Louise Mensch at the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee hearings last year
Members of Parliament have praised local newspapers in a debate called by Conservative MP Louise Mensch on the future of the local press.
Mensch, MP for Corby and East Northamptonshire, said local newspapers performed an irreplaceable function in our democracy by holding incumbent MPs and councils to account.
She called for the government to consider financially supporting the local press, either directly through subsidies or indirectly in a method similar to how the BBC licence fee will be used to support independent local television stations.
She said: "If the local press continues to decline the greatest winners will be incumbent politicians. Local democracy is served by allowing opponents to promote their campaigns.
"When we look at narrow interests which are subsidised by government and indirect subsidy, I think we need to ask ourselves whether level playing field for local press is something we wish to support.”
Mensch called the debate after learning of plans by Johnston Press to make two Northamptonshire daily newspapers weekly.
The NUJ have welcomed Mensch's proposals. In a statement released before the debate, Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said:
"Our local newspapers are a community asset that should be cherished. The cuts mean that court cases are not being covered, council meetings are not reported and reporters have no time to dig and delve for stories.
"This is not the service that readers deserve. All this means that community and grassroots news has suffered.
"An industry levy – a tax or charge on the revenues or profits of media organisations – common in many European countries is one option to provide subsidies elsewhere in the industry.
"A levy of one per cent on pay TV operators, such as Sky and Virgin Media, could bring in around £70 million a year.”
MPs also expressed concern about the threat posed to local newspapers by council-owned freesheets and government proposals that traffic orders would no longer have to be printed in local newspapers, which they estimate would save councils £20 million a year.
A recent Newspaper Society poll revealed two thirds of people are concerned about the proposed changes to the publishing of traffic orders and 79 per cent expected their local paper to inform them of any traffic changes.
Responding on behalf of the government, the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries Ed Vaizey said councils had been issued with statutory guidance limiting the number of freesheets they can print.
He added that the Minister for Transport had met with representatives from newspaper groups to hear their input on the printing of traffic orders in the local press.
Mr Vaizey said: "I think one of the things we should recognise is that local papers take their responsibilities very seriously. There is passionate support in this house and amongst local communities for the local press.
"I will happily organise a series of meetings with heads of regional media organisations if honourable members will find it helpful."