I’m a big advocate of a vibrant local press. As a politician I find there is no better barometer of local opinion than the Brentwood Gazette. Except, perhaps, TOWIE (The Only Way Is Essex).
But local news organisations offer more than just a temperature check. You are the heartbeat of your communities, an essential cog in the democratic wheel, localists par excellence, defending your patch, shining a light on how our taxes are spent and keeping the local big wigs on their toes right across the country.
From the Falmouth Packet to the Banbury Cake people have a real affection for their local papers. Just look at some of those magnificent campaigns shortlisted for the regional press awards:
- the Colchester Daily Gazette campaigning for Cassie’s Law so drivers medically unfit to take the wheel will lose their licences
- the Liverpool Echo’s long running battle for Hillsborough
- and a personal favourite, the Wirral Globe exposing millions of pounds of highways mismanagement by councils
There can be no more appropriate place to discuss local media than this part of the world.
Shakespeare hinted at the news demand when he wrote in ‘As You Like It’ - a play set, of course, in the Forest of Arden:
These trees shall be my books. And in their barks my thoughts I’ll character.
You’ve got the Birmingham Post, the Stoke Sentinel and the longest-surviving newspaper of them all - Berrow’s Worcester Journal - which was first published in 1750.
Breaking news back then was ‘Thirsty Martha’ at the Wheatsheaf Publick House. The journal reported on the protestations of one Doctor William Bibb who assured his readers he was “not the operator who cut the corns of the lately deceased mayor”.
And now more than 260 years later, it’s still
- serving the community interest
- reporting on the county hall elections
- helping raise funds for the local hospital
- covering the community’s fight to save their local pub
I’m keen to see all our great local news organisations enjoy such a long life, but I know that times are tough.
I know local press are under the cosh, challenged by broad demographic shifts in how and where people consume media and online competition for advertising.
You’ve also had to face another problem - the sinister spread of the Town Hall Pravda.
Like a knock-off Rolex, this expensive imitation flattered to deceive, offering cut-price local news, a crossword and a Sudoku but with a side serving of propaganda that poured taxpayers money down the drain.
No wonder local newspapers are feeling out of pocket - literally and metaphorically.
It’s not that councils don’t have good deeds to tell. Many do.
Look at the way they’re tackling troubled families, providing social care to those most at need and freezing Council Tax.
But the point is we want our news to be told and sold under the masthead of an independent and free press.
Only then can we know we are getting the unvarnished truth and a more memorable story, leaving councils to concentrate on what they do best - patching up potholes, not publishing Pravdas.
Stopping unfair competition
So we’re clamping down on unfair competition, the rules had been blurred for too long.
That’s why we drew a line in the sand that couldn’t be clearer.
The new publicity code said councils shouldn’t be publishing newspapers in direct competition to local press, of course they could publish factual information but 4 times a year is more than enough.
But a few rogue councils decided not to play by the rules. I’m going to stop that.
I can say to you today that we will introducing an anti-Pravda law in the very next Parliament (the Queen’s Speech is only a few weeks away).
This will close down those apparatchik printing presses powered by taxpayer pennies.
It will muffle those hardcore of council rebels flouting the rules despite the public concern, so councils like Tower Hamlets with its glossy weekly title the ‘East End Life’ or Luton with its monthly municipal mouthpiece will finally have to put their house in order and put their local people first.
More access and accountability
But I want to do more to enable you to challenge the status quo.
In the week we mourn the passing of that great champion of liberty Baroness Thatcher, we should remind ourselves that one of her earliest achievements as a new parliamentarian was to back press freedom.
Back in 1960 the great lady piloted a Private Member’s Bill through Parliament giving reporters a back stage pass to the hitherto closed off world of the council chamber.
As Baroness Thatcher put it at the time:
The public has the right, in the first instance, to know what its elected representatives are doing. There were cases where councils had been doing the wrong thing. We hope that the Bill will restrain them from continuing to do so.
We have honoured her modernising legacy in the best way possible by going further to make life easier for editors.
Where Mrs Thatcher boldly opened the door, we’ve removed the hinges ensuring there is access not just in the main council forum but in its committees and subcommittees.
I know many of you are embracing online publishing.
I saw the figures recently that showed every regional newspaper publisher reported double-digit increases in web traffic in the last 6 months of 2012 (audited by ABC).
So this reform lets you file your copy live from the committee or tweet instant information to your followers.
We’re even putting a stop to those feeble excuses for closing a meeting to the public and press without due warning. Councils must give 28 days notice of their intention to hold any meetings behind closed doors and their reasons for doing so.
Any intentional obstruction or refusal to supply certain documents could result in a fine, but our reforms aren’t all about access all areas.
We know with scant resources it’s harder than ever to devote time and resource to in-depth investigations.
As Lord Northcliffe once said:
News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.
So we’ve made sure all councils now publish spending over £500 online.
We’re even requiring them to openly publicise to the press and public those little-known rights to inspect councils’ detailed financial accounts.
A lot of people are probably unaware that these rights extend to checking “all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts related to them”.
In the past authorities might have hoped to get away with it - submerging awkward information in hidden corners of the council corridors.
Now I know many of you have raised concerns about Lord Leveson’s proposals that it might bind editors or journalists too tightly or increase costs.
I read a quote from one editor concerned that:
Even writing a standard ‘dog bites man’ nib will become almost impossible, without getting copy approval from the victim and - quite possibly - the dog too.
While no system can ever be perfect, we’re now keen to see the industry press ahead and set up the most important part of the system, its own - independent - self-regulator.
So I say to you today I am a big fan of local news.
That’s why we’re putting the kibosh on unfair competition, we’re opening more doors for you and all I ask in return is that you continue to do what you do best.
- keep holding the mirror up to local politicians
- keep defending local people to the hilt
- keep representing the interests of your communities
Because strong local newspapers are the very bulwark on which our daily life depends, and when you flourish, democracy succeeds.