Burnham: Do not let big regional news players squash competition

Culture secretary Andy Burnham must have the most challenging in-box of just about any government minister at present – with the possible exception of chancellor Alastair Darling.

He is simultaneously facing a meltdown in the regional newspaper industry coupled with ITV’s wholesale retreat from regional news and a massive question mark over the whole viability of public service broadcasting outside the BBC in the post analogue TV age. That’s without even mentioning the many problems facing commercial radio.

So far there has only been fairly vague talk from the government about what it can do to tackle these various problems.

And as Grey Cardigan once aptly put it ‘fine words butter no parsnips”.

But when he gave Press Gazette an exclusive interview following this week’s Local Media Summit at Westminster he persuaded this correspondent at least that his government really is intent on taking action to help save the regional news industry.

He knows regional newspapers particularly well, he explained, having worked on a local newspaper for free as his first job out of university.

Burnham insisted said that he and all MPs are acutely aware that without local newspapers, democratic accountability collapses.

It seems likely that the government will do something to bolster local newspapers through the rules over the placing of statutory advertising notices. And movement is also expected soon on merger and competition rules.

One of the big questions is the extent to which the government acts to help the big regional press players – such as Trinity, Johnston Press, Newsquest and Northcliffe – and how much it looks to foster new mini-media projects, run by individual journalists.

I’m deeply suspicious of the big regional newspaper players’ calls to do away with regulation.

Former Johnston Press chairman Roger Parry told me last month that there was no case in editorial terms for saying that regional press mergers will harm plurality of coverage.

He said: “Every piece of evidence demonstrates that local editors remain locally autonomous.”

Yet just the next day it emerged that the long-serving group editors of his company’s Eastbourne and Hastings-based local newspaper groups had both been sacked to be replaced by a group managing director from another part of the country.

The fear that the big regional newspaper groups aren’t the best custodians of local journalism comes from the fact that even in the boom years they cut editorial costs to the bone in pursuit of ever higher profit margins of 30 per cent plus.

Many believe that private owners who are more committed to journalism and their local communities – and who are willing to invest while taking out sustainable profits – would be a better bet.

It may be that it takes companies with the clout of Trinity Mirror and Johnston Press to make the investment needed to create new multimedia newsrooms – as they are doing in places like Birmingham and Preston.

But I hope that Burnham and the Office of Fair Trading ensure they protect smaller independent local news players when they reform press merger and competition rules.

The big regional newspaper groups are used to playing hardball when it comes to competition – and it would be a tragedy if they were allowed to squash the many new local news start-ups which are bound to follow as a result of their current retreat from many communities.

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