Regional press bosses go lobbying alongside the subsidy jockeys of Channel 4 & ITV

It’s reassuring to see that the regionals finally mounted a proper effort to lobby Lord Carter in January, shortly after publication of the interim Digital Britain report.

At the very least, this lobbying effort should have been launched back in October, when Carter was appointed as minister for communications, technology and broadcasting. Arguably, of course, the regionals should have started bending the ear of culture minister Andy Burnham last summer.

In the event, Carter’s interim Digital Britain report emerged in late January.

It showed what happens when — as in the case of the regionals –- you approach the prospect of public sector intercourse like a Mormon cast adrift in Las Vegas.

Across hundreds of pages in Carter’s report, the regionals were crowded out of proceedings by the smart alec subsidy jockeys of Channel 4 and ITV and the smooth-talking telecoms operators. Carter mentioned newspapers precisely four times.

Messing about with megaphone diplomacy (Tim Bowdler in the Sunday Times) and blowing your top (Sly Bailey in the wake of Carter’s report) have been poor substitutes for engaging with the government on its own terms. The failure to engage has cost the regionals precious time.

It’s been entertaining, though. In particular, the sarcastic statement that Bailey released after publication of Lord Carter’s interim report voiced the irritation of many in the industry.

Unfortunately, it had the side-effect of making Trinity Mirror — and the regional newspaper industry as a whole — look woefully out of the loop.

For much of 2008, this was the case. Last week, however, Bailey made a strenuous effort to convey the impression that this had changed.

As she presented Trinity’s 2008 results, Bailey was at pains to stress that lines of communication with the government had been opened up. Along the way, however, the chief executive of Trinity Mirror also dropped a few mixed messages into the ether. 

Talking with Ian King at the Times in the wake of her results presentation, she had this to say:

‘The old concerns about dominant market position do not apply. Advertisers do not see it that way — the regulator is the only one left who still sees markets in that way. There is an urgent need to change the way regional newspaper mergers are considered.”

This is the standard argument for a relaxation of competition law. But when Bailey spoke to City analysts last week, she seemed to say something different.

Asked whether consolidation would bring ‘genuinely new opportunities’in its wake (as opposed to more of the same old cost-cutting), Bailey suggested that it would give Trinity Mirror ‘more clout’in advertising markets.

But surely more clout for publishers must mean less clout for agencies and clients?

This is the kind of suggestion that will cause concern at the Office of Fair Trading and the Competition Commission.

Of course, it might be possible to reconcile these two apparently conflicting positions by arguing that an increase in the regionals’ ad market clout simply doesn’t matter in a world where so much revenue is migrating from print to digital.

This point is easy to argue. But it will be tricky to prove conclusively.

Presumably, this is what Lord Carter has asked the regionals to do. To crunch the numbers, the regionals have engaged the big-brained analysts at OC&C, the strategy consultancy.

It will be intriguing to see what they come up with.

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