Local newspaper editors raise new fears after Leveson

Lord Justice Leveson Image copyright PA
Image caption Lord Justice Leveson is to appear before MPs examining the future of press regulation

Local newspapers were fighting for their very lives even before Lord Leveson set out his recommendations for press regulation in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal.

The internet has not only deprived them of readers because of the rival attractions of local micro blogs, social networking sites and community e-journalists, it has also hit their once-lucrative classified ads.

Stoke-on-Trent is an area with a particularly powerful sense of its own identity. But even here, the circulation of the daily paper The Sentinel has plunged by almost half in 10 years: from an average daily readership of 78,878 in 2002 to 43,814 in 2012, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

It's a similar story for local papers right across our region.

So the possibility that Leveson could have a disproportionately heavy impact on them is just about the last thing the industry needs.

What is more, our local thunderers were largely innocent of the high-profile transgressions that dragged some of the national tabloids into disrepute.

'Equally frightening'

Lord Leveson himself said: "Although accuracy and similar complaints are made against local newspapers, the criticisms of culture, practices and ethics of the press in this inquiry do not affect them. On the contrary, they have been much praised."

And yet, local newspapers would be no less subject than their national counterparts to scrutiny by the independent regulator proposed by the government after Leveson, which would have powers to impose fines of up to £1m.

So far, the debate has focused almost exclusively on the conduct and freedom of the national press. But in a recent editorial The Sentinel warned: "The fact that the new regulation may well bring expensive adjudication panels and time-consuming third-party complaints is equally frightening.

"In his infamous report last November, Lord Leveson wrote warmly about the important role local papers play at the heart of their communities. Unfortunately there appears to be little sign of fine actions to match the noble lord's fine words."

We'll have more on this in this weekend's Sunday Politics from 11:00 on BBC One Midlands on Sunday 7 July 2013.

Our BBC Stoke political reporter Phil McCann will be hearing the conflicting opinions of Richard Bowyer, the editor of The Sentinel, and Natalie Fenton from Hacked Off, whose campaign continues to exert a strong influence over public opinion - they say papers who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear.

In a world full of unintended consequences, let's leave the last word about local papers with Lord Leveson himself.

"Their demise would be a huge setback for communities [where they report on local politics, occurrences in the local courts, local sports and the like] and would be a real loss to our democracy."