cast a cold eye over the standards of training for entrance into the newspaper and media industry? Some university courses are perhaps less than adequate, and placements in local newspapers, which present the real learning curve for budding journalists, are drying up. Moreover, such placements are essential for trainee journalists to gain their seniority.

Is my noble friend satisfied that we are laying down firm foundations for the next generation of young journalists, who should be well trained, paid and motivated to face the sharp challenges of this fast-changing industry? Does he support the NUJ's call for direct support for such training opportunities, and will he note that the tight funding in our local public institutions also hampers local papers? Thus, overzealous centralising of magistrates' courts can stymie local newspapers' ability to report local cases. An important public function that they perform is not only that justice is done but that it is seen to be done in the local papers. Curtailing police resources presents similar problems and so it is, too, with local councils, which sometimes shovel off public functions to non-transparent subsidiaries. For example, the former open local housing committees are being replaced by closed housing associations. Will my noble friend attend to these unfortunate restrictions on local newspapers in performing their essential function of holding our public institutions to democratic account?

On a wider canvas, it is clear that the interpretation of competition law has not kept up with the changing news media industry. While in the past the current competition law worked to prevent unhealthy monopolies, it is becoming clear that unless we widen the notion of competition to include other forms of news media it could result in some areas of Britain being deprived of a vibrant local newspaper. Bedworth, a town in the Midlands, already lacks a local paper and, indeed, its own local radio. The Government should redefine competition law to allow other forms of local news media to be considered as rival competitors, even if that means that a "one town, one paper" policy becomes the norm.

While we all revere the BBC, should we not ensure that its local reach does not smother the local paper? Indeed, do we not need some different business models, as suggested in the Digital Economy Bill? Those include, for example, developing teams of local journalists to sell on their local newsgathering to the appropriate local, regional and national outlets. In this model, the BBC might buy in such services rather than wastefully duplicating them. Alternatively, tax breaks might be offered to local papers to perform functions under a public interest remit.

Would the Government consider direct support to help establish new and genuinely local media organisations, including community trusts similar to the model developed

22 Feb 2010 : Column GC196

by the Guardian Media Trust? Should not media organisations be required to sell on the names of titles that they close down to such community trusts for a nominal fee, and should not a levy be exacted from commercial operators that benefit from quality service content, including local news, but who have had no hand in its production?

This is an important debate, especially as an election draws near, where it is vital that the public gain the very best information that they can about a local candidate. As I say, I am not always sure that the national media perform that function well as opposed to local journalists.

Each and every one of us here could pencil in our own lives by reflecting on the different local newspapers that we have had over the years. In my case, those were the Oxford Mail and Times, the Coventry Evening Telegraph, the Brighton Argus, the Hanley Sentinel, the Manchester Evening News, the Chester Observer, Chester Chronicle and Chester Standard, the Wirral Globe and Wirral News, and even the Garstang Courier and the Lancashire Evening Post.

I hope that this is a successful debate and I am very grateful to the other noble Lords who are participating, but I feel that we are Stendhal's happy few this afternoon. I wish that there were more of us to contribute to this important democratic debate.

3.43 pm

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, I appreciate the opportunity to speak in this debate and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for introducing it. He spoke of the local newspapers that he remembers; that point is where I would also like to start-not too far away from Chester, where the noble Lord lives at the moment, but about three-quarters of an hour away down the coast.

We have seen such a reduction in the number of local papers over the past 50 years. In my own area, the weeklies then were the Conwy Free Press-that went many years ago-the Llandudno Advertiser, which others will perhaps remember, the Llandudno Circular Press, the North Wales Pioneer and the North Wales Weekly News. Those were the local papers that were a talking point at that time. Then, we had the Daily Post and, apart from that, for a time the Liverpool Echo and the Manchester Evening News were also widely sold in north Wales. The Western Mail tended to be, and I think still is, largely a south and mid-Wales paper, so we relied on both evening papers: the Manchester Evening Newsand the Liverpool Echo.

The Comet Free Press and the Llandudno Circular Press were the first to go. They were small one-man ventures. The North Wales Pioneer and the North Wales Chronicle were from the same stable. The North Wales Pioneer re-emerged as a freebie. The Llandudno Advertiser merged with the North WalesWeekly News. Today, we have two weeklies: the free Pioneer and the paid-for North Wales Weekly News. The Liverpool Echo and the Manchester Evening News arrive a day late and, I believe-but I could be wrong-they sell very few copies. The Welsh edition of the Daily Post sells well, especially in Welsh-speaking areas. The whole scene for Welsh-language newspapers has changed.

