MPs launch broadside at newspaper redundancies

By David Rose

The Government is to meet MPs to discuss concerns that the axing of hundreds of journalists’ jobs is reducing newspaper coverage of councils and courts.

Industry minister Gerry Sutcliffe has agreed to discuss the matter with the NUJ’s parliamentary group, in the first public indication the Government is monitoring the country-wide shake-up among regional newspaper employers.

"We are keeping an eye on what is happening," Sutcliffe told MPs. "The regulatory regime is in place if there are problems and we are always happy to hear from the NUJ and other bodies about their concerns about the quality of journalism."

Austin Mitchell, Great Grimsby Labour MP and chairman of the NUJ parliamentary group, and its secretary John McDonell (Hayes and Harlington), estimate that more than 1,000 jobs have been lost in the past six months.

"There is less coverage of council meetings, less coverage of the courts and less coverage of local bodies," Mitchell told the minister in the Commons.

He said there were fewer specialist reporters, including health and sports correspondents, and that journalists had to remain in the office "to cobble together press releases". There was also less analysis of parliamentary matters.

The meeting will take place amid evidence of growing all-party concern.

More than 40 MPs have added their names to a motion expressing concern and urging newspaper proprietors "to put investment in quality journalism at the heart of their future strategies".

Opening a Commons debate, Mitchell denied that the shake-out was because advertising was being lost to the internet. "If that were the motive, newspapers could always buy up the competition, as they bought up the freesheets," he said.

"At present regional newspapers are very profitable and becoming more profitable year-on-year. Profit margins are between 20 and 35 per cent."

Mitchell welcomed the decision by the Daily Mail and General Trust to withdraw its proposal to sell off its 113 titles. To make Northcliffe more profitable there had been, he said, a programme of redundancies and job cuts.

He added: "These days, provincial newspapers are basically in chains.

They are born free, but everywhere they are in chains, and the chains are looking to profitability.

"Trinity Mirror has 230 titles. Last year, it made a profit of £172m. It is proposing hundreds of redundancies. Newsquest made £700m in profit last year. It has 216 titles. It has already fired 25 subs in Colchester and between 60 and 70 in Scotland. Johnston had a profit of £177m last year.

"It has 283 titles. It has just closed its press in Scarborough. Archant made a profit of £332m out of 80 titles and is firing 17 subs in Norfolk. Even The Guardian is going through this process.

There will be hundreds, if not more than 1,000 job losses in provincial newspapers."

He said the main explanation for what was going on was that newspaper chains wanted to "increase the rate of return that they pay their shareholders".

McDonnell said: "Profitability is so high that obscene wage awards are given to chief executives.

"The chief executive of Trinity Mirror, Sly Bailey, has slashed jobs in the past few months, but earns a salary of £350,000 and gave herself a bonus of £495,000 this year."

Mitchell has personal experience of losing a job on a newspaper. He was once fired by the Yorkshire Post.

Sutcliffe, the minister, is no stranger to the newspaper industry either. He used to be a full-time trade union officer in the printing industry with SOGAT.

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