Culture secretary Andy Burnham has issued the clearest indication yet that the government is planning clear action to help the crisis-stricken regional press.
Burnham spoke exclusively to Press Gazette following a special one-off Local Media Summit held in Westminster yesterday to discuss the crisis in local news – both in print and broadcasting.
Regional newspaper publishers, the National Union of Journalists, Ofcom, the Society of Editors, the Local Government Assocation, the Newspaper Society and various MPs were among those involved in yesterday’s summit.
Burnham told Press Gazette: “It’s pretty serious out there. It’s urgent but people are not without hope and they can begin to see a way forward, which about six months ago people were not seeing.
“It’s difficult and gloomy in many ways, but actually what was good about today was it really brought people together and there was a lot of shared analysis and agreement about the way forward.”
Items on the agenda yesterday included the democratic consequences of the massive cutbacks in regional newspaper staffing this year; the future of regional broadcast news without ITV; pressure on local newspapers from council-run publications and the question of whether competition and ownership regulations should be eased for the big regional press publishers.
Burnham left Press Gazette in no doubt that the government is serious about taking action to help local media.
He said: “Most MPs have got an incredibly good grip on a) how important their local paper is to local life and b) how well-resourced it is at any given time, because we are constantly working with them.
“So unlike other industries, MPs have a very close understanding of both the importance and the strength of the local media industry. I think that goes for MPs of all colours. People see the urgency.”
For longer term solutions to both the crisis in local newspapers and broadcasting, Burnham indicated that we will have to wait for the publication of Lord Carter’s Digital Britain report this summer.
But he said: “There are potentially short-term measures that can be taken fairly quickly that might provide some immediate respite and help to local papers – possibly this year or next.
“And then there’s a separate set of debates to be had about how best to fund local, regional and national news beyond the BBC in the long-term.
“What is the scope for more well-developed partnerships between local papers, regional papers and possibly the BBC? Are there new ownership models for local papers that might be of interest, mutual models or other community interest company models that might be useful if big chains are getting rid of a title?”
He added: “In terms of concrete steps that could be taken, there’s the issue around council-run papers, there’s the issue that was raised today around government advertising spend and to what extent government can prioritise local papers in that there’s a justifiable public beneifit that comes from the continuation of local papers.
“There’s obviously issues around cross-media ownership rules that are being considered in the context of the Digital Britain report and the Office of Fair Trading have been looking at those issues.”
When asked whether there was realistically time to get anything done before the next general election, which has to be held within the next year, Burnham said: “What we’ve seen with the Digital Britain process is an incredible amount of energy and focus on digital issues. Infrastructure on the one hand and content on the other.
“While I can’t prejudge the Queen’s Speech, clearly the final Digital Britain report will have recommendations possibly for legislation that the government will want to get on with pretty quickly because the prime minister has identified the digital economy as a key part of the new economy coming out of the difficult times we’re in.
“This clearly is absolutely at the top of the government’s agenda, without fear of contradiction.”