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MPs back NUJ call for regional news inclusion in Leveson inquiry

9 August 2011

Leading MPs are backing an NUJ striking editor's call for the Murdoch Parliamentary investigations to be extended to cover the Big Five regional newspaper groups.

Shadow Health Secretary John Healey is the first MP to back the move for an investigation and an East Yorkshire Conservative MP has also expressed his concerns at Johnston Press office closures in his constituency.

John Healy has written to the chairman and members of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee asking them to "review the current state, future prospects, local value and ownership of local and regional media."

Labour leader Ed Miliband has arranged to meet South Yorkshire Times editor Jim Oldfield to discuss his calls for the Commons to investigate ownership and practices in the regional Press, alongside the probe into the phone-hacking scandal in national papers.

Jim Oldfield particularly wants MPs to examine how Johnston Press was allowed to borrow hundreds of millions of pounds from City institutions to pursue an empire-building title acquisition and asset-stripping policy, in the years before the financial collapse of the banks.

The company borrowed much of its money from two "toxic" lenders – the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds – who then had to be bailed out by the Government, leaving the taxpayer picking up the tab.

The company's share price and its fortunes collapsed from highs of over 560p to just 4p in 2009 and have failed to recover. This week, they were still hovering around 4p.

With the company owing around half a billion pounds, it has over the past three years embarked on savage staff cutting to save money - yet at the last annual report it still owed £388m.

Among the cuts are Oldfield's own job and half of his six-strong Mexborough editorial staff at the Times – in a redundancy move across South Yorkshire Newspapers that has put its 24 NUJ journalist members out on indefinite strike over the past three weeks.

John Healey MP said he had "explained the situation at South Yorkshire Newspapers and questioned whether the difficult times being experienced by the newspaper industry may be being compounded by concentration in ownership, which can mean decisions which call into question the future of long-established local newspapers being taken many miles away by a national board not always acting in the local interest."

Ed Miliband then wrote to Oldfield to discuss the editor's "comments on regional newspapers and the control of them". He has also written to Johnston Press directly about their redundancy proposals.

MP Andrew Percy has heavily criticised South Yorkshire Newspapers for its handling of the Goole Courier office closure. The Goole and Brigg member, who has already signed an Early Day Motion criticising parent company Johnston Press for its latest round of cutbacks, has written to senior management expressing his dismay that the town's free paper has been transferred to offices in Selby. He also revealed his concerns for the future vitality of both the Goole Courier and the Selby Times.

Andrew Percy MP said:

"In these changing times, local media is more important than ever. Unlike national media, we can rely on regional newspapers to give fair and balanced coverage, but to be able to do this, they need to be rooted in their local communities.
"It's short-sighted to make reductions at profitable newspapers, which will adversely impact on their ability to respond to, and support, the communities they serve."

Concerns have also been expressed by Yorkshire and the Humber MEPs – Edward McMillan-Scott (Independent), Timothy Kirkhope (Conservative), Linda McAvan (Labour) and Diana Wallis (Lib Dem).

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary said:

"The broken model of media ownership in the UK has been laid bare by this Murdoch crisis. But this is not restricted to the national press – our local and regional newspapers are being brought to their knees by the mismanagement and sheer corporate greed of the big five newspaper groups, including Johnston Press where our members at titles in South Yorkshire are taking indefinite strike action to safeguard jobs and quality journalism.
"Their brave and principled action exemplifies why the Leveson inquiry must take the broadest of views on media ownership – urgent action is needed to tackle the problems of companies which have a stranglehold on our newspapers, squeezing the very life out of them in the process."

Tags: , newspapers, local newspapers, regional journalism, ownership, leveson, johnston press, rupert murdoch, south yorkshire newspapers, cms select committee, south yorkshire times, shares, goole courier, selby times