HC Deb 23 July 1969 vol 787 cc2021-32

7.0 a.m.

Mr. Albert Murray (Gravesend)

I do not think I can be considered by the House as a critic of the Government, but I feel that some criticism can be levelled at them on the matter of the Press. This debate comes very relevantly at this time when we have just heard, this last week, that the Sun newspaper is to be closed on 1st January. The Sun is one of a long line of newspapers, daily, Sunday and national, which have suffered this fate since the end of the war. They include 40 dailies and Sundays all over the country, and they include national ones like the Sunday Dispatch, the Empire News, the Sunday Graphic, the Sunday Citizen, the News Chronicle, the Star. Those were all national papers. Almost 100 local newspapers have gone since 1948, and in addition many magazines of such quality as Picture Post, John Bull and the Leader have gone to the wall since 1948.

I am not concerned about the Sun in a political sense, although it has been a very good friend of the Labour Party under its previous banner of the Daily Herald. Under that banner it was the first newspaper in this country to reach sales of 2 million. I would be just as concerned if this fate happened to a newspaper which held political views different from mine and those of my party, because I think it is essential to have as many newspapers as possible to put forward as many different views as possible so that people can be helped to make right judgments. It has been proved, even though the Labour Party has not had many friends in the newspaper world, that in General Elections people have been able to judge issues uninfluenced in many ways by newspapers. So it is not in a narrow political sense that I am appealing to the Government to give some thought to the problems of the Press.

We in Britain are the world's leaders in terms of newspaper reading. According to the last U.N.E.S.C.O. survey, 50 per cent. of our people buy some newspaper or other, and in this respect we are in front of Sweden, which comes next, and way in front of the United States. So at this time we have a people who are devoted to newspapers. Only by giving consideration to possible Gov- ernment action can we ensure that that characteristic of ours will last.

The story, incidentally, is not one all of gloom. It has not been a story just of newspaper closures all the time. In certain areas there are still local newspapers springing up, though many of them are the products of large newspaper combines. We have in Kent the new Evening Post, the Chatham, Rochester and Gillingham Evening Post, which is one of the Kent Messenger group. It has been going a year and has already achieved a circulation of 22,000 per day. So the story is not all sad; there are little shafts of sunlight coming through in the newspaper world.

However, one of the problems since the end of the war has been the growing newspaper monopoly. Lord Thomson is the only person I know who when he says he is going out to buy a newspaper really means it, and since his advent on the newspaper scene he has purchased more and more newspapers, both national and local. We talk about having a free Press, but one of the problems is that that is in some sense mythical, because the Thomson empire, for instance, has more than 140 newspapers. How much freedom is there on a national newspaper like the Daily Mail —how much freedom for the editor? It has had eight editors since the end of the war. I am not certain that they left for any other reason than that they had not enough freedom always to say what they wanted to say.

The Daily Mirror talks in terms of "Publish and be damned". But it is a question of who is to publish and who is to be damned. When negotiations have been going on for the purchase of a newspaper the printing workers and those employed on the newspaper, the editors, journalists, and so on, have been part of an auction lot. Over their heads have been bids and counter bids, shareholders' meetings and all the rest, over what is fundamentally their livelihood. They have no say in the auction that is taking place.

The Government should be more concerned than they have been up to the present time to look at some of the newspaper empires. The International Publishing Corporation, whose newspaper sales are the largest of any group in the world, owns all the big-selling weeklies as well as a major portion of trade and technical weeklies and entertainment journals.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Sydney Irving)

I am in a little difficulty in deciding to what extent Ministerial responsibility is involved in the hon. Gentleman's remarks. Perhaps either the hon. Gentleman or the Minister can help me.

Mr. Murray

I was hoping to build up a picture of the newspaper industry and then point to where the Minister could intervene and where the Government have some responsibility. I appreciate it is a little difficult for you to keep me in order, Mr. Irving, but if I can build up the jigsaw I hope that the Government will be able to insert the final pieces.

The International Publishing Corporation not only has a large printing empire in this country, but has printing interests all over the world. It has individual publications in this country and owns newspapers like the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, the People, Women's Mirror, and a large number of trade and general periodicals such as Melody Maker, Colliery Engineering, Hairdressers' Journal, Amateur Gardening and a great host of others. The Thomson organisation is another large group which owns a wide range of newspapers all over the country; it has a large number of interests in Scotland and extensive Commonwealth interests.

Governments in the past have been responsible for setting up Royal Commissions on the Press. The last Royal Commission did not say very much at all. The Government certainly took no real action on it. What seemed to come out of it was that the trade unions were to be blamed for all the newspaper problems. What perhaps people have failed to realise is the work done by the trade union movement in the printing industry at all levels to encourage mergers between trade unions and co-operation between trade unions and management in respect of the Daily Mirror and The Guardian.

