The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-24084, in the name of Graham Simpson, on the Covid-19 response and the role of local newspapers. Members who wish to speak in the debate should press their request-to-speak buttons if they are in the chamber or type R in the chat box if they are participating remotely.
I open the debate with a heavy heart. The industry in which I started my career many years ago as a raw teenager is a very different beast now. Then, and for a good while after that, local papers were the lifeblood of a community. They were respected and feared in equal measure, and, if they were doing their job properly, the people fearing them could well be politicians. I have always felt strongly that a vibrant newspaper sector is essential for democracy and a vital part of a system that holds those in power to account. A bad headline in your local paper could be enough to finish a career, and a series of bad headlines would definitely be enough.
I found myself on the other side of the tracks when I was elected as a councillor in 2007. Even then, my local paper carried some weight. The East Kilbride News had an office in the town, and you could pop in and have a chat or give them quotes and tip-offs. Reporters knew the town and there were several of them. Then things changed. Newspaper companies were up against falling sales and they started to centralise. The local paper office closed, reporters and sub-editors were sent to Hamilton, and from Hamilton they moved to Glasgow. Sales have continued to fall, advertising revenue has plummeted and staffing numbers have been cut.
Most members will have seen their local paper close, amalgamate or move, and we are all the losers. For democracy to thrive, it needs checks and balances—that debate is very much a live one in Scotland right now. A vibrant press is one of those checks, and we must all be prepared to be subject to the full glare of publicity, both good and bad.
In my view, newspapers do a different, usually better job of exposing things than other forms of media. If they die, so does democracy. According to the industry magazine, Press Gazette, the total net loss of local newspapers across the United Kingdom from 2005 until August last year was 265, and 33 local titles had closed since the start of 2019.
The year 2005 was considered by many to be the high-water mark of print newspaper profitability in the UK. The pandemic has made a bad situation worse, but, to be fair, I note that Kate Forbes helped out by approving £3.4 million of public sector advertising in news publishing. Emergency Covid legislation granted business rates relief to tourism, retail and hospitality, but it took an amendment from Murdo Fraser to include news publishers in that scheme. The Scottish National Party was against the move. Why? That relief and the advertising are due to end next month.
I certainly hope so, with some help—but they do need help.
Kate Forbes has, so far, rejected calls to extend the relief for this vital sector, which is the reason why we are having this debate when we should not be having it. Here are some facts. Despite Government advertising support, regional news brands lost 35 per cent of their advertising revenue in 2020. The point about advertising is addressed in Labour’s helpful amendment, which the Conservatives will support. Revenues are expected to fall by a further 18.7 per cent in the first quarter of this year, and they are expected to recover by only 12 per cent this year even if we get out of lockdown fast.
The Scottish economy relies heavily on retail and hospitality, but those sectors have both been severely affected by lockdown, which has had a knock-on effect on advertising and marketing. Rates exemptions are being extended for those areas but not for news publishing, which relies on them. The advertising package that was agreed with the Scottish Government last April helped to cover that collapse, but the commitment to continue to invest in Scottish news publishers has not been renewed. By contrast, the UK Government’s initial package of £35 million has been extended twice, by £15 million and by £22 million, to a total of £77 million.
It is not a one-way street. Analysis has demonstrated the effectiveness of advertising in Scottish news brands, and it is clear that supporting news publishing helps the Scottish Government to reach wide audiences—in particular, the elderly and those who live in areas with poor connectivity.? Emergency rates relief has been extended for news publishers in Northern Ireland, and most European countries have some support in place. For example, Denmark has provided €24 million, Lithuania and Estonia have subsidised home delivery and France is putting in €337 million over two years.
Small publishers are being disproportionately affected. The 150-year-old Nairnshire Telegraph was forced to stop publishing at Christmas and the Stranraer & Wigtownshire Free Press suspended publication, although it has since restarted. A study of Scottish news publishing in May 2016 found that, at that point, the industry directly employed over 3,000 people, many of them highly qualified and creative. ?It supported over 4,300 Scottish jobs and created £214 million of annual income. However, digital audiences have grown considerably while the numbers of those who read actual papers have fallen off, so revenue is a real issue.
