MPs who are learning at first hand about the drastic cuts in the regional press have spoken up for their local papers in a House of Commons debate.
The MPs warned yesterday that staff cuts, office closures, the loss of advertising revenues to council publications and a decline in government advertising were all threatening to undermine the vital role of the local press in maintaining local democracy.
Opening the debate on the regional press, Mark Williams, the Liberal Democrat MP for Ceredigion, spoke about cuts at two local papers in his constituency.
“The starting point for my interest in this matter was a visit to the office of the Cardigan and Tivyside Advertiser in Cardigan,” he said.
“That newspaper is immensely well respected, appears every week, and I was surprised to find the total staff was five – only two journalists, half of what it was two years ago.
“It is a paper which covers the town of Cardigan, the lower Teifi Valley and North Pembrokeshire, a vast geographic area, but is a paper now characterised by fewer news stories, more advertising features, less real news that matters to people, which helps retain sales.”
Williams said it was a similar story on a bigger scale with Ceredigion’s other weekly newspaper, the Cambrian News, which ‘too has faced the challenge of reduced advertising, loss of editions, jobs, and its capacity to hold local politicians and public agencies to account”.
He told fellow MPs that “a diminished local press diminishes community and democracy”.
Williams added: “My local journalists tell me it is simply impossible for them to attend meetings of community and town councils in the way they used to, meetings of the Ceredigion cabinet, its planning or scrutiny committee, or meetings of the CHC [community health council], the local health board or police authority.”
He warned: “The emergence of local council publications – containing local news, but by their nature not independent, competing with the commercial press, is speeding the decline of the local press and thereby reducing scrutiny of local authorities.”
Williams said councils should be encouraged to take out longer advertising contracts or running campaigns in the local press and to sponsor local newspaper initiatives.
And he said the government and local authorities should take a strategic approach to advertising and ensure that relevant titles are not overlooked.
Williams also argued that cross-media ownership rules should be relaxed to allow the exploration of new partnerships, but that in relaxing the regulations there should be accompanying measures to protect the plurality of the local media.
Andy Slaughter, the Labour MP for Ealing, Acton and Shepherds Bush, attacked his local council paper, the Hammersmith and Fulham News, for “undermining” the local press.
He claimed its marketing “crowed” about the poor circulation of the local paper and accused the News of “corroding local democracy”.
John Pugh, the Liberal Democrat MP for Southport, joked that the debate was an “opportunity for MPs to ingratiate themselves with their local papers”.
But there is no doubt that the cuts in the local press are getting home to MPs. There seemed a general consensus in favour of relaxing merger regulations, concern about local authority newspaper style publications and the need for government advertising to be placed in the regional press.
Lembit Ã–pik, the Liberal Democrat MP for Montgomeryshire, said the local press “don’t want handouts but a hand-up”.
Not all MPs were uncritical of the local press. Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West, argued that much of the regional press was biased against the left and radical politics.
“There should be no subsidies without conditions of political balance,” he said.
David Taylor, the Labour MP for North West Leicestershire, said that regional newspaper publishers had accelerated the decline of the industry by failing to invest in their papers and the pay of their journalists.
Responding for the government, SiÃ´n Simon MP, the minister for creative industries at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, said the position of the Office of Fair Trading was that the “case was not closed” for regional mergers.
Speaking on the day that a record rise in the unemployment figures was reported, Simon said of the loss of jobs among regional newspaper journalists: “We are talking about a large number of human beings who are losing their jobs. It is a tragedy for them and their families.”
Simon has agreed to meet a delegation of local newspaper editors to discuss the issues further.