The Government should consider calling a conference of newspaper interests in the country. This is a matter in which we are all involved since we all want to see a wide-ranging free Press. The conference should be composed of newspaper proprietors, the trade unions, the editorial staffs, the journalists, television interests and the Government. They ought to examine the whole future of the newspaper industry. What could come out of such a conference are ideas as to how we can help to encourage a wider Press ownership.

Various organisations, including unions, and people such as Nicholas Kaldor have made some good suggestions for helping certain sections of the Press. One idea is the establishment of a public printing corporation, the facilities of which could be used for starting newspapers in areas which are not served by existing newspapers and by other interests wishing to establish newspapers.

It has been suggested that a levy could be introduced based on the amount of newsprint used, with the money going to help poorer sections of the industry. In other words, the larger, more prosperous newspapers could help their less wealthy counterparts. It may be suggested that such a public corporation would represent State interference, but would that be so? The Labour Government of 1945–51 nationalised the railways, but trains serve the whole country, not merely Labour constituencies. The electricity boards do not serve only known Labour voters. These organisations use public money and there is no reason why a public printing plant should have a bias.

Government advertising could help the less well-off sections of the Press. Considering that the Government advertise in the local and national Press and on television, I tabled a Question on 29th April, 1968, asking why no Government advertising had been displayed in the Morning Star in view of the need to give the maximum publicity to decimal coinage. I chose that newspaper because it had not received any Government advertising revenue and not because 1 am a lover of the paper, which has a circulation of 55,000. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury replied that normal practice was followed in placing Press advertising to secure the maximum value for money and that a large number of newspapers were inevitably excluded.

Government advertising is placed through agencies and I am not sure that that is the best way of doing it. There is no reason why readers of the Morning Star, who may not buy any other newspaper, should not be informed about, for example, new charges and increases, decimal coinage and social security benefits.

The Government should consider their advertising policy. It is obviously done on the basis of how many readers a newspaper has in the A.B.C. or D groups of the social scale. In 1968 the Sunday Times, with a circulation of 1. million received through an agency Government advertising amounting to £314,000. The People, and the News of the World, with a combined circulation of almost 12 million received less than £300,000. Plainly Government advertising is spread in an anomalous fashion. The idea is to see that as much information is given to as many people as possible.

Since 1954 we have had commercial television and the Government have taken advantage of this. On 6th March, 1969, I asked for the amounts spent by the Government on advertising on BBC 1, BBC 2 and ITV in 1969. The answer was that there had been no advertising on BBC 1 or BBC 2 and that the cost of advertising time bought on ITV was £976,335. This is a lot of money, and an argument could be made for using it against competitors of a public corporation. The Government have to think seriously about their advertising operations. Is money being spent wisely?

Mr. Hugh Cudlipp, Chairman of I.P.C., gave the Granada Lecture at the Guildhall on 31st October, 1967. The subject of his lecture was "The mass communication jungle". In that lecture he said: I see no prudent alternative to the law of the jungle, the survival of the fittest of the particular species. He is entitled to say that because in that jungle the Government are providing him with a large number of coconuts. Government advertising in the Daily Mirror amounted to £488,888 last year—the largest sum of Government money devoted to one newspaper. It is all right for Mr. Hugh Cudlipp to talk of living in the jungle when he is doing as well as that. Talking of newspapers and what the Government should or should not do —mainly what they should not do—he said:

Another idea frequently aired is a Government subsidy on newsprint; yet another notion"— and this, I think, is one of the most sinister of all: is that official Government advertising should be channelled to the weaker publications. That is an interesting thought. He can afford to say these things. It is easy for him to talk about the law of the jungle and say that the Government ought to channel advertising into the weaker publications because he is head of a newspaper and printing empire getting almost £500,000 a year in Government advertising.

I have presented a case which I suggest that the Government should consider in terms of what they can do about the Press in this country. Much as hon. Members on both sides of the House may disagree with the Press on occasions, we need to keep it as wide as possible. It cannot be better summed up than in a speech made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on 3rd January, 1967, when presenting the awards made by the Granada television programme "What the Papers Say". He said: I start from the doctrine that in a free and democratic country such as ours, the British need, and are entitled to demand, a free Press representing every point of view, however poisonous any one of us might feel certain of those views—or the expression of them may be. With the news last week about the closure of the Sun, my right hon. Friend's statement is more relevant than ever. I hope that my hon. Friend will take note of that and that we may get some action from the Government on this serious problem.

7.23 a.m.

The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. Edmund Dell)

My hon. Friend has raised a most interesting and important subject—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman requires the leave of the House to speak a second time.

Mr. Dell

I apologise. I ask the leave of the House to speak again on Second Reading of the Consolidation Fund Bill.

