Speech in debate on local and regional news

Local and Regional News
30 March 2017

Volume 624

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. It is also a pleasure to sum up for Her Majesty’s official Opposition.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) on her speech and on persuading the Backbench Business Committee—I thank it, too—with other colleagues to grant this debate. ​She made an extremely passionate case for local media. Her proposal about the importance of treating local media as a community asset was echoed by others. She also talked about models and ways that we can take that forward in the future.

The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) told us about his career as a local journalist. I am surprised he did not get a Pulitzer prize for his reporting of the football in Bishop Auckland, but he made some sensible suggestions on the way forward for local media, and his speech will bear careful study by the Minister following the debate.

We also had a very good speech from the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts). She listed Welsh language titles during the course of her speech. Fortunately for Hansard Reporters, the Welsh language is highly phonetic, unlike the English language, so they will have no problem whatever in spelling all the names of the publications she mentioned in the course of her speech.

We also had a very good speech from the hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), who said how blessed she was with the richness of local media provision in her constituency. She castigated the local press for their accurate reporting of age, and I think we all had a tinge of sympathy with that pertinent point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) made a strong case for local papers and told us about his column in a socialist publication. It did not sound like it had a mass circulation, but he did have the consolation that he was trying to form a mass movement.

Kelvin Hopkins: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The paper did not have a mass circulation. It had a rather limited circulation, but it was not a commercial paper, so it was not in any way undermining journals across the country.

Kevin Brennan: I am sure the press barons of this country are mightily relieved to hear that.

My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) spoke with a great deal of wisdom about the role local media can play in local emergencies. She described how in the floods, the local media were a very important public service and not just reporting organisations. She was also the first Member today to mention the importance of photographers. She emphasised the value of adopting a co-operative model for local media not just when they get into trouble, but before that so that it is not just a response to a crisis. I thought that was an interesting point.

The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Corri Wilson) expressed concerns about the monopoly of media ownership, about which she made some good points. Speaking from the Scottish National party Front Bench, the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) spoke about the “Scottish Six”, BBC funding and the new channel that will be on the BBC in Scotland. I am on record being highly critical of the amount of money given to Wales in that same announcement. Scotland got £20 million and Wales should have got £12 million, but we only got £8 million. Additional investment is nevertheless important. She also mentioned Gaelic language provision. I am an avid ​watcher of BBC Alba when it covers the Guinness Pro12 rugby matches. Despite the commentary being in Gaelic, I think I can pick up enough of it to understand what is going on. She made a useful contribution to the debate.

I was quite surprised that we were not joined by the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) this afternoon.

Jason McCartney: He is too busy.

Kevin Brennan: Perhaps he is too busy, as the hon. Member for Colne Valley says—we know that he has many jobs that he has to perform. I understood that the right hon. Gentleman’s purpose in taking the editorship of the Evening Standard was to bring that experience from outside the Chamber into Parliament. I would have thought that this afternoon’s debate might have afforded an appropriate opportunity for him to allow us the benefit of his wisdom and knowledge on this subject.

Kelvin Hopkins: My hon. Friend is making a very good point. I wonder if he might inquire if the right hon. Gentleman has joined the NUJ.

Kevin Brennan: I think it is more likely that he has bought the NUJ rather than joined it, having looked at his entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Nevertheless, we miss him. I hope that the Minister, who I know is very friendly with the right hon. Gentleman, will send him our warm regards and our regret that he was unable to join us. I am sure he is very fruitfully engaged elsewhere, rather than being here in this debate in Westminster Hall this afternoon in our House of Commons.

I should also thank the Minister for kindly gracing us with his presence, albeit slightly late. I am sure there was a very good reason why he was not able to be here. As a man known for his humility, I am sure he will explain that to the Chamber when he gets up to address us after I sit down.

[Mike Gapes in the Chair]

Since other Members have given us the benefit of their experience, I will do the same. I started off after university as a news editor of a local community paper in my home town of Cwmbran. It was a fairly humble publication called Cwmbran Checkpoint, but nevertheless we did a lot of journalism of the kind that Members have talked about—reporting on local council meetings, holding the local council to account and publishing stories of local interest.

Of course, the media have been transformed in the 30 or so years since I performed that humble role—much more humble than that of the right hon. Member for Tatton, obviously. We had golf ball typewriters, we laid out the text using wax rollers and we had Letraset to make headlines. It was very different back then in the analogue world—the Minister is far too young to know anything about that, but he can read about it in the history books. It was a very different world than we have now. Hon. Members have rightly pointed out that the technological revolution that has taken place over the last few decades has transformed media and had a big impact on local media in particular.​
We have all agreed this afternoon that regional and local media are crucial to the strength of our communities and the health of our democracy. It is, therefore, a pleasure to speak in this debate in the week celebrating Local News Matters. Whether on paper or on screen, local news has a wide readership, reaching 40 million people a week. People continue to trust local journalists, perhaps a bit more than they trust national journalists. In some ways, perhaps there is an analogy with politics: people are generally in favour of their local MP but not necessarily in favour of politicians in general. The same impact is seen sometimes in local journalism.

