Lesley Riddoch: Holyrood’s failure to help its indigenous national press is starting to look odd
But there was no mention of the UK government’s £35 million bung of public service advertising cash to British newspapers - on either the credit or debit side of the argument.
The newspaper industry is well aware that the entire sum, announced last week, would have been spent on carers and health staff, if the public had been given the slightest say in the matter. Especially since sizeable chunks of the advertising money will bankroll billionaire publishers like Rupert Murdoch and Lord Rothermere, who just happen to support Boris Johnson.
But some will also reach the left of centre Guardian and daily newspapers in Scotland, creating the possibility that UK government information ads will appear, perhaps for the first time, in the independence supporting National.
And for all these beleaguered titles, the imminent arrival of money to compensate for the loss of around 70 per cent of advertising revenues and 40 per cent of physical paper sales, can only be a good thing. Let’s put that more strongly – some papers may not now contemplate closure in May.
Of course, papers are coy about the real state of their balance sheets. Some have seen a rise in online subscriptions, but those without paywalls have found it hard to capitalise. Certainly, the Covid crisis has seen the number of online newspaper readers soar, but the most read content is generally free-to-view material that someone was paid to research and write. It’s not a viable model and already there have been casualties.
The West Highland Free Press - the only employee-owned paper in the UK - has stopped publication of its print editions until June, with a ‘limited online presence’ until then and most staff on furlough. With the near total collapse of local advertising revenue, other titles are reportedly weeks from collapse.
So, last week, after pressure from the Scottish Newspaper Society (SNS) and local MSPs, the Scottish Government announced it would follow the UK Government’s lead and place public information Covid ads in local newspapers for the next three months.
This provides a vital breathing space for some local papers - but it won’t solve long term decline or help Scotland’s national titles, which lost classified and public sector recruitment ads some time ago, and must now watch as Covid-19 public health campaigns are placed instead on Facebook and Google - the tech giants which stand accused of ripping off newspaper content whilst giving almost nothing in tax to the public purse or the wider news industry.
So, the SNS wants more from the Scottish Government - a switch in advertising budgets from these online platforms back to newspapers, a business rates holiday for 2020-21 and an emergency fund of £25m, like the one launched by the Danish Government which pays up to 80 per cent of lost advertising revenues.
Some will doubtless regard this as undeserved special treatment for sleekit newshounds. Others may stop to ponder a world without a healthy range of news organisations reporting and analysing our lives. Especially our local lives.
Since 2005 more than 200 local papers have closed in the UK and the number of regional journalists has halved with staff cuts and centralised newsrooms, syndicated copy, sub-editing and print production all located miles from local communities, leaving press benches in councils and courtrooms increasingly empty.
An estimated 58 per cent of Britain has no daily or regional title and rural areas are increasingly reliant on London or central-belt-based media and their own social networks for local news. A study in 2016 found British towns without a daily local newspaper experienced a “democracy deficit” with reduced community engagement and increased distrust of public bodies. According to Dr Martin Moore, Director of the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power in London which published the report, the horrific Grenfell Tower fire is the most striking example of the dangers that arise from a dwindling local press. The nearest newspaper, the Kensington and Chelsea Chronicle closed in 2014, after which local issues were covered by a single journalist working in a regional hub, miles away in Surrey. It’s part of a Britain-wide trend - “consolidation” is producing powerful regional monopolies in which “local” reporting is hollowed out and truly independent titles are squeezed.
This picture of decline prompted Theresa May to commission a review led by Frances Cairncross which reported early last year. She recommended direct funding and tax relief for publishers investing in ‘public interest’ journalism, an inquiry into the domination of the tech companies and an end to the 20 per cent VAT paid on digital books and news subscriptions, which Rishi Sunak delivered on Friday.
The more immediate outcome was the creation of an £8m Local News Partnership Scheme, which lets local papers use 150 BBC reporters to cover public meetings. But 90 per cent of those young staff were snaffled up by the Big Three regional press groups, prompting the Salford Star’s editor to complain the scheme was only benefitting the same corporate giants that “have been sacking journalists for years.”
Still, as former Daily Mirror editor and veteran media watcher, Roy Greenslade, observed on Radio Scotland recently, this cross-subsidy from public to private sector journalism has created an important precedent. Essentially, the British Government is now supporting papers (albeit in an indirect way via licence-fee funded staff) and that support could be expanded. Greenslade is now calling for an explicit system of arms-length, state funding for newspapers based on experience in France and Norway (where a regular subsidy goes to papers with unique social outlooks and to the second paper in each city to ensure diversity). Another possibility is a cash transfer from Google and Facebook to newspapers.
Of course, another possibility is that nothing happens.
It would be easy for the Scottish Government to shrug off the latest requests by the Scottish Newspaper Society, especially since they’ve also been championed by the Scottish Conservatives. But if the British Government starts bailing out every national Scottish title this week, including those campaigning for independence, won’t it look a little odd if Holyrood isn’t prepared to help?
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.