MEMBERS of Parliament have made an impassioned plea to save local newspapers.
Under-the-cosh regional publications must survive in order to defend democracy, hold councils and public bodies to account and provide local communities with impartial news, the Westminster Hall debate was told.
MPs also gave warning that local papers were not guilty of crimes such as phone-hacking and needed to be protected from the Leveson Inquiry fallout.
Burton MP Andrew Griffiths, who secured yesterday afternoon’s debate, told colleagues: “Local newspapers are key to information within our communities.”
He said the press served as a ‘check and balance’, adding: “You can’t hide from your local newspaper because they have your phone number and they know where you live, and they will hold you to account for your decisions that affect their readerships.”
Labour MP Austin Mitchell said: “Nothing sells local newspapers better than good-quality journalism and the reporting of local issues and local people.”
Court cases, council meetings and local affairs would all go unreported if regional papers continued to go to the wall, MPs said during the debate.
Mr Griffiths said 200 newspapers, both dailies and weeklies, had shut down in the past decade as advertising and circulation revenues fell from £3.1 billion in 2004 to £1.6 billion in 2010.
But Britain’s 1,100 remaining local newspapers, employing some 30,000 people, are still read by 33 million people a week.
Newspapers have suffered from falling sales figures and dwindling advertising revenues thanks to the rise of the internet and a changing media environment.
“But newspapers can be local campaigning tools,” Mr Griffiths said, heaping praise on the Mail’s fights this year to reduce town centre knife crime and save the Margaret Stanhope psychiatric centre from closure.
“We have seen a plethora of campaigns that has galvanised the community in a way Facebook could not. If we lose that then our communities will have their voices diminished.
“Local papers are a repository of information.”
Mr Griffiths urged culture minister Ed Vaizey, who attended the debate, to investigate ways to ‘support, not subsidise’ local papers through Government advertising budgets.
“Twitter is hugely unreliable,” Mr Griffiths said. “Local newspapers are trusted in a way no other form of information is trusted.
“It is important for us to begin to re-examine how we support local newspapers so they can continue to hold us to account and be champions for the community.”
Helen Goodman, Labour’s shadow culture minister, said: “They hold to account democratic institutions and build local identities.”
Mr Vaizey said local newspapers faced a ‘perfect storm’ of falling revenues and a changing media landscape.
“It’s perfectly proper and valid for MPs and ministers to come together to discuss local papers’ futures to see what things can be done to make a difference,” he said.