Trinity Mirror chief executive Sly Bailey has accused the government of a “crushing lack of understanding” over the urgent need to reform the merger laws governing the local media.
The interim Digital Report, unveiled yesterday by communications minister Stephen Carter, did not provide any clear recommendations on regional newspaper consolidation.
Instead, it asked the Office of Fair Trading and media regulator Ofcom to conduct an “exploratory review” and report back with “appropriate recommendations” before the final report comes out in the early summer.
“The thud made by the 80 page Interim Report on Digital Britain as it fell on our desks today was matched only by our hearts sinking as we took stock of its content,” Bailey said.
“We are bitterly dispappointed that the report makes only passing reference to newspapers – the word is used just four times – and the crushing lack of understanding of the urgency required for changes to merger regulations in the local and regional media sector.”
Trinity Mirror, Johnston Press and the Guardian Media Group have all publicly called for a reform of the competition rules, which prevent consolidation between regional newspaper groups, and cross-media ownership rules restricting newspapers’ ability to own local radio stations.
“Frankly time is running out,” Bailey added. “Regional newspaper publishers are facing the most challenging times in their history, mergers and combinations of newspaper groups offer the only chance of survival for some titles.
“Merger regulations need to change to enable the regional newspaper industry to survive in the digital age, rather than conspiring to strangling it out of existence.”
She said Trinity Mirror would be writing to Lord Carter – who has launched a consultation until 12 March – urging him to take a closer look at newspapers.
Middlesbrough South MP Ahok Kumar, who led a debate in parliament on the future of the local press earlier this month, said Digital Britain needed to have a greater sense of urgency.
“I have now written to Lord Carter asking him to more fully lay out the remit of this new review [on media ownership], and more importantly to ask for a rigid timetable so that recommendations can be on his table as soon as possible,” Kumar said.
“The local newspaper industry is in serious trouble now, with rising costs on the one hand and a slump in advertising on the other.
“It cannot afford to wait for a long drawn out review which could become a lawyer’s paradise.”
‘Severe damage to quality journalism’
The National Union of Journalists said the government must not rush to relax the ownership rules, and said it was concerned that “severe damage could be done to quality journalism if companies are allowed to further consolidate ownership of media outlets”.
“While on the one hand the government talks about the importance of plurality in the media, on the other it is considering a relaxation of the very rules that protect it,” said NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear.
“Politicians must take care not to allow policy to be dictated by media owners who have shown scant interest in investing in the editorial resources needed for quality journalism.
“Last year regional press companies argued against BBC involvement in local video because they said it would stop them investing. Then, with the potential competition seen off, they pushed on with massive cost cutting programmes that are resulting in journalists’ jobs being slashed and the quality of local media damaged.
“It’s vital for the government to look for solutions to support local media that will enhance the quality of journalism available, rather than simply allowing existing owners to wreak their damage on a larger scale.”
The Newspaper Society welcomed the decision to review the merger regime.
“We will participate fully in the Digital Britain review to ensure that Government actions create opportunities for regional and local newspaper companies to develop further as thriving regional and local media businesses,” the group said.
The group will also ask the government to act on “curbs on the BBC’s local activities” and the “encouragement of public sector advertising in regional and local media, including statutory notices”.
“We welcome the Cabinet Minister Liam Byrne’s call for much greater use of regional media in government communications because he believes it has been consistently undervalued,” the Society said.
“The NS is writing to Mr Byrne with our concerns over public sector competition for local media advertising revenues and the sharp decline in government advertising in local media in recent years, despite universal acknowledgement by politicians of its trusted relationship with local communities.”