George Osborne: A vibrant local press is more crucial to our democracy than ever
There’s no more precious freedom than the freedom of the press. As power is devolved out of Whitehall, it is vital that local media is given the chance to thrive.
For centuries, in some cases, local newspapers have been both training grounds for journalists and the hearts of their communities. Many of those now holding us politicians to account as part of the parliamentary press pack started their careers in local media, and the regional lobby is still an important presence in Westminster.
But the truth is these sources of news are fast disappearing. According to the National Union of Journalists, 150 local titles have closed since 2008 as advertising revenues have declined. In the last 12 months, newspapers that have been lost include the Surrey Herald, Sheffield Gazette and the Reading Post.
Too many of those local newspapers that do survive are being hollowed out – with branch offices closed, and what news gathering remains run from a hub in a city centre miles from the local communities they used to cover.
National newspapers have also, in many cases, lost many of their regional correspondents and bureaux.
All of this is slowly creating a problem for our democracy.
One of the agendas I am most passionate about in government is the devolution revolution we are delivering in local government in this country.
From Greater Manchester to Cornwall, Sheffield to Liverpool, local authorities are joining forces to take control over everything from healthcare to transport, skills to criminal justice.
We will have new elected mayors heading up city and regional authorities, directly accountable to the people they serve.
And I believe that means we need professional journalists present at those council meetings, asking challenging questions of local leaders, keeping tabs on what those in power in their communities are up to. As power is devolved out of Whitehall, a dynamic and vibrant local press is more vital to our democracy than ever before.
I know publishers are uneasy about direct government subsidy, and I understand that. But there is a role for government here.
That’s why I announced at the third Westminster Correspondents’ Dinner, as a serious point in a largely light-hearted speech, our plans to try to support strong local and regional media.
From next year, I am going to introduce a business rate discount for local newspapers in England. It will mean a £1,500-a-year saving on the costs of that tax paid by local newspaper offices.
We are also determined to clamp down on what my colleague Sir Eric Pickles rightly called ‘Town Hall Pravdas’.
Weekly and fortnightly council free-sheets undermine a free local press, drawing away readers and advertising. They fail to investigate and scrutinise the conduct of the local authorities, and carry flattering reports on councillors’ work. Frankly, these sorts of publications are an abuse of public funds.
So we have required them to be politically objective, balanced and published no more than once a quarter.
Some councils aren’t complying – and I warn them that the government is prepared to take them to court if they don’t.
I also want to look at how we can support other mediums – it doesn’t matter whether professional journalists are working in print or online, as long as they are holding those in authority to account.
Look at a project like the Caerphilly Observer – set up by a former local newspaper journalist after the local paper closed down. It launched initially online and has now expanded to include a fortnightly print edition.
We’re also engaged in negotiations with the BBC to see how we can use the licence fee to support local, independent news gathering.
I believe we can forge a positive partnership between the BBC and the local news sector to support the provision of local news and information in a positive partnership.
I welcome the BBC’s willingness to engage: both the BBC and the News Media Association have agreed in principle to collaborate on a service to report on local institutions.
As I told the Correspondents’ Dinner, there is no more precious freedom than the freedom of the press. It is the freedom that underpins all others, the one guarantee of freedom of speech and the ultimate protection against abuse of power.
The campaigns, the scoops, even the ridicule holds power to account. Show me a country that controls its press and I will show you a government that controls its people.
Every day in newsrooms journalists, editors and subs bring together enough information to fill the pages of War and Peace. The skill and the level of output is astonishing.
It’s the irreverence of journalism; the challenging, sometimes infuriating, occasionally wayward, always invigorating journalistic spirit that makes a free society truly free. It’s vital that a strong local media continues to play its part in that in Britain.
George Osborne is chancellor of the exchequer and Conservative MP for Tatton