What we are calling for today is something that will buy the industry some time. The Scottish Government has a short-life working group on public-interest journalism. That is great if the Government means it, but its rather churlish amendment suggests otherwise, and we will not be supporting that. Members of the working group support extending non-domestic rates relief for news publishers.
Scotland has produced some of the finest journalists in the world, and most of them started on local papers. Let us do what we can to maintain that tradition.
That the Parliament recognises the vital role that local newspapers have played in keeping people informed during the COVID-19 pandemic; believes that a vibrant newspaper sector is essential for democracy, and calls on the Scottish Government to extend business rates relief to newspapers during 2021-22.
The debate demonstrates the continuing importance of Scotland’s newspapers. Across the country, newspapers report, record and reflect life in Scotland. An independent media is central to a strong democracy, informing readers and holding those in power to account. Local newspapers, in particular, are important. They report news that might affect us more directly than national events, and they champion issues and causes, including local democracy, that are not necessarily covered by national newspapers. They are especially valuable just now in informing communities about local restrictions.
The Scottish Government recognised the impact of the pandemic on the newspaper industry and acted swiftly. In May 2020, we invested £3 million in an advertising press partnership to make sure that vital information about the pandemic was available. That was focused heavily on local newspapers, reflecting their relevance to people who continue to rely on them for exactly that kind of information. The importance of community and of place is central to the Scottish Government’s agenda, and the importance of local press serving local communities is a key aspect of that.
We see advertising support as being the most effective way to direct resources into the sector. It enables support to be targeted more effectively at where it is needed most, particularly those local newspapers that are the main focus of this debate. Since the pandemic began, ministers and officials have had an on-going dialogue with the Scottish Newspaper Society, which has helped us to ensure that our advertising investment is targeted where it can be most effective. We have not yet made any decisions about our approach to press advertising in the next financial year, but we will continue to engage with the SNS and with others including the National Union of Journalists, which has recently made known its perspective on the issue.
However, we must recognise that print newspapers are no longer the primary source of news for many people, particularly younger people. The newspaper industry has faced severe challenges for a number of years. In particular, the availability—often free—of online content means that many people now turn to the internet as their first source of news and information. The trend towards digitisation is prevalent across society and has accelerated as a consequence of the pandemic. In this aspect of our lives, as in many others, digitisation offers great opportunities as well as challenges. Newspapers seek to take advantage of the opportunities by publishing online in addition to producing printed copy and by seeking new ways to engage with their readers through digital means.
Those factors have led to declines in newspaper circulation and advertising revenue. It is difficult to monetise online content, especially when people have come to expect to access content without paying for it. We can access information on any topic from virtually any source at the click of a mouse. There is also a trend towards hyperlocal online news platforms that reflect the interests of local communities in a way that is not always possible through local newspapers. Those long-term trends have been accelerated by the pandemic, both directly and indirectly. In the past few years, several newspapers, including a number of local titles, have closed permanently and jobs have been lost.
Broader issues must be considered if the newspaper industry is to reverse recent downward trends. The impact of tech giants such as Google and Facebook must be considered, particularly in how they use content that is produced by newspapers. We must think about how we can support people, especially young people, to be informed and critical readers, so that they can weigh up and evaluate the quality of information that they get from various sources.
One way to address those challenges is to support public interest journalism, however it is delivered. Therefore, the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture has established a short-life working group to consider the future of public-interest journalism. It is expected to make recommendations by the end of the summer, and I hope that those will form the basis of sustainable public-interest journalism in Scotland.
This is an important debate, but it must not mask the long-term issues that the newspaper industry faces. It is by addressing those challenges that we can build a thriving and sustainable newspaper sector.
The Scottish Government did not support the introduction of non-domestic rates relief for the newspaper industry, as we believe that such relief is a blunt tool that does not provide targeted support to those that need it most, including local newspapers, and that it might provide the biggest benefit to those that need it least. I note that the NUJ has called for support to go only to employers that are investing in their productions and not to those that are making redundancies, cutting pay, curtailing front-line journalistic roles, paying executive bonuses or blocking trade union organisation. Blanket rates relief would not meet the NUJ’s criteria for protecting journalism.
