Tory shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has said he fully expects the government to scrap the media merger rules currently preventing regional newspaper consolidation when it publishes its Digital Britain report next month.
Hunt spoke yesterday at a Conservative Party “Save Our Local Papers” summit at St Bride’s in London – two days after the Department for Culture, Media and Sport held its own summit in parliament to discuss the crisis engulfing the local media industry.
Writing on his blog, Hunt said the event was “useful, but ultimately rather depressing” – but he said he was confident that a long-term business model for the local media still existed.
“Local newspapers are suffering badly,” he wrote. “Governments should not be not in the business of propping up ailing industries or failing business models, but it would be really sad if all our local papers vanished. They are also usually the only effective way of holding local councils to account.”
He added: “Things are made worse by merger regulations which add to costs for local newspaper groups and prevent them expanding to other types of media in their area.
“These need to be looked at urgently and I fully expect the government to scrap them when Digital Britain reports on 16 June. We should get out of the way to allow these new models to work. Before it is too late and there is nothing left.”
The Office of Fair Trading and media regulator Ofcom are looking at the case for relaxing the ownership rules – something that groups including Trinity Mirror and the Guardian Media Group have long called for.
Publishers argue that changes in the media landscape – including the power of the internet – mean there is no longer any danger of newspaper monopolies leading to unfair competition for advertisers.
But the National Union of Journalists has warned that scrapping competition rules governing regional press mergers would lead to a “spiral of decline”.