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George Osborne vows to cut business rates to boost local press

Published 29/04/2016

Chancellor George Osborne has vowed to help the local press
Chancellor George Osborne has vowed to help the local press

George Osborne has vowed to cut business rates for local newspapers and potentially use the BBC's licence fee to protect the press.

The Chancellor used a speech at a Westminster dinner to voice support for the freedom of the press to hold to account local leaders being given greater powers under the Government's devolution agenda.

In a largely light-hearted speech, the Chancellor hinted at his own leadership ambitions and poked fun at rivals - noticeably Boris Johnson.

Addressing the Westminster Correspondents' Dinner, Mr Osborne promised extra support for the embattled local press.

He said: "If we are going to have powerful elected mayors, local decisions taken on everything from health to criminal justice then we do need strong local media to hold them to account.

"We need professional journalists present at those council meetings keeping tabs on what they are up to.

"As power is devolved out of Whitehall a dynamic, vibrant local media is more vital to our democracy than ever before."

He said he had worked with Culture Secretary John Whittingdale to work out a package of support.

"From next April we will be cutting business rates specifically for local newspaper offices and we are engaged in negotiations now with the BBC to see how we can use the licence fee to support local independent newsgathering."

He added: "The most basic journalistic endeavour, the search for a story, means there is no cause and no plea for justice that is forever without a voice."

The Chancellor, viewed as front runner in the race to succeed David Cameron as Tory leader, joked that he had "nothing against uncontested leadership elections" and took a series of swipes at Mr Johnson.

In a mocking reference to the London Mayor's attack on the "part-Kenyan" US President Barack Obama, Mr Osborne said: "As a part-Hungarian I feared you might think I had an ancestral dislike of a free press."

Referring to the kiss and tell stories told about both men by journalist and socialite Petronella Wyatt, who had what she described as an "amitie amoureuse" with Mr Johnson, he joked: "It turned out Petsy was not interested in serious politicians."

He told how Mr Johnson met George W Bush, then governor of Texas before he became president, while wearing a Che Guevara watch.

Mr Bush told him "Boris, in Texas we execute people who wear Che Guevara watches", the Chancellor said.

"Unfortunately it turned out Bush was bluffing."

The Chancellor poked fun at his own Budget problems and his weight loss on the 5:2 diet.

"After two out of every five budgets I eat my own words," he said.

It was not only Mr Johnson who was mocked by the Chancellor. As journalists gathered in Parliament's Members' Dining Room he said: "I doubt there's been a bigger collection of egos in one room since John Bercow dined here alone."

He also took a swipe at Brexit-backing Culture Secretary Mr Whittingdale, who has faced a string of lurid revelations about his private life.

Mr Osborne said: "The Canadian model, the Albanian model, the Ukrainian model - and that's just John Whittingdale's table."

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