Minister: State subsidy for regional press is possible

The Government is considering subsidising the regional press, a minister said in parliament today.

Ian Pearson MP, economic secretary to the treasury, responded to the suggestion of some form of state susbsidy for regional newspapers at a debate this afternoon at Westminster Hall in the House of Commons.

The debate was brought by Labour MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland Ashok Kumar.

‘It’s a complex one given the requirement of freedom of editorial control,’said Pearson.

‘I’d like to reassure him this is something being considered within the Digital Britain plan Lord Carter is taking forward.”

Digital Britain, launched last year, is ‘an action plan to secure the UK’s place at the forefront of innovation, investment and quality in the digital and communications industries”, according to the department for culture, media, and sport.

An interim version of the report is due out next week, with a final version expected in the spring.

Pearson added that the Government’s recently-announced £20bn plan to increase credit available to small and medium-sized business could apply to media firms.

He also said competition law on media ownership, subject to an Ofcom report this year, should be reviewed – something the Society of Editors called for this week.

‘A clear case for a rescue package

Pearson was speaking at a debate in which a number of MPs praised their local newspapers and journalists.

Kumar said strong newspapers were essential given the fact that cuts were being made to ITV regional news and that local radio relies on ‘national agency feeds’for news.

‘It’s clear there is a case for some sort of rescue package,’he said, and added the system of subsidies worked in Norway.

While accepting papers should help themselves by moving away “from a lazy reliance on printing press releases from local councils, the big football club, or local business”, Kumar said state support was key.

He suggested Job Centres being obliged to advertise in newspapers, and the Department for Work and Pensions publicising new benefits more widely.

‘I believe the state can help – now the state is fashionable in helping people again,’he said.

Lorely Burt, MP for Solihull – who said her daughter was taking her NCTJ exams in journalism this week – suggested a partnership between the BBC and local newspapers.

‘Couldn’t the BBC use local journalists in a joint venture website?’she asked. ‘It would keep local journalism alive and kicking…and create a synergy.”

She added: ‘There is a great shortage of local reporters. Local reporters are being lost at an alarming rate.”

‘Salvation ultimately lies in the hands of the groups who run papers

Hugh Bayley, MP for the City of York, said: ‘There was a time when the York Press had their own lobby correspondent – you only have to see the lobby here to see how lean the regional press presence is here in Parliament.”

But he said subsidy may not be welcomed. ‘I have spoken to local journalists in York and to management at Newsquest, and there is no appetite for subsidy… but they would welcome more advertising,” he said.

Bayley added that local authorities, health trusts, and even MPs who publish annual reports should do so in newspapers.

‘York has had a local paper for 288 years…[and] state advertising has a long history in local newspapers. In 1789 they tendered for the building of solitary consignment stalls for York Castle, then prison.”

Ed Vaizey, MP for Wantage, said Ofcom’s review on media ownership rules should take place at once.

‘Local newspapers are still prevented from owning local radio stations… these rules are looking very rapidly out of date,’he said.

He said the Government should ‘work hard to make sure there’s as much legitimate government advertising going into local papers as possible”.

But he added: “Salvation for local newspapers ultimately lies in the hands of the groups who run local newspapers.”

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