Don Foster MP

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Local Media

December 6, 2023 by admin in Don in Parliament, News

Mr Don Foster (Bath) (LD): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. The debate gives me the opportunity formally to welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), to his post on the Front Bench.

We are discussing a really important issue. The Minister rightly recognised that we all had an opportunity to namecheck our excellent local newspapers. He did so with the Wantage and Grove Herald, and I certainly want to do the same for my own paper, The Bath Chronicle, which is now, sadly, a weekly rather than a daily. The Bath Chronicle, the Wantage and Grove Herald and all other local newspapers are important in ensuring the accountability of our local councils and other public bodies, and they are a focal point for the community. Sometimes they do interesting things; the Minister gave us the example of the coverage of his expenses. About eight years ago, when The Bath Chronicle was a daily, the letters page included a letter complaining that there were too many photographs of Don Foster in the paper. I was delighted that the paper chose to illustrate the letter with a quarter-page photograph of me, with a banner underneath saying, “Too many photographs?”

Local newspapers and the local media-radio and so on-also act as good vehicles for important local campaigns. Let me just say on a serious note, and with a degree of personal interest, that the front page of today’s edition of The Bath Chronicle includes an article about my part-time secretary in my constituency office. This lady has had breast cancer and bone cancer, and she now has liver cancer. She is quite seriously ill and she was, most recently, taking Herceptin, until her consultants discovered that it was causing heart failure. The only drug now available to her is relatively new. It was recommended by her consultants, but it has not, unfortunately, gone through the final stages of approval by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, so she is being denied access to this life-saving drug. I am delighted that my local newspaper is running a campaign to gain support for her and that my secretary’s local MP, the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), is supporting her.

Local newspapers, local radio and local media overall are clearly important, and they provide all the things that I have described. They also provide a training ground where many people can develop their media skills before moving to more regional or national newspapers. Given the emphasis that the coalition Government place on localism, it is critical that we find ways of supporting and defending local media so that they can carry out important checks on what happens locally.

As we have heard from the Minister, there are many problems. The local media industry has been contracting for the past five years. Thousands of jobs have been lost in regional and local newspapers, and 25% of jobs are being cut in local papers. Sixty titles were cut last year alone, and more jobs and titles will potentially be lost. Reference has also been made to ITV, where some 1,000 jobs have already gone in the regional news service. More than half of local commercial radio stations are now loss-making, and the industry’s total revenue has gone down dramatically-by nearly a quarter-in the past few years. Its audience share has also declined.

The Minister has given us some of the reasons for what has happened. Of course, it is largely to do with the recession and, therefore, the fall in advertising revenue. However, there has also been a move to new platforms, not least on the internet-an issue to which I will return shortly. If we believe that something needs to be done, the real question is what we are going to do about these issues. I am delighted that the coalition agreement makes clear reference to the coalition Government’s desire to

“enable partnerships between local newspapers, radio and television stations to promote a strong and diverse local media industry.”

The question is how we do that. I want to make a number of suggestions to the Minister and to pick up on some of the points that he and others have made.

Let me start by saying that it is critical that we understand the important role that the BBC plays, and that we make it clear that we would do great damage to local, regional and national media if we followed the advice of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) and top-sliced the BBC’s licence fee. That would undermine the BBC’s independence-something that I am delighted the Secretary of State, in his recent speech on these issues, made clear the coalition Government are not prepared to do. The minute we allow top-slicing at the BBC, the corporation will be constantly looking over its shoulder to make sure that it is not offending the Government of the day, and its independence from the Government will be lost. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that I strongly oppose top-slicing and I hope that that will be the view of the coalition Government.