Inquiry into local news backed by MPs
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31 March 2017
MPs queued up to support the NUJ's call for a short, sharp inquiry into the future of local and regional news during a debate in Parliament during the union's Local News Matters Week.
The debate in Westminster Hall, introduced by Helen Goodman, chair of the NUJ's Parliamentary Group, was an opportunity for MPs to promote and praise the campaigns run by their local media which have succeeded in rescuing Old Masters, keeping local schools open and defending the local NHS.
Margaret Greenwood, MP for Wirral West, singled out the Liverpool Echo and Wirral News for backing the Hillsborough campaign for justice. Jason McCartney MP for Colne Valley praised the Huddersfield Examiner for its Hands Off the Huddersfield Royal Infirmary campaign and its support of local charities and businesses, as well as its coverage of his "beloved" Huddersfield Town football team.
Rachael Maskell, MP for York Central described how during the floods of 2015 when her community was cut off, BBC radio York worked night and day to get messages out and "provided a lifeline at that crunch point".
Corri Wilson, MP for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, said: "The local press promote local fund-raising initiatives, highlight local government achievements and failings and can be found at every gala and every community event. They are the voice of their readers, or listeners, and they act as a watchdog. People trust them and see them as somewhere to go when things go wrong or when things need to be put right."
The MPs noted the important role local media plays in democracy and that with the growth of devolution there will be the need for more journalism rather than less. They also recognised that the present crisis in local media is putting democracy accountability at risk.
Helen Goodman MP
Helen Goodman, quoted research commissioned by the NUJ that showed 58 per cent of people in this country have no local daily newspaper and that the decline in the number of local newspapers is accelerating. "Some 200 local newspapers have closed since 2005. In the past 18 months, 22 have closed and 13 have been set up, which is a net loss of nine. Unfortunately, that involved the loss of 418 journalists’ jobs," she said.
She said that the concentration of the media in fewer hands was dangerous: "Four publishers are responsible for three quarters of the local newspapers in this country: Trinity Mirror, Johnston Press, Newsquest and Tindle. One of the absurdities is that they take over local newspapers and then either close them or shed more jobs. Of the 400-plus jobs that have been lost in the past 18 months, 139 were cut by Newsquest and 102 by Trinity Mirror."
While changes in technology and the decline in advertising revenue were partly to blame for the present crisis, it was also the greed of newspaper publishers, she said. “I also think that there has been – some people might call this greed some people might call this unrealistic expectations – too much money taken out of local newspapers. Tesco. One of the most successful supermarkets in this country makes seven per cent a year return on its capital. These people [news publishing bosses] are extracting between 20 and 30 per cent each year. That’s what they expect and if they can’t make that they say the papers are uneconomic."
Rachael Maskell described how cuts were affecting her local journalists. She said: Since 2008, the number of journalists at The York Press has fallen by 50 per cent. They now have to work under incredible stress, trying to produce copy constantly to ensure that they get good cover in the paper. They are more tied to their desk, rather than out in the community building relationships and learning their craft. They are also constantly worried about what the future is bringing down on them. The pressure is there."
She also noted that The Press, which would once have had six, seven or eight photographers, now has one professional photographer.
Jason MCCartney MP
The MPs also discussed various solutions to the crisis. Jason McCartney said:
"I echo the thoughts of the NUJ general secretary on the Localism Act 2011. Former council buildings in my patch are being taken over as community assets and I would certainly support ideas and developments on that model for taking over local newspapers. I am very open to innovative ideas for new local journalism models. I would look at levies on social media and online companies—the internet—tax breaks, investment funds and community trusts, because after all, for the sake of our democracy and our constituents, local news really does matter."
The trustworthiness of local media was mentioned several times. Rebecca Harris, MP for Castle Point, said: "If not for investigation by honest, trusted, dedicated local journalists who can be relied on to put the facts straight, there would be a lot of misinformation out there and a lot of harm caused by rumours."
Liz Saville Roberts, MP for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, described the situation in Wales: "Historically, Wales has a strong national and local press tradition. In 1966, the people of Wales could turn to a plethora of news publications, with 1 million morning, evening, weekly and bi-weekly local newspapers in circulation—that is, the total circulation. By 1990, that had fallen by a third, and now there are only six daily papers in any shape or form—morning or evening papers—in the country. The people of Wales have become increasingly reliant on the London-based media for their everyday news."
She said that despite Welsh-language journalism experiencing a revival in the form of online content, with BBC Cymru Fyw and Golwg360 attracting over 57,000 readers a week, the two national Welsh- language newspapers, Y Cymro, and Golwg are both at risk of closure. She said: "I call on the UK Government to hold an inquiry into the future of Welsh print media, to assess the current levels of distribution and the state of current publications."
Many of the MPs raised concerns about the £8m local democracy reporters' scheme funded by the BBC which will use licence fee money to provide reporters for commercially-owned newspapers. Jason McCartney, who sits on the culture, media and sport select committee, said he hoped newspapers will not tempted just to use them as a cut-price replacement for their existing services and said he would be monitoring the scheme as it developed.
Kevin Brennan MP
The debate was summed up by Kevin Brennan, the deputy shadow culture minister, who shared the details of a new survey by the NUJ. He said: Pointing out that the BBC is due to announce another round of cuts to the regions in the near future, of perhaps £15 million out of a budget of £150 million, the survey’s results show that, over the past 10 years, more than 20 district offices have closed, and that, once the district office closes, the designated reporter is often close to follow. In many towns, the nearest BBC reporter is now over an hour’s drive away, which makes localised news coverage increasingly difficult."
He ended his speech asking the minister for digital and culture, Matt Hancock: "Will the government undertake to launch some kind of national review into what is going on? Setting party politics aside, we are all in agreement about the importance of local news in all its formats. It is crucial to safeguard these precious community assets into the future."
The minister said he would look at how newspapers could become assigned as community assets, but did not promise he would hold an inquiry, saying: "On the call for an inquiry, we have to see how the BBC initiative beds down and how the business rates support, which comes in only on Saturday, works in practice. We keep this question under constant review.
"This area is of great significance and is of importance to the government. Of course, I am happy to debate it in the House at any point. Rather than having a single fixed inquiry, we will keep it under constant review, and I will be surprised if the member for Bishop Auckland [Helen Goodman] does not ensure that that is the case."