NUJ: 'Light-touch' media regulation has not worked

“Light-touch” regulation has failed the media in the same way it failed the banks, a debate in the Houses of Parliament heard today.

The National Union of Journalists lobbied MPs in Westminster – and union president James Doherty said more, not less, regulation was needed.

Newspaper groups and the Newspaper Society have argued more mergers should be allowed, to create economies of scale.

But Doherty said that would cause more job losses, more cuts, and less quality.

“Light-touch regulation has failed,” he said. “It failed in the banking sector, and it failed in the media too.

“The Newspaper Society are asking for an even lighter touch, which will result in even fewer jobs, and more news factories producing titles 80 or 100 miles away.

“We have to find alternative models of ownership. Places like Redcar [in Teesside] used to have two local newspapers competing against each other. Now they’ve gone.”

The Northern Echo and Teesside’s Evening Gazette have both closed their Redcar office in the past year.

NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear said the Government should lower barriers to entry that prevent big publishers being challenged.

He said, in the past six months, more than 25 offices and 60 titles had closed, with more than 1,000 editorial jobs in regional newspapers lost since June.

“Look at the past decade of media deregulation, of unprecedented consolidation of regional papers,” he said.

“It has not saved jobs, or provided better quality journalism. It has closed more offices, made more centralised content, provided more conformity.”

He added: “We realise there are a range of challenges facing our industry, both because of the recession and structural changes – but we believe it is fundamentally profitable.

“We believe there is a desire for high quality news about the local area. To cut at the very heart is a false economy.

“When we come out, if we have jettisoned our readers, we will not win them back easily.”

Harry Cohen, Labour MP for Leyton and Wanstead, suggested competition authorities, such as the Competition Commission and Office of Fair Trading, should consider the break-up of big regional publishers.

‘Pure party political propaganda’

There was also criticism of free newspapers produced by local authorities.

Andy Slaughter, Labour MP for Ealing, Acton, and Shepherd’s Bush, said his area had suffered severe cutbacks by Trinity Mirror.

“There is not even an illusion of a local press being left in the area,” he said. “Instead we’re left with publications like this [Hammersmith and Fulham Council’s weekly free paper].

“If you haven’t one in the area you will have soon. The people recruited are usually local journalists. They get much better terms, and the money is much better, but what they are producing is pure party political propaganda.

“I say that whether it’s Labour, Lib Dem, whatever. They’re sucking in advertising, sucking in public money, and they’re destroying what local press there is.”

Fiona Mactaggart, Labour MP for Slough, said: “I don’t think it’s right that local authorities should produce local papers on the rates.”

But Dear said those papers were only doing the job “local papers should be doing”.

“Some of these [council] newspapers are brilliantly produced, with excellent journalism, but journalism from a certain direction,” he said.

“It has a role to play, but not at the expense of quality local media. The problem is, if you stop covering local councils, you give them an excuse to invest in their own papers.”

Phil Sutcliffe, from the NUJ’s London freelance branch, said: “The NUJ can’t take an overly aggressive stance – they can’t very well say [to journalists] ‘You can’t earn a living’.

“But we are aware of the paradox of local journalists becoming mouthpieces for local authorities.”

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