My hon. Friend has raised a most important subject. It is always a matter for concern when a newspaper fails and a substantial readership loses its preferred paper.

One tragedy of the newspaper situation is that in many parts of the world larger readerships than appear to be necessary seem to be unable, in certain circumstances, to sustain the newspaper which they prefer. The difficulty is that newspapers are no longer an expanding industry. Newsprint and other costs have risen; there is competition from television advertising which has its impact on the mass circulation of papers; and there are evidently significant economies in newspaper production on a scale which place the lower circulation newspapers in a less competitive position.

What can be done about it? What could the Government do about it? First, despite the specific closure to which my hon. Friend referred, there has been no approach to the Government from the industry for assistance.

One can see reasons why the industry should not approach the Government for assistance. There is a need to keep this industry free from Government control. As my hon. Friend said, we must have a free and independent Press, and I thought that one of the weaker points in his argument was when he appeared to compare the newspaper industry with British Railways. British Railways—I hope that my hon. Friend is right—do not carry only Labour supporters, but there is some difference between British Railways and the newspaper industry. The latter is concerned with the carriage, not of persons, but of opinions, particularly political opinions, and it is essential that this industry should be free of Government control.

Many suggestions are made—and my hon. Friend made some this morning—about the way in which the Government can help industry. One group of suggestions amounts to saying that the Government should provide financial assistance, at any rate to the weaker sections of industry. For example, one of the ways in which the Government could provide some financial assistance—whether it would be enough to sustain particular newspapers in need is a different question—would be to direct their advertising other than on commercial grounds. All I say about that is that the Royal Commission on the Press in 1961 and 1962 recommended no change in the procedure for placing Government advertisements.

Second, in placing advertisements the Government are attempting, as no doubt other advertisers are attempting, to secure a certain public effect. If one diverts advertising revenue from one newspaper to another to assist the latter, this presumably involves, if the commercial judgment of the agents is right, some reduction in the effect, and this would have to be made up by restoring the amount of money taken from the main channels of advertising. In other words, either we would have a lesser effect, or more public expenditure. This would simply be a way of providing Government money to assist weak newspapers, and there does not seem to be, in principle, any more reason why one should do that, if one is going to do it via a redistribution of advertising, than by simply providing the additional money.

Another way in which it has been suggested that this could be done is by a system of levies. These levies perhaps could operate on the commercial advertising obtained by newspapers, and there could be some system of redistribution possibly added to by the Government. Another suggestion is that the Government should set up a type of institution similar to the University Grants Committee which receives Government money but which distributes that money independently in accordance with criteria which it establishes. A final example of the way in which the Government could assist by providing additional financial resources is through the medium of a newsprint subsidy.

All those methods are certainly technically available for the Government to provide additional money. The difficulty is, first, the point about maintaining an independent Press free of Government control. Second, even if that can be got over, for example through the instrumentation of a body like the U.G.C., on what criteria should one operate? Take the example of a weak newspaper with a declining circulation. At what point should this independent body decide that it has to shut off its assistance because there is no longer any real possibility of saving that newspaper? If it does shut it off, it will certainly in appearance be the body that is killing the newspaper, but if it is prepared to take that responsibility according to what criteria will it operate? Would the subsidy go to all newspapers or just to those in need?

My hon. Friend referred to Lord Thomson and said that when he goes out to buy a newspaper he really means to do just that. Presumably he would not wish the subsidy to go to those newspaper organisations well in the van. Therefore an act of discrimination would be needed. On what principles would that act of discrimination be based? Would it involve subsidising inefficient organisations which could do a great deal more to help themselves? Would it have to be associated with an efficiency audit to ensure that that was not taking place? I thought that on this point the Observer last Sunday, referring to the Sun, had something very relevant to say. It said in an editorial: The trouble about a subsidy is that if it were given indiscriminately to all papers, it would result in the politically impossible position that the taxpayers would be paying out money to the already wealthy Thomson group in order to keep the ailing 'Sun' going. Whereas if it did discriminate, it would inevitably incur the change of unfair competition. The fact is that newspapers, like the theatre, must attract and hold their patrons. On all these proposals, which in essence are proposals for providing Government money to assist, at any rate the ailing sections of the Press, I can only repeat what my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea. North (Mr. Jay) said in the debate in this House on 8th February, 1967: The Government will study these and other proposals. …But … I see the most formidable difficulties …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th February, 1967; Vol. 740, c. 1670.] I certainly see those formidable difficulties, as formidable today as they were when my right hon. Friend spoke those words.