We are in the middle of our annual Scottish budget process, which offers Opposition parties and all members across the chamber the opportunity to engage with the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and bring forward proposals for revenue and spend. They can identify where best to allocate public funds and where the priorities should lie in providing support or reliefs from taxation for particular sectors. The budget process enables us to make those decisions, taking into account all competing factors and assessing priorities across the full range of Scottish Government expenditure and revenue-raising priorities. I encourage Opposition parties to make use of that process by bringing forward their priorities, including those that have been discussed in this debate, so that they can be considered as part of that process.
I move amendment S5M-24084.1, to leave out from “the Scottish Government” to end and insert:
“all parties to bring forward their tax and spending proposals as part of the ongoing negotiations on the Scottish Budget.”
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Minister Ivan McKee has just made a contribution remotely, as he is entitled to do, but that means that members in the chamber—and, indeed, members taking part remotely—are not able to intervene on him and question him on what he is saying. I urge the parliamentary authorities to tackle that issue, because we cannot have proper debates if we are unable to actually debate with people.
That was also the case when Mr Tomkins made his speech in the previous debate. It is the same situation no matter who is speaking, from whichever party; that is just the way the technology is just now. You are nodding in agreement with me, Mr Simpson, which is nice—we are on good terms.
Members should raise the issue with their business manager, and then the Parliamentary Bureau can discuss it. I think that Mr Simpson would agree that we have moved a long way with the technology during this time. If we can make improvements so that members can intervene or—heaven forfend—make points of order remotely, we will go down that route. I wish that I had not said that.
Of course members can make point of order online—people do that all the time. Sorry, Ms Baker—have a cup of tea. Mr McKee wants to make a point of order now.
A free press is vital to democracy, and a private newspaper sector is an important part of that. It has a role in holding Government and all those in public office to account as well as in providing information and opinion to its readership.
Recent decades have seen huge changes in how the press operates as sales of physical newspapers have fallen and use of online news has increased vastly. The fall in printed publications has meant that advertising spend has reduced, alongside circulation figures. We have also seen the proliferation of fake news, misinformation and propaganda. Now, more than ever, people are looking to trusted news sources for information that they can rely on.
Local newspapers are also part of our communities and our culture. Many are historically part of their communities and provide local employment. News publishers help local businesses market their goods and services and they advertise many local jobs. Our local press is among the most trusted of the news and information sources that we have. We must support it in continuing to deliver for our communities, not undermine it by removing support and relief at this critical point.
During the pandemic, the role of our press has become even more important as people have sought accurate and timely local information that is relevant to their community. The regional basis of restrictions has meant that, for many people, the local press is the obvious place to find up-to-date advice and information, whether online or in print.
However, we have also seen local media outlets in precarious financial positions as a result of coronavirus. Falling revenues and a reliance on limited financial reserves, ineligibility for Government support and changes to staffing and operations have all had an impact, putting local newspapers in economically vulnerable places. In both the short term and the long term, the newspaper industry faces challenges, but it cannot meet those challenges without support.
Labour supports the continuation of business rates relief for newspapers. The case for support was made last year, and the argument was won when the Scottish Government agreed to provide relief in the same way that it has provided relief to other sectors. It now needs to extend that relief, in the same way that it has done so for those other sectors.
The Labour amendment seeks to highlight the importance of regional and local news and innovative journalism, and the benefit of supporting the sector, including through the investment of the Scottish Government’s advertising budget.
I asked the Scottish Government about its advertising spend in papers last year and welcomed the increase in spend as a consequence of coronavirus, including through the public health information partnership. The question now is how that will be sustained throughout the remainder of the pandemic and beyond, so that we can provide our newspaper sector with a level of consistent and predictable support.