22 Feb 2010 : Column GC197

We have lost many of the weeklies, but we now have nearly 60 Welsh-language community papers throughout the whole of Wales: papurau bro. There are also some, not as extensive, English-language local community papers, all run by volunteers. They keep the local spirit alive. The Welsh Assembly Government fund Welsh and English local papers. The effective news and comment come from the Daily Post and the North Wales Weekly News, which are owned by Trinity Mirror. The North Wales Pioneer is independently owned. There is no real competition to the two sold newspapers, one of which is daily and the other weekly.

The same is true in the rest of the United Kingdom. I believe that 80 local newspapers closed last year. Hundreds of journalists have lost their jobs, photographers have lost their contracts and the high street offices have closed. We have a debt to those companies that have kept the flag flying and their newspapers alive, but it can be dangerous to have only one local paper. If an extreme right-wing consortium took that paper over, it could be very bad news indeed, far worse than having to rely on Fox News and claiming that it gave us balanced news coverage.

In 1890, in the old Caernarvon Boroughs constituency, there were more than two local newspapers. That was the year of the by-election that returned Lloyd George to Westminster. If we had relied on Herald Newspapers of Castle Square, Caernarfon, we would have thought that Lloyd George was the Messiah. As a Liberal Democrat, I might say that he might well have been. According to the paper, his victory procession was composed of all the most upright, honest, sober and chapel-going young men. The Tories were very different. Songs were sung-I will not risk singing for the Committee:

"Hurrah! Hurrah! We're ready for the fray.

Hurrah! Hurrah! We'll drive Nanney away-

Ellis Jones Nanney-

The grand young man will triumph,

Lloyd George will win the day,

Fight for the victory of Cambria".

Wonderful! It was not unbiased in any way at all. The North Wales Chronicle, based in Bangor, redressed the balance with a Conservative anthem, but I do not know the words.

If we had a monopoly of newspaper ownership, it would be a threat to democracy. The people who are able to help the weakest are those who have strength. Would relatively prosperous newspaper companies, such as Trinity Mirror, take a lead on this issue and encourage competition and having two viable newspapers serving a community?

We know that this is a difficult time and a time of great change for the newspaper industry. We do not entirely rely on newspapers. We can choose not to buy a paper and to get all the news on the internet. I was astonished to learn of the decline in newspaper readership. Between April and September 2008, at the height of the American presidential election campaign, in the USA, there was an average decline in sales of 11 per cent and in some areas, it was as great as 22 per cent. In recent months, sales of the San Francisco Chronicle declined by 25 per cent. The net is taking over.

22 Feb 2010 : Column GC198

However, like the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, I contend that local newspapers make an essential contribution by providing news of what happens in local communities. They are part of what holds a local community together. You can even attack the stories. I have often heard people say, "Have you seen what the front page of the Pioneer says this week?"; or "I don't agree with the editorial comment in the North Wales Weekly News". At least you can have a discussion. Very rarely do you hear people discussing what appears on the internet. The paper in our hand is vital.

Are local and regional newspapers tending to emulate the format of the red-top national newspapers? I am not sure that is welcome. No more do you get news of what the local Women's Institute is doing or where the Young Men's Christian Association went last week on a trip. For a number of years, I was a local councillor and, occasionally, a journalist used to attend our debates. How many smaller council chambers now have a journalist attending their debates? That is something of the past, so local news is neglected.

The Assembly Member Joyce Watson says that, in the late 1970s, the Tenby Observer was in difficulties. To save itself, it was renamed the West Wales Observer, reporting news from across the region. But that did not do the trick, so the Tindle group stepped in and stipulated that any story which did not mention Tenby was not to be printed; it had to be a local newspaper. The result was that over a number of years the sales have risen from 3,700 to more than 7,000. People want the local element.

Mention has been made of advertising revenue and how local council newspapers-freebies-are welcome, but how they use funds that could help to support local newspapers. We have to ask whether councils need to print their own newspapers.

It was put to me earlier that it is time to consider relaxing the regulations between the involvement of the printed media with, say, television and radio and other factors mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Harrison. That might provide local newspapers with the additional support they need.