Mr. Eric Moorman (Billericay)

My hon. Friend talks about the obvious difficulties. I apologise for not hearing his opening remarks, but I understand that he has not yet covered the particular instance with reference to the Sun in which Edward Pickering, Chairman of I.P.C. told me that the loss incurred by the Sun was of the order of £1 million to nearly £3 million a year. Could not this be cured through the direct Government intervention recommended by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Mr. Murray)? Either these losses are absurd or monstrous.

Mr. Dell

As you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, pointed out, this debate must be concerned with matters of Ministerial responsibility. My hon. Friend refers to losses being made by a particular newspaper and suggests that the Government can intervene in some way to prevent those losses perhaps through improving efficiency of management or in some other way. I cannot accept that it is a responsibility of the Government in intervene in the particular circumstances of a particular newspaper which my hon. Friend suggests is being run inefficiently, any more than it is a specific responsibility for the Government to do this generally. The Government can and do encourage in every way they can organisations of every sort in this country to run themselves with greater efficiency, but I can hardly see that my hon. Friend's comment involves ministerial responsibility.

Other ways in which, it has been suggested, the situation of newspapers might be improved involve the newspapers themselves doing more to improve their own levels of efficiency, for example in respect of their production costs. There is much evidence that the cost of the production of particular newspapers—perhaps of all newspapers—could be significantly reduced if there were more efficient use of labour. Whether this would be decisive in regard to the final success or failure of a particular newspaper probably depends on the situation of that newspaper.

I note that all the printing unions have ratified the 1968 productivity agreement made between the N.P.A. and the printing unions and that negotiations are in train at house and chapel level for effecting economies to improve efficiency. I hope that these negotiations go forward and are successful. If they are, obviously it will improve the efficiency and the economic situation of all the newspapers which benefit from the negotiations.

Another proposal which has been made to assist newspapers is that they should increase prices. One of the problems, it is argued, is that the newspapers in this country are too dependent on advertising and that they are sold too far below the cost of production. The difficulty is that unless everyone increases prices there will be a transfer of circulatiol—at any rate for newspapers which are not the Financial Times!—and that it might be in the interests of newspapers with high circulations to keep prices down as far as possible because it would help their competitive situation.

I can make no comment on the problems of the Sun. Discussions are going on and I hope that they are successful. My hon. Friend proposed a conference of newspaper interests in this country, including television interests, to look at the future of the newspaper industry. He hoped that such a conference would provide ideas on how to promote a stronger Press and he suggested that one idea which might come out of such a conference might be the setting up of a public printing corporation.

Many suggestions have been made in the House recently and over a longer period for further inquiries into the situation in the newspaper industry. The difficulty is that there have been many inquiries and it is hard to see which ideas for assisting the newspaper industry there are which have not already been examined and what further information could be obtained from such an inquiry. There has been the Royal Commissions on the Press of 1947–49 and 1961–62, the Economist Intelligence Unit Survey of 1966 and the National Board for Prices and Incomes Report on the Costs and Revenue of National Daily Newspapers of October 1967. I do not think that all these documents, together with the immense amount of public discussion on the subject, including debates in the House, have left many aspects of the problem or many possibilities unrevealed. One trouble with such an inquiry might be that it would have the effect of delaying such action as the newspaper industry can itself take to improve its own efficiency. However, although at the moment the Government see no purpose in such an inquiry, we would not shut the door on the idea of a further inquiry if further evidence accrued that it was necessary and could be productive.

As my hon. Friend said, there are more helpful signs. It is not all a sad story. There has been the recent increase in the circulation of the quality newspapers, the survival of local and provincial newspapers and the creation of new papers. No doubt the survival of these local and provincial newspapers will continue as long as they are not threatened by local commercial radio which would certainly do them some harm. We must continue to watch the situation with concern, but without at this stage active intervention.

Mr. Moonman

Before my hon. Friend sits down, may I ask him what simple phrase he would suggest that we as members of the Labour Party should use to explain to management committees all over the country why the Government role is one of caution and concern? Does he feel that it is sufficient to say that the Government is not sufficiently aware of the feeling because another newspaper is disappearing and—let us be frank—that it happens to be a Labour paper. Caution and his other phrase will not meet that anxiety. We want something a little more positive before we leave this debate.

Mr. Dell

I was sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Moonman) was not here at the beginning of this debate and so was unable to make the excellent contribution he would have made if he had been here then. Unfortunately he was not able to develop his argument and I have not been able to listen to it and reply to it as I otherwise would have. On the matter of how he can explain the Government's lack of caution on the disappearance of newspapers and of a particular one with Labour sympathies. I would say that the best thing in my experience is to explain exactly what the situation is and the difficulties and dangers of Government intervention. This is much better than pretending that there are solutions which he has not had the opportunity of presenting to the House this morning. No solutions have yet emerged. I said that if there were any new information which an inquiry might reveal, or any new ideas an inquiry might examine, we could consider setting up an inquiry. I see no such new ideas or information.