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Minister: Odds of more government cash for regional press ‘pretty bleak’

John WhittingdaleThe chances of the regional press getting more government funding following the coronavirus crisis are “pretty bleak”, editors have been warned.

John Whittingdale, Minister of State for Media and Data, has told the Society of Editors Virtual Conference that the Treasury will require “a lot of convincing” to provide further financial support for the industry, either directly or through tax relief.

But Mr Whittingdale, pictured, pledged to “continue to make that case” and touted a possible expansion of the BBC local democracy reporter scheme as a way to aid the sector financially.

In a keynote discussion broadcast this lunchtime, SoE executive director Ian Murray quizzed the Conservative MP on whether he could envisage further support the regional press coming out of the pandemic, including possible tax relief.

Mr Whittingdale replied: “That’s something which I’ve talked to the [News Media Association] about and to individual publishers, maybe to perhaps build on the local democracy initiative in some way.

“The difficulty we face is that you will have heard [Chancellor] Rishi Sunak this week talking about the state of the public finances as a result of the interventions that have had to be made, so I think the Treasury is going to require a lot of convincing because there isn’t really much money left.

“That’s not say that we won’t continue to have those conversations and if there are interventions particularly around tax relief, which is an interesting suggestion, we will continue to make that case.

“But we have to accept that the wider picture at the moment is a pretty bleak one in terms of the likelihood of getting public finance, either directly or through tax relief.”

On Friday the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport revealed its intention to create a Digital Markets Unit that will govern the commercial relationship that platforms such as Facebook and Google have with publishers, following the publication of a report produced by the Competition and Markets Authority earlier this year.

Facebook also announced further investment in the regional press this morning, including plans to pay some regional publishers for their content from next month.

Ian went on to challenge the government’s position of putting “great store” in the role of the press, saying it would be “somewhat of an irony” if sections of the sector were allowed to “wither away and die” without further support.

In response, Mr Whittingdale said: “Absolutely, and I’m determined that shouldn’t happen. What, on the other hand, I think we have to accept is that the industry is changing.

“Quite apart from the Covid crisis, the transition to digital is inexorable.

“It’s actually been accelerated by the events of the last few months, with people are living their lives online in a way they weren’t before, but the industry is making progress in building up digital revenues.

“That’s why I think the CMA report is so absolutely critical because the more that people rely on online distribution of news, we need to make sure that the economics work, both in terms of advertising revenue and of course in terms of subscription.

“Obviously there are different models for that and the industry is exploring different ways in which that might work.”

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