The Government should act now to safeguard local newspapers from the “unfair” competition of council-run media, MPs from all main parties urged today.
If the Prime Minister was to create a daily newspaper there would be an “outcry” – but this was happening at a local level, Liberal Democrat Paul Burstow warned.
Leading a Westminster Hall debate, Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) called on the Competition Commission and Audit Commission to look into the impact of increasing numbers of council-funded newspapers on free speech.
Local newspapers were the “lifeblood of our democracy” and council publications went “way beyond” providing information about local services.
Local authority-funded newspapers were “written to see the world through the tinted glasses of the party in charge of the council”, Burstow said.
“Just imagine if a beleaguered Prime Minister was to hire a team of journalists and commentators to turn out a daily newspaper … there would be an outcry.
“But that is what’s happening at a local level – taxpayers’ money is being used for the production and distribution of loss-making council-run papers.”
Earlier this year, the Government asked the Audit Commission to carry out an inquiry into the impact of council newspapers on the local press.
But the commission decided instead to look into whether such papers delivered value for money for the taxpayer – a remit that was “not good enough”, according to Burstow.
MPs from all sides expressed concern that statutory notices were being moved to council freesheets and local papers were also losing much-needed advertising revenue.
Labour’s Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush) said council newspapers were nothing more than “propaganda” and “masqueraded” as independent media.
And independent MP Andrew Pelling (Croydon Central) warned that council freesheets were attracting talented journalists away from local newspapers by doubling their salaries.
Tory John Whittingdale (Maldon and Chelmsford E), chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, said there was “undoubtedly competition” between council publications and local newspapers.
He said it was “worrying” that fewer local public events, including trials, inquests and council meetings, were able to be covered by journalists.
“Perhaps it could be considered whether or not there is a case for some kind of public service reporting which would then be made available to anyone who wishes to carry it, be it newspapers, local radio, local TV,” he said.
“In the same way that no longer do we have every newspaper represented in the gallery of the House of Commons; they rely upon the Press Association to supply them with content which is independent and objective.”
Lib Dem spokesman Don Foster said council papers should be required to focus on relevant public service information and publish less often.
For the Tories, Ed Vaizey said the Government had promised a review into the issue and was “dithering”.
Junior culture minister Sion Simon said the Audit Commission would soon set out its conclusions.
“When we have those issues, the next step is to present that information to the Office of Fair Trading, perhaps with Ofcom, and ask them to look for potential competition questions on the impact for the paid-for newspaper market.”