Local and regional newspapers are vital for a thriving and democratic society. However, they need to be truly local, reflecting the life in their communities, as intended. Steps also need to be taken to ensure that there is true competition because I would hate to think of some of the right-wing organisations taking over one of the newspaper groups. That could be disastrous.

3.52 pm

Lord Luke: My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, on obtaining a debate on this very important issue. I also remember my early years in local government and being terrified to see the chap sitting in the gallery watching and listening to every word and worrying that I would make a mess of my speech. That was a long time ago.

I do not wish to say too much about how important local and regional newspapers are, but they are an essential public service of which we should be proud and fiercely protective. At the moment, there is no doubt that local newspapers are in crisis. Many believe

22 Feb 2010 : Column GC199

that they are in the greatest crisis that the industry has ever faced. It has been estimated by one of the most respected industry analysts that, at present, half the country's 1,300 local newspapers will be out of business within the next five years. That is an extremely concerning prediction. In many aspects, local newspapers are the bedrock of the media industry. Much journalistic investigation and news content is collected by local newspapers and filters up to national newspapers, to radio, to online newspapers and even to television and the BBC. It is very important that local papers have the chance to continue their great and valuable work. Furthermore, it is imperative for democracy and local accountability that local and regional newspapers survive.

However, due to severe commercial pressures, such as we have already heard today-for example, a decline in advertising revenues, reduced circulation, the emergence of online newssheets to name but a few-many papers have been forced to close altogether. Between January 2008 and July 2009 alone, 66 local newspapers were forced to close. But even where papers have not closed, their offices on the high street are being shut, the number of journalists employed is falling and the number of photographers, as we have heard, is no longer the same. Between July 2008 and September 2009, more than 900 journalists lost their jobs. Is the Minister concerned that the decline in journalist positions will lead to a decline in applicants and specialist journalists, which will lead to a decline in the standards of journalism overall? What are the Government doing to support local and regional newspapers so that they can keep standards high?

In June 2009, the Digital Britain report acknowledged the negative impact on independent local newspapers of local authority newspapers. However, nothing concrete has been done to investigate this. Does the Minister agree that an investigation needs to begin so that solutions can be sought and enacted before more damage is done? When will the Audit Commission, Ofcom, the Office of Fair Trading, and the Government stop passing the buck and take some decisions? Does the Minister believe that newspapers produced by councils should have to be clearly distinguishable from commercial newspapers so that the public are not misled as to the independence of the reporting? Is the Minister concerned that if council-run papers replace their independent counterparts, it will lead to a less rigorous scrutiny of local officials at the price of democracy? Do the Government support council newspapers and have they any plans to tighten up the local authority publicity code?

As I said earlier, it is tremendously important that we see the decline in local news companies as a very serious problem. Their influence is huge and their likely disappearance will have much more dire consequences than I think many appreciate. Like others, I look forward to the Minister's response.

3.57 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Davies of Oldham): My Lords, I am grateful to

22 Feb 2010 : Column GC200

all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate and I congratulate my noble friend on raising such an important issue. I am glad that the importance of local media as regards local democracy and local representation was emphasised from all parts of the Committee. There is no doubt that local and regional newspapers lie at the heart of the democratic process. As my noble friend indicated, they are critical to the expression and the opportunities for the expression of views on behalf of the community.

I listened carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts. I am not too sure that the 21st century can quite replicate the circumstances which led to the emergence of Lloyd George in north Wales. But I understand entirely the way in which he has supported my noble friend Lord Harrison in emphasising the importance of the opportunity for expression from localities. It is not for us to comment on the other place in a significant way, but there is one matter on which I think we take public opinion with us and on which we can therefore speak assertively and with some real concern; namely, that a greater number of candidates for national positions as Members of Parliament should have local roots. There is a great danger in having a preponderance of people-I speak as one who may have been guilty of this-who are mobile and able to present themselves across the country. A substantial percentage of the House of Commons ought to be represented by those who come from their local communities and can best reflect their perspectives. That is at the heart of representation, and why the local media are important to the whole concept and health of our local democracy.

Of course the Government share the anxieties that have been identified this afternoon. We certainly made it clear in the Digital Britain White Paper that strong, diverse and viable news media are integral to our democratic life. A diminution of the regional and local press affects the choice and plurality of information sources and editorial opinion, as well as the people employed in the sector such as editors and journalists.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page