We have seen the negative impact of moving recruitment advertising out of local press and solely on to dedicated online platforms, which resulted in huge losses in revenue for papers across the country. Amid the wider drop in advertising, the Scottish Government has a responsibility to ensure that it continues to support such an important industry, and that it uses the full range of means of communication with the public available. Continuing advertising support will help to protect the free press as well as jobs in the industry. The online presence of many newspapers has increased dramatically since the shift in resources, and they can meet the needs of both audiences.
In June last year, the NUJ provided a helpful briefing on the impact of Covid-19 on the Scottish media, including in it a recovery plan for the sector. The plan highlights the challenges that are faced by our news sector in both the short term and the long term, and proposes steps to take in order to secure an improved future for the industry.
Although the debate focuses on the immediate action that the Scottish Government can and should take on business rates, we need a longer-term commitment to support and diversify the newspaper sector. The current crisis has demonstrated how important the provision of news continues to be and the role that trusted, independent and accurate news sources play in supporting and informing our communities. We need to continue measures to support them through this difficult period.
I turn to the Scottish Government’s amendment. I note that the Government alone has taken the decision to end business rates relief for newspapers, and it is responsible for explaining why. Last year, following pressure from Opposition parties, the Government accepted the argument and applied business rates relief to newspapers in the same way that it had applied that relief to a number of other sectors. The recent budget statement confirmed that relief would continue for those sectors—the retail, aviation, hospitality and leisure sectors—but not for newspapers.
Instead of calling on other parties to balance the budget for which it is responsible, the Scottish Government needs to explain why it has decided to remove only the relief for newspapers. Given the scale of the budget and the nature of support in the current crisis, the savings from that cut are counterproductive and are putting our valued newspaper sector at risk.
I move amendment S5M-24084.2, to insert after “Scottish Government”:
“to ensure that its advertising budget spend is invested in a way that supports innovative journalism and regional and local news, and”.
You did. [Interruption.] It is good that I have a top team. I am getting help from members on the Conservative benches—that is what I need this afternoon. You are always helpful, Mr Fraser.
I am grateful to the Conservative Party for securing time for this incredibly important debate. I pay tribute to the local press in our nation for its invaluable contribution not just during the Covid-19 emergency, but for generations beforehand.
During the past year, local news outlets have proved critical. Not only do they keep people informed about what is going on locally and give an important local perspective on national issues, but they give our communities a much-needed link at a time when tens of thousands of us have never felt so isolated and alone.
I will give one example of the critical work that local newspapers are doing. The Edinburgh Evening News has a coronavirus tab that is immediately obvious to people as soon as they open the website and load the page. On clicking the link, people have access to countless articles that include vital information on things such as infection rates in the Lothians, how to access vaccines locally, and even the different types of vaccines that people might be offered and what to expect.
In addition to providing such key public service information, local newspapers have been vital in increasing access to community projects. That has allowed thousands of vulnerable people to receive help from within their local communities in a range of ways, whether that is receiving a hot meal or groceries or even just having a friendly chat.
Like the rest of us, the local news sector has had to adapt to a new way of working—a new reality. It has managed to do so while continuing to fully embrace its role in providing important information to the communities that it serves. It is in part because of its importance to local communities that the newspaper sector plays such an important role in our democracy. A free and vibrant press is one of the most widely acknowledged hallmarks of a functioning democracy.
By refusing to extend the business rates relief to newspapers for 2021-22, the Scottish Government is at severe risk of hindering the ability of Scotland’s press sector to do its job and adapt to these constrained times. To suggest that any subsequent plans for support will not be confirmed or finalised until August 2021 is just no good to the sector whatsoever. It needs certainty on which to plan.
Although the Scottish Government might not always like what the press has to say—as parliamentarians, we can all relate to that from time to time—I cannot believe that it would want to reduce the role of the press as a source of information and scrutiny. The consequences of the press facing ruin include the undermining of our democracy and the hurting of individual communities. The ramifications for communities and our constituents if local press outlets are forced to close due to financial difficulty will be dire, so the Scottish Government must rethink its strategy.
Throughout the pandemic, local news sources have been some of the most valuable and trusted sources of information in our communities. In a world of fake news and misinformation, the local press stands true.
