THE Prime Minister has commended the free press as the “backbone of this country’s democracy.”

Theresa May addressed the media from across the country directly at the Regions and Nations Lobby at Downing Street, attended by The Echo’s editor-in-chief, Chris Hatton on Thursday.

She said: “We all know that free, plural and vibrant media is the backbone of this country’s democracy.

“This is a belief that I and the Government hold very strongly.

“Your coverage, be it in print or broadcast, is a reflection of the rich diversity of the views that can be found right across the United Kingdom.

“I think it is true to say, regional and local media is fearless. It is independent and we are committed to safeguarding its future.”

The Echo regularly covers serious issues in our community, ensuring authorities and organisations in south Essex are held to account.

In February, The Echo launched a campaign in the hope of saving Basildon Town Centre’s Marks and Spencer.

The ‘Save our M&S’ petition received a huge amount of support, with a total of 3,942 signing to maintain the store.

In March, an Echo investigation by a team of reporters revealed an illegal brothel operated out of Trafford House in Station Way, Basildon.

Last year The Echo was also instrumental in bringing a £2.5million PET-CT scanner back into use after it was left unused in Southend Hospital since November 2014.

The campaign was shortlisted for a Regional Press award last year, pitting the paper against publications such as the Manchester Evening News.

Mrs May added: “I know from the discussions I have with my own local paper the significant pressures that are on regional and local press at the moment.

“Nowhere is this more true than in print journalism where the rapid changes in consumer behaviour and technology have led to falling circulations and advertising revenues.

“As we know, a quarter of local papers have closed in the past decade.”

As a result of ongoing pressures on newspapers in the past decade, the Cairncross Review was launched to see what more can be done to improve the long term future of journalism, and help regional newspapers to continue running.

The Prime Minister thanked publications for continuing the work it does, adding that she hopes herself and MPs throughout the country can continue working with their regional newspapers.

Mrs May said: “Obviously, we’ll wait for the review’s findings and recommendations before we make specific policy decisions but nothing is off the table.

“This commission was launched because we see that there is a problem there and we need to have those voices looking into it for us and coming forward with their recommendations.

“When that trusted local news comes under threat, then I think democracy suffers and people become ever more vulnerable to disinformation.

“So this is our press, it is your profession, it is imperative that we work together to ensure it has a very good and viable future.”