In full: Theresa May's speech to the Society of Editors

In full: Theresa May's speech to the Society of Editors

James Preston

In full: Theresa May's speech to the Society of Editors

On Monday, Maidenhead MP Theresa May gave a key note address on the challenges faced by the print media at the Society of Editors conference in London. She warned of the dominant position of the BBC on the internet and praised the Maidenhead Advertiser as a shining example of local journalism. Read a full transcript of the speech below.

I don’t need to tell anyone sitting in this room that the print media are facing extremely difficult times.

I want to start by pointing out that the most serious problems newspapers face today are not primarily the result of alleged journalistic malpractice. They're the result of sales falling and advertising disappearing. The arrival of the internet caused a revolution in the way people access information. The eventual consequences of that revolution for the print media are not yet certain – but plenty of the people who are paid to predict trends think they are certainly going to be very bad.

You will all be much more aware than I am of the sombre predictions that newspapers are soon going to go extinct, at least in the form where they are printed on paper - and they may find it hard to survive on screen. Young people, it is said, are not prepared to pay for news and won't read it except on a computer. The market for newspapers, according to this argument, is going to shrink drastically and will eventually disappear altogether.

It won't be much comfort to you I suspect, but I don't fully accept those pessimistic predictions. I remember when something similar was predicted for cinemas: it was confidently asserted that cinemas would not survive competition from television; then when they survived TV, it was claimed that they would be killed by videos; after they survived video rentals, DVDs were going to deliver the death blow. Today, the latest claim is that cinemas will be finished off by services such as Netflix that allow you to stream films directly on to your computer screen.

But cinemas are still with us – and they are doing well. Cinema-going has stopped declining: it has even increased over the past decade. Indeed, according to the British Film Institute, over 172 million cinema tickets were sold in the UK last year, generating over a billion pounds worth of revenue.

I believe newspapers, like cinemas, will survive the onslaught from new technologies that some people claim will make them redundant. I certainly hope they will survive. But the newspaper industry that eventually emerges will no doubt be different from the one we have today.

The migration of advertising to the internet continues to wreak havoc on newspaper finances. As I said earlier, it is true that young people get their news from television and the internet. As they age they may continue to do so, but no one knows whether they will grow into reading and even paying for newspapers as people’s tastes change.

And what we mean by paying for newspapers is likely to change too. Lots of people are already paying for news on their computers, tablets and smart phones. We might not be far away from newspapers ceasing to print their products and instead publishing their entire content online – with readers paying to access it and not just getting it for free.

Of course, I understand that this argument doesn't make it any easier for the newspapers that are struggling financially now. As many people in this room will know only too well.

Local newspapers are having a particularly hard time. That has partly been the result of the BBC's dominant position on the internet, and its ability to subsidise the provision of internet news using the licence fee. This makes it enormously difficult for local newspapers to compete. If the BBC can, as they do, provide all the locally significant news, what is left to motivate the local reader to buy a paper?

It is destroying local newspapers and it could eventually happen to national newspapers as well.

This is as dangerous for local politics as it is for local journalism.

I have had a number of conversations with both the editor and managing director of my main local newspaper, the Maidenhead Advertiser, about the impact of the BBC locally and the importance of keeping an alternative local news source.

As a local MP I value the ability to raise issues in my local newspaper but also its role in disseminating information about what I and local councillors are doing in the area.

The “Tiser”, as it has long been known, is very influential locally and fiercely independent. People read it because it tells them what is happening in their locality and it would be a sad day if the might of the BBC affected its availability.

This is a debate that won’t go away and I believe that the BBC has to think carefully about its presence locally and the impact that has on local democracy.

I don’t want to sound too gloomy though. Things are challenging, yes. But the people in this room love their profession and I am in no doubt that you will be enterprising in your plight to save it.  And I think that newspapers will survive and prosper in spite of, and maybe even because of, the internet. As I say, there are plenty who predict otherwise.. But I think it would be very difficult if I'm wrong and the experts turn out to be correct. Why? Because a plurality of sources of news is essential to our democracy.

I’m trying to imagine what it would be like if there were only one source of news in this country. The image that immediately comes to mind is Orwell's novel '1984', which describes one version of that distopian future – one that sees it combined with total state domination of everything. And that indeed is how, in fact, rather than in fiction, it has usually worked: total state control of the media has gone along with total state control of almost everything else.

But a take-over by the state is not the only process that can result in a monopoly on the provision of news. If newspapers are forced to close down, we could see the operation of the market inadvertently creating such monopolies – so it is not inconceivable that economics could bring about the disappearance of every source of news but one. Certainly, at a national level we have a healthy number of competing newspapers in Britain, and that is something we surely don’t want to lose.

The result would not be the nightmare of ‘1984’ – but it would still be awful. A monopoly on the provision of information would be a perennial temptation to malpractice, inefficiency and corruption, in exactly the same way as almost every other kind of monopoly is. No single source of news can possibly represent the variety of opinion that there is in this country. A monopoly news provider would be far too easily captured by special interests.

Competition in the provision of news is essential to democracy, and diminution in competition is dangerous to the health of democratic politics. That is why it is important that the internet does not have the effect of making a plurality of newspapers commercially impossible in Britain.