Whether it is The Galloway Gazette or The Orcadian, which turns 150 this year, local press organisations have proved themselves to be an integral part of community spirit and community life and a critical source of information. I understand that the UK and Scottish Governments face a momentous task in rebuilding our economy and that difficult choices must be made. However, the pandemic has taken so much from our society already, so let us not allow it to threaten one of the tenets of our national democracy and local communities. I gladly offer my party’s support for the motion.
I share the irritation that was in Graham Simpson’s voice at the fact that this issue has had to come back to the chamber. Some interesting points have been made about the longer-term trends in relation to newspapers, and Ivan McKee made some interesting and insightful points that were entirely irrelevant to the motion that we are debating. The motion deals with an issue that the Parliament decided in May 2020, when amending the Coronavirus (Scotland) (No 2) Bill. It was clear then that there was complete cross-party support among the Opposition and I think that we were all aware that some on the SNP back benches were sympathetic. There was broad support for the amendment to ensure that newspapers were not excluded from rates relief. I see no evidence that the Scottish Government has conducted any kind of reaching out or consensus building in preparation for its decision to remove newspapers from that rates relief.
Ivan McKee made various points about targeting, which was part of Michael Russell’s argument in asking the Parliament to reject Murdo Fraser’s amendment back in May. Michael Russell talked about the danger that local newspapers would not gain so much and that larger organisations would stand to gain more. He said that in England the rates relief package
“applies only to local newspapers. Larger and more national organisations would do better out of the proposed scheme than local newspapers would.”—[Official Report, 20 May 2020; c 108.]
I find that interesting, because it is frustrating that the Scottish Government, in its wider approach on domestic rates and the relief packages that are available during the pandemic, has not chosen to target very much; it could take a much more targeted approach to the business support packages that it is making available, but it is not. It seems to be using that argument only in relation to this specific issue, which strikes me as odd, because last May’s amendment is exactly the kind of amendment that an SNP member would have moved if they were in Opposition and another party was in Government saying, “No, no, this can’t be done.”
The motion does not in fact call for a blanket, untargeted approach. It does not demand 100 per cent rates relief for all newspapers. It calls on the Scottish Government to
“extend business rates relief to newspapers”.
If the Scottish Government came forward with a targeted approach that specifically made sure that smaller independent titles, for example, gained the benefit that they need, that would be entirely consistent with the motion.
We are in a bit of strange situation here, because it is the kind of issue that any Opposition would advocate regardless of party politics. I will support both Claire Baker’s amendment and the motion, but I will not support Ivan McKee’s amendment.
At the outset of my brief intervention on the debate, I commend local newspapers in general for the important role that they play in communities across Scotland. In particular, I commend the local newspapers in my constituency of Cowdenbeath, being principally the Central Fife Times and Advertiser, the Dunfermline Press and West of Fife Advertiser and—[Inaudible.]—group.
In these very difficult times, I know from constituents that the local newspaper is an important source of information about the pandemic and the local impacts of it. As the MSP for Cowdenbeath, I certainly recognise that and seek to ensure that important information is copied to my new local newspapers regularly.
However, it is important to highlight at the same time that there are many other important sources of information about the pandemic in my constituency: the Scottish Government website; the Scottish Government daily briefings; NHS Fife; Fife Council, the Fife Chamber of Commerce; and local third sector and voluntary groups. Those go-to information sites now form part of the panoply of people’s daily lives. I believe that that is a good thing, because surely we want people to be as informed as possible about Covid-19 and the impacts of the pandemic.
In that regard, a key focal point over the past weeks has been the roll-out of the vaccination programme. I am sure that today’s news that, as of 8.30, 985,569 people have received their first dose of the vaccine will be welcomed by all.
Turning from the role of local newspapers and helping with information dissemination during the pandemic to the issue of funding support, I am, indeed, pleased to note the range of business support that the Scottish Government has provided to the Scottish newspaper industry during the pandemic. That includes the £3 million investment through increased advertising, which has been mentioned, with an additional £400,000 having been made available to 79 local titles across the country. As has also been mentioned, the support includes 100 per cent rates relief and the establishment of a short-life working group to consider how best to support public interest journalism, which, I understand, will report in the summer.