I am sure that every hon. Member—we have heard from many this afternoon—is able to name local papers, news websites, radio stations and even, these days, local TV stations in their constituencies that help create a sense of local pride and identity, and inform residents about local issues. In my city of Cardiff, there are many outlets, including Radio Cardiff, Wales Online, the Western Mail and the South Wales Echo, not to mention the local BBC productions and Welsh-language publications such as Y Dinesydd, all of which make an important contribution at a local level.

However, as we have heard, research by the Press Gazette suggests that local and regional news provision is reducing. Since 2005, 200 newspapers have ceased circulation and the number of journalists has more than halved. We can all wax lyrical about our constituency’s local news provision and its contribution to our local communities, but the reason we are having this debate is that the future of those outlets is far from secure. There are fewer local papers, fewer local journalists and fewer local editorial teams, being run by an ever smaller number of conglomerates. As we have heard in the debate, about three quarters of the local press is owned by a mere four companies.

It is not just about the number of papers and reporters. There is also the issue of independence and the resources available to journalists and editors to hold authorities to account at a local level. Research by Cardiff University that followed the trends in local journalism in Port Talbot from 1970 to 2015 found that over time, as hon. Members have mentioned, fewer and fewer stories were informed by journalists attending meetings in person, while the use of managed media sources, such as press releases, rose to more than 50%. Journalists increasingly quoted high status sources, with less input from members of the public. Naturally, that affects the ability of local media to scrutinise those who make decisions about their communities.

I do not think anyone is suggesting that we can turn the clock back to the days when I and others started out—to an analogue age when local newspapers were pretty much the only source of local information. Modern technology, starting a long time ago with TV and radio and now with online media sources, social media and so on, offers huge opportunities for the democratisation of news and the diversification of views, but also for the potential proliferation of fake news, as hon. Members have mentioned. Even though we cannot turn the clock back, we need to ensure that current and future technological developments are working to benefit everyone.

Local and regional news provision is transferring from one format to another, but local and regional services on TV and radio need support too. The National Union of Journalists has been mentioned several times ​in the debate. It undertook a survey of the closures of BBC district offices covering local TV and radio. I would like to share the results of that with the House today. 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.

For example, 10 years ago, BBC Radio Gloucestershire had three reporters: one for Gloucester and Forest of Dean, one for Cheltenham and Tewkesbury and another for Stroud and the Cotswolds. Now, only one reporter covers all six constituencies in that area, and the post has been vacant since the end of September. There is no longer a day reporter covering drive-time stories. Instead, there is only an early reporter working from a satellite car for the breakfast show and a late reporter covering stories for the next day. Likewise, 10 years ago in Lancashire, there were four district studios. Now there is only one, and only two full-time and two part-time reporters. The Newcastle, Durham, and Sunderland offices all closed in 2011, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland is fully aware.

News services that have moved or begun online often have issues too. Companies are struggling to replace lost print revenue with new profits generated online. A News Media Association survey found that 81% of media organisations’ revenue comes from print readership and only 12% from digital. However, the industry continues to close its newspapers in favour of digital formats. When one visits a modern local newsroom, as I am sure many hon. Members here today have done, one is struck by the extent to which stories and deadlines are driven by online clicks, with advertising revenue related to those trends. That sparks fear of a genuine danger that clickbait journalism will be encouraged and will replace real local reporting. It would be a genuine shame if all our local news outlets eventually mirrored the Mail Online sidebar of shame in their approach to reporting. That is the fear and the potential danger of that approach.

Be it in print or on screen, the trends that I and others have outlined are of course long term and have been developing over decades. I mentioned the NUJ’s survey of the closure of BBC district offices. Other public service broadcasters are also crucial to regional and local news. The Welsh language TV channel, S4C—Sianel Pedwar Cymru—focuses on Welsh issues and consistently features local news and views from around the country. Again, rather than wholeheartedly supporting the channel, the Government’s policies are creating uncertainty about its future. In my letter to the Minister on St David’s day, I asked the Government at least to freeze S4C’s funding until the independent review of the channel is completed, and to announce the review’s terms of reference. Instead, they have offered only a six-month freeze and further talks mid-year, and they still have not launched the review. I am afraid the UK Government are dragging their feet on setting up the review, and we want to know why. S4C and Welsh audiences deserve better.​

This gives me the opportunity the right to put the Minister right on his somewhat ludicrous rewriting of the history of the establishment of S4C, which we have heard him rehearse several times in the Chamber recently. Yes, it was established under Mrs Thatcher’s Government, but only after a long and bitter campaign by Labour and Plaid Cymru, which forced them to withdraw proposals that would have breached their own manifesto.

