Hancock: Devolution Makes Local Papers Even More Important

Matt Hancock, Minister of State responsible for digital and culture policy, has said that devolution has made local newspapers and the scrutiny they provide of authority at a local level even more important than ever.

Speaking in a parliamentary debate last week, Mr Hancock cited News Media Association figures demonstrating that 95 per cent of the country is covered by local media, in response to claims that 58 per cent of people do not have access to a daily local press title.

At the Westminster Hall debate on local and regional news moved by Helen Goodman MP, Labour, MPs were quick to praise local newspapers for their role in campaigning on behalf of their readers and holding power to account.

Mrs Goodman said: “When the Church Commissioners wanted to flog off its paintings by Francisco de Zurbarán, it was a campaign that I ran with The Northern Echo, which put the paintings on its front page for several days in a row, that pushed the Church Commissioners back and made them realise that people wanted and loved those paintings.

“The upshot has been far greater than we could ever have imagined. The story came to the attention of a philanthropist, Jonathan Ruffer, who put £50 million into the castle, and we now have a whole regeneration project. That would not have happened without the initial support of The Northern Echo.”

Corri Wilson MP, SNP, added: The local press promote local fund-raising initiatives, highlight local government achievements and failings, and can be found at every gala and every community event.

“They are the voice of their readers, or listeners, and they act as a watchdog. People trust them and see them as somewhere to go when things goes wrong or when things need to be put right. Essentially, a quality local paper or radio station can supply part of the glue that holds local communities together, giving people a sense of themselves.”

Jason McCartney MP, Conservative, added: “The Huddersfield Examiner puts on two fantastic awards ceremonies every year. The Huddersfield Examiner community awards celebrate the best in our community—campaigns, charities and volunteers—and in the autumn the Huddersfield Examiner business awards celebrate the best in local small and medium-sized enterprises and bigger businesses, connecting up the business community.

“That means that we have an unemployment rate that is below the national average, and textiles and engineering are doing well in our part of the world.”

Responding on behalf of the government, Mr Hancock cited the importance of local newspapers for democracy. He said: “The point that was made about devolution meaning that there is need for more, rather than less, local scrutiny, which journalism obviously helps to provide, is important in this context. More decisions are being taken at a local level, and it is really important to ensure that they get appropriate scrutiny.

“As MPs, we all understand the importance of local newspapers in bringing communities together and providing a local voice to communities, as well as holding us and others in positions of responsibility to account.”

Mr Hancock said he had 13 local press titles covering his West Suffolk constituency where there was “no shortage of high-quality local journalism” but acknowledged that the industry as a whole was under pressure.

Mr Hancock cited the NMA’s local democracy reporting partnership with the BBC and the government’s business rates relief as an example of initiatives designed to ensure investment in good quality local journalism

“I want to stress some additional facts. The fact that 58 per cent of people do not have access to a daily local press was raised, but if we take local press in print and online into account, 95 per cent of the country is covered, according to NMA industry figures.

“Although clearly under stress, there is availability of local reporting, whether in print or online, right across the country. The challenge of new technology is to find a way to ensure that it provides a sustainable business model for local journalism. We cannot hold back the tide of technology.

“The key is how we can harness it in a way that provides for a sustainable business model, and allows citizens to access their news more readily than they could before when there was only print available. That is the big challenge we face.”

Talking about the relationship between local press and the tech giants, Mr Hancock said: “We have to see how the market develops and keep a close eye on it to ensure that it is sustainable, because local accountability matters.”

Mr Hancock listed examples of local newspaper campaigning, adding: “Engaging in campaigns of value to the local population is a classic role of the local newspaper.”