Regional press representatives have called on local media mergers to be made easier at a House of Lords committee.
Newspaper Society president Adrian Jeakings, who is chief executive of Archant, Johnston Press chief executive Ashley Highfield and Geraldine Allinson, chairman of the KM Group, gave evidence on Tuesday to the Lords Communications Committee.
The committee is considering media plurality and the regional press representatives argued that local papers should be excluded from plans by regulator Ofcom to periodically review ownership in the industry.
Ofcom is planning to carry out a review every four or five years looking at the UK media as a whole with regard to plurality and the regulator has recommended that regional media be exempted from this.
At the hearing, Geraldine spoke about the attempted sale by Northcliffe Media of seven weekly newspapers to the KM Group in 2011, which was aborted after its referral to the Competition Commission, causing the closure of certain newspapers.
Speaking about the Office of Fair Trading’s attitude towards local media mergers, she said: “It appears to me that they are still defining local media as a very narrow definition.
“I personally don’t believe they have broadened the way they look at this in terms of local media.”
She said the OFT appeared to believe that “it’s dangerous to have a monopoly in a certain area within the very closely defined newspaper print sector”, adding that she would question whether it was relevant for the OFT to look into this.
The regional press representatives said if the government wished to help local newspapers, it could encourage its own advertising partnerships with the them, encourage the BBC to explore mutually beneficial local arrangements and improve competition authorities’ current approach to media mergers.
He said: “There is a huge amount of time and effort taken up with any sort of review by the government body and to be included in one would be a major distraction and since Ofcom themselves feel we should be excluded, we are very happy to go along with that.”
He argued that local papers were completely different to the national press and while the industry had been through difficult times, he believed it had a “strong future”.
Added Adrian: “It is totally inconceivable that the owners (of Archant) could interfere with the news agendas of any of those titles. I understand the national argument completely, but it is very, very different to our business.”
The House of Lords committee is looking at concerns about media concentration and also the commercial sustainability of journalism as part of its inquiry, which aims to ensure no company or individual has too much influence.