I believe passionately in the value of a vigorous and competitive newspaper industry. Newspapers have made many major contributions to exposing injustice, from WT Stead reporting on child prostitution over a hundred years ago, to The Sunday Times' exposure of Thalidomide in the 1970s, to the crucial help journalists gave to the police that enabled Ian Huntley to be identified as the murderer of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells.

Local newspapers have a distinguished record here too. It was, for instance, the Bradford Telegraph and Argus that first uncovered the scandal of local government corruption that came to be known as the Poulson Affair – uncomfortable though that was for a Home Secretary. And many local newspapers today do an excellent job of scrutinising local government and holding it to account.

Newspapers don’t always get hold of stories that turn out to be as significant as those I’ve just mentioned. In many ways, more important than the exceptional exposes is the daily debate and exchange of ideas that is made possible by a varied and vigorous free press.

Newspapers have an important role in informing the public and politicians. They are not the only source of information for politicians about what the public thinks – we meet the voters on the doorstep, among other places. But they are a highly significant one. They have reflected public concern on many important matters such as, in my own area of concern, immigration and crime. Newspapers reflect public opinion on these issues and rightly report on what the Government is doing about them. Or indeed, what Government might not be doing about them.

Newspapers do not have a single voice on these matters any more than the public or politicians do. The quality of any debate relies on many voices and opinions based on a variety of different experiences, but the media, and particularly newspapers, are critical.

And in my experience, holding the Government to account is what most of the media tries to do – and it is this transparency that is so crucial in upholding and improving standards of government and public life. Of course, in doing so the media have a duty to act responsibly. One of the impacts of 24 hour broadcasting is that to capture attention the print media have had to increasingly sensationalise their product. And this mixed audience might want to reflect on why people are often more willing to believe local and regional papers rather than the national press.

Newspapers often get attacked for “crude populism” when they reflect public concern, especially on certain issues. And some parts of the media are not beyond criticising politicians for being ‘too populist’ on occasion.

This has always seemed to me to be a bizarre criticism. In a democracy, the people’s opinion on the issues of the day matters most. I get frustrated with liberal elites who think they know best; that the public is somehow not equipped to have an opinion of its own. I vehemently disagree with this. In my experience as a politician I always find that the public understand precisely what the issue is and what they would like done about it.

The use of the word ‘populist’ is clearly meant to be derogatory, however, I am perfectly happy to be described as such if it means I am doing my job properly as an elected representative which is, to be very clear, listening to what the public have to say.  Of course, listening does not mean always acting accordingly. As Burke said, what an MP owes the voters is their best judgement.

But when someone calls an opinion “populist”, all they really say is that it is popular – and they do not like it.

This is not an argument against it, still less it is an argument against reporting it. 

Of course wrong or confused views can be popular. But so can sensible and rational ones. In my view, it is essential that newspapers reflect popular opinion – and some would be committing commercial suicide if they did not. Having newspapers that represent popular opinion is part of democratic government. Denigrating them as “populist” for giving voice to opinions that lots of people hold is often merely an expression of prejudice against popular opinion.

I do not want to pretend that everything in newspapers promotes democracy. Manifestly, not all of it does. Some of it is simply entertainment. But I am sure that beyond entertainment and gossip, the public still also wants to have information on how politicians and public officials do their jobs and how they spend public money.

That is why Eric Pickles, the Local Government Secretary - building on an act that Margaret Thatcher introduced which established the public’s right to attend council meetings - has insisted that local government officials have to open up further, and stop threatening to arrest people for trying to film or blog about local council meetings.

I recognise that the most important issue for people in this audience today is the cross-party proposal for a new regulatory system, backed by a Royal Charter.

Let me start by saying what I said to Lord Justice Leveson during his inquiry. I believe whole-heartedly in a free press. I have argued today that a free press is vital if we are to confidently claim to live in a democracy.

I know that practically every journalist has a visceral distrust of allowing any system which could lead – innocently or otherwise – to what amounted to censoring the press. That is an understandable anxiety, and one I share. There is cross-party agreement for a Royal Charter and I genuinely believe most politicians – indeed the vast majority – have no wish whatsoever to censor the press. Far from it. What we are all engaged in – newspapers, politicians and the public, is trying to protect press freedom. People will disagree about how best to do that. But I think we can all agree on the importance of the debate and its outcome.

I understand how difficult this debate is and what it would mean for your industry if this system hindered your uphill battle for circulation and advertising. I sincerely hope that if we can try to trust one another we can make it work.

I want to celebrate the freedom of the press, not to emphasise the need – unavoidable though it is – to place restrictions on what it can publish. For there can be no doubt that the basic rights of liberal society and democratic freedoms depend on the role the press has in the dissemination of truth. As the American Supreme Court Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes said: “The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”

A free press is a critical element of the competitive market in ideas. It is the one process humankind has so far discovered that results in truth being widely disseminated. And that is extraordinarily valuable for our society. 

I am convinced that newspapers will continue to perform that critical role in the future. And I am profoundly relieved that they shall – for a future without a diversity of newspapers is much, much grimmer than the alternative. So please, everyone here: Keep at it!

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