Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) on obtaining a debate on an extraordinarily important issue. There is no doubt that local newspapers face a crisis, which is why the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport is conducting an inquiry into the future of local and regional media and why we have received a lot of evidence. In our first session, Claire Enders, who is one of the most respected industry analysts, told us that half the country's 1,300 local newspapers will be out of business within five years. We then heard from the chief executives of Johnston Press, Trinity Mirror and the Guardian Media Group, all of whom agreed that the crisis is the greatest that the industry has faced.

This is not just a UK problem, but an international one. I have with me a chart showing the number of people employed in newspaper publishing in America. In 1947, the figure stood at about 240,000 and it grew steadily until about 1992. It peaked at 460,000, but in the 15 years since then it has fallen to 260,000, and it is still plummeting. All of us know of local papers from around the country that have closed, but even where papers have not closed, their offices on the high street are being shut, the number of journalists is falling and the number of photographers is no longer the same. As a result, the quality of local coverage is diminishing.

The first question to address is whether that matters. When the Minister gave evidence to the Committee a few weeks ago, he rightly pointed to the quality of some online content. I think that he mentioned a website called Pits n Pots.However, it was pointed out to the Committee that the media industry is a pyramid, with local newspapers at the bottom, forming the base or the widest part. Much of the journalistic investigation and news content that filters up to the nationals, to radio and even to television and the BBC starts with investigations carried out by local newspapers. Furthermore, online provision is largely parasitic. That is a slightly emotive word, but how many journalists does Google employ? Most such sites reproduce content from local newspapers. If we lose those newspapers, the bottom of the pyramid will be removed. I agree with all that has been said about how important it is for democracy and local accountability that local newspapers survive.

Simon Hughes: One point that we have not mentioned, and which I am keen that we should, is that local newspapers also do local court reporting. If we did not have that, the only court reports would be about celebrities appearing in court. Promoting an orderly society often involves people realising that others who live on their doorstep, on their estate or on their street might be held to account and punished for what they do. People can then comment on the punishment and on whether it works.

Mr. Whittingdale: I very much agree and I will mention that issue briefly in a second.

However, we need to look at why these things have happened. The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) is right that the principal cause of the problem is the growth of the internet. That growth has come at the same time as a recession, which has led to a reduction in overall advertising spending. However, this is not just about the recession; there is a migration of eyeballs and advertising expenditure away from traditional media and towards online provision. To cite one example, the value of regional newspaper advertising fell from £2.8 billion to £2 billion between 2002 and 2008. At the same time, the value of internet advertising grew from £0.2 billion to £2.8 billion in real terms. As a result, local newspapers are in a double squeeze and are seeing their advertising revenue fall, with all the consequences that have been described.

In the brief time available I shall focus on one or two things that we might do to address the problem. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam is right: local authority newspapers are not helping. There is undoubtedly competition-some might say unfair competition-from many local authority newspapers. Authorities no longer place advertisements in local newspapers, with the result that newspaper revenues are declining. At the same time, local authority newspapers are taking advertising revenue. The Committee had some concern about that when we took evidence, and it may be necessary to take action.

However, there are other elements in the problem. The present crisis faces not only local newspapers, but local radio and regional television. The Government have come up with the interesting idea of using part of the licence fee to fund independently financed news consortiums, and that might help local newspapers, which could play a significant part in such consortiums if they go ahead.

We could also do something about the competition regime. The Committee was told to expect that almost every area of the country would be served by just one local newspaper in the future. That should not necessarily worry us, because there is competition from a lot of different sources, so it is not a case of allowing a monopoly to develop. We need to look at the competition rules again to take account of alternative news provision.

Interesting experiments are taking place with paid-for online content. Like the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, I will watch with great interest how News International gets on if it seeks to impose pay walls on its content. There are two villains in the piece, particularly in this country. The first is Google, which aggregates content and allows consumers to bypass pay walls. Google's UK managing director assured us that Google was a beneficial influence and that it strongly supported local newspapers. If that is the case, it needs to do more, although it has begun to take steps to address the problem.

The other villain is the BBC. As long as it provides online content for nothing, it will be difficult for local newspapers or, indeed, any news organisations to charge for content. I am not necessarily suggesting that the BBC should charge for all its online content, but the current situation is an obstacle, which will make things hard for other providers.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that another way forward might be to enable the BBC to go ahead with its original plans for local websites, but to populate them with news gathered by local newspaper and radio reporters, who would then be paid for their work?

Mr. Whittingdale: Like me, the hon. Gentleman will remember local newspapers' fury at the suggestion that the BBC should provide local news. He might be right, but such an arrangement would be regarded with huge suspicion. It was suggested at the time that the BBC would use material gathered by local newspapers, but the proportion was likely to be small. The local newspaper industry is likely to regard such an arrangement more as a threat than an opportunity. However, it may be that we should at least consider it.

I am conscious of the number of people who want to speak, so I want to raise one final point. I do not fully share the view of the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, who mentioned the interesting principle of public service reporting. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) mentioned the court service, which is just one example. It is terribly important that we know what is going on in our courts, health authorities, police authorities and local councils-in all the various institutions that underpin local government and local democracy. The truth is that local newspapers no longer cover those things. We no longer see someone from the local paper sitting in the corner at every meeting of the local council or its sub-committees or in meetings of the health authority. That coverage is disappearing from local newspapers, and we should at least consider whether there is a case for public service reporting to be made available to anybody who wishes to carry it, be that local newspapers, local radio or local TV.

Similarly, we no longer have every newspaper represented in the Gallery of the House of Commons. Papers rely on the Press Association to supply them with independent and objective content and to tip them off if anything dramatic happens in the Chamber. There may be a case for considering whether the same kind of service should be extended to local council chambers and the other local institutions that are so important. How that would be financed is a matter for debate. There is a case for it to receive public support, and if so the licence fee is an obvious source. We need to have that debate. I agree with the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam that if we allow local newspapers to continue to close and to withdraw from their terribly important local role in sustaining our democracy, we shall all suffer.