The Minister for Digital and Culture (Matt Hancock): Oh, give over!

Kevin Brennan: The Minister says, “Oh, give over!” from a sedentary position. Given that he has decided to challenge my assertion, let me read him the Cabinet note from 18 September 1980. The then Home Secretary, Willie Whitelaw, said

“that the Government would withdraw its plans to share Welsh language programme, between two television channels. Instead the programmes would, for an experimental period of three years, be broadcast on one channel, as had been proposed in the Party Manifesto. He still thought that the previous plans were preferable but he had agreed to change them in response to representations, put to him by Lord Cledwyn and others, of the views of informed and responsible opinion in Wales.”

Lord Cledwyn was, of course, Cledwyn Hughes, the former Labour Welsh Secretary. I forgive the Minister, because he probably was not even born at the time of that great struggle, but it is wrong for him to glibly assert that S4C was established without a bitter fight, which some of us remember well.

Helen Goodman: Just to reveal how old I am, my first job was working for a Labour Member of Parliament in 1979-80, Phillip Whitehead, who was on the Committee for that Bill. What my hon. Friend says is absolutely right: there was a significant Labour campaign to achieve that.

Kevin Brennan: There was, and I acknowledge Plaid Cymru’s contribution to that campaign. It is only right to put the historical record straight, rather than allow the hares that the Minister set running—

Matt Hancock: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Kevin Brennan: My dream has come true!

Matt Hancock: I am always very happy to contribute to the hon. Gentleman’s dreams. To deal with this one right now, I am absolutely delighted that the hon. Gentleman has welcomed the Conservative Government’s establishment of S4C and has accepted that, in fact, it was introduced by a Conservative Government. We, as Conservatives, welcome the cross-party support for it.

Kevin Brennan: Let me quote from another document from 1980. Wyn Roberts, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State to the Welsh Office, said:

“I travelled home yesterday with Lord Garonwy Roberts who told me that the Shadow Cabinet last week”—

that was the Labour shadow Cabinet—

“decided to put forward an amendment to the Broadcasting Bill in the Lords to concentrate all Welsh language programmes on the Fourth Channel…If the Lords were to carry the amdmt. it would clearly weaken our position very considerably.”​
It was that pressure that led to the Government having to fulfil their commitment, which they wanted to renege on at the time.

I will not test your patience any further, Mr Gapes. As a former history teacher—[Interruption.]

Mike Gapes (in the Chair): Order. I would be grateful if the Minister confined his remarks to his winding-up speech.

Kevin Brennan: I accept your ruling, Mr Gapes, although I enjoy the Minister’s sedentary remarks. They liven things up considerably.

That is evidence that S4C is not a priority for the Government. Meanwhile, the Welsh Government are providing a grant to it and supporting Welsh-language papers—the papurau bro, as the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd called them. That is because that Government understand the importance of local news to communities.

I do not want to paint too gloomy a picture. Regional and local news outlets continue to break very important stories, often of national significance, while both entertaining residents and informing them of community events and developments, but they do that despite rather than because of the Government’s action. I encourage the Minister to do more after this debate. He has had encouragement from both sides of the Chamber to do something.

The BBC has announced the local democracy reporter programme, which hon. Members have referred to, and which is going to cost £8 million of licence fee money. BBC reporters will work with local papers. Superficially, that is a welcome initiative, but in effect the Government are outsourcing a complex issue to another body rather than taking charge of the situation. Against that background, we support the call for the Government to carry out a national review into local news and media plurality. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will commit to undertake such a review? Other hon. Members have also called for one.

The NUJ’s research, “Mapping changes in local news 2015-2017: more bad news for democracy?”, which was published this month, shows a net loss of nine regional papers since 2015, and a loss of more than 400 local journalism jobs over a 17-month period. In 2015, two thirds of local authority districts, encompassing more than half the UK’s population, no longer had a local daily newspaper. Between November 2015 and March 2017, the number of local monopolies rose to 170 out of 380 in Wales, England and Scotland.

The Government are in a unique position to pull together views from across the industry—from multinationals to trade unions, civic society groups and the mutual sector—to judge the effect that these changes have on society and to discuss potential solutions. I would be interested if the Minister can tell us how he will respond to the demands set out in early-day motion 1109. 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 Government have a role to play, and we would be interested to hear from the Minister what role he will play in achieving that.​

The Minister for Digital and Culture (Matt Hancock): I apologise for my earlier interruptions, Mr Gapes, but I wanted to correct that one point before I started my full response to this very thoughtful and interesting debate. I thank the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) for securing this important debate on the future of local and regional news providers.

Kevin Brennan: I do not want to labour the point too much, but while the Minister is in the mood for apologising, perhaps he could apologise to the House for being late to the debate.

Kevin Brennan in debate on Local and Regional News (Hansard Link)