As far as the next financial year is concerned, there are, of course, several issues to bear in mind. First, there is currently a budget process under way. I would have thought that it might have been more appropriate for Opposition parties to engage in that process by negotiating on their tax-and-spend proposals.
Secondly, the United Kingdom Tory Government’s decision to delay the UK budget has, of course, made the setting of the 2021-22 Scottish budget much more difficult, as that has resulted in the Scottish Government having to proceed without crucial information on tax rates and funding.
Thirdly, as far as the UK budget is concerned, the Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Finance has already called on the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer to guarantee further support for business impacted by the pandemic.
Fourthly, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance has also called for additional flexibility for the Scottish Government, so that we in Scotland can mobilise funding when it is most urgently needed.
If the other parties are serious about calls for more funding to be made available for any particular matter, they surely must have regard to the other side of the balance sheet. Surely, they must also have regard to what they would take out from the spending proposals in order to insert whatever their particular ask is.
I pay tribute to the local newspapers not only in my region, but across Scotland, because they have been doing the most wonderful job in keeping the public informed during the pandemic.
It has been said a couple times during the debate that local newspapers are an important part of democracy. That is true, but they are also a very important part of the information service provided to the public, especially for our elderly citizens who, in many cases, are much less likely to use the internet and social media for their news.
I think that, during the pandemic, many people have found their local newspapers, as well as their television, to be the only source of news that they have been receiving about what they can safely do, what is going on in their community and, importantly, what messages Government and health authorities are telling them. That, of course, is also true for the local newspapers that can be accessed online.
Graham Simpson rightly pointed out that local newspapers have been suffering for some time. They have been downsizing; they have had drops in income, including from advertising; and there have been the pressures of greater centralised control and in relation to finding staff who are willing to work in the industry in such uncertain times. Circulation is considerably down, as is advertising, which is not surprising, given that many of the businesses that would normally advertise in their local papers, such as hotels, restaurants and retailers, are not operating. These are therefore extremely difficult times in the world of local newspapers. Indeed, some famous titles have stopped publishing altogether, at least in the physical format. We should be very worried about that.
Of course, local newspapers are also important to members here. We heavily rely on them to publish details of our surgeries and our press releases, and to take photographs of the many events that we attend in normal times, such as visits to schools or agricultural shows. They are now asking for our support, which I feel we are duty bound to provide. Last week, the Scottish Government announced a package of assistance for newspapers. Although that is welcome, it certainly will not go far enough to support them when it is spread so thinly across every title in Scotland.
“Some would ask why we should single out newspapers for support in this fashion.”—[Official Report, 20 May 2020; c 103.]
The answer is fairly evident, particularly as we are asking for an extension for a period of a year on business rates relief. Such newspapers are absolutely vital, particularly at this time. Although providing such relief might not be a long-term solution, it is something that we should be charged with. I do not really understand why the SNP is reluctant to do so, because it is so important. As Patrick Harvie rightly pointed out, we agreed on it some time ago. Further, we are not talking about spending a huge amount of money for the period in question. I think that it is less than £4 million, which I think that we could do for that short period of time.
I believe that it is important that we support our local papers. I very much support the motion in the name of Graham Simpson.
I often begin speeches by welcoming the opportunity to debate a particular issue. However, on this occasion, as others have said, I feel that that we should not be having this debate because, frankly, it should not have been necessary.
By announcing a three-month extension of rates relief for sectors such as retail and hospitality, the Scottish Government has acknowledged that those sectors are struggling. However, in withdrawing the same relief from newspapers, it has failed to grasp the interdependence between those sectors. Newspapers are struggling partly because retail and hospitality are also struggling. Lockdown means that our shops, hotels, restaurants and pubs currently have little to advertise in our newspapers. The fact that fewer people are visiting our high streets due to lockdown means that fewer of them are picking up a paper.
Therefore, if the extension of rates relief is needed for retail and hospitality, it is also absolutely needed for our newspapers. The same can be said for a continuation of the advertising support that has been so critical to supporting newspapers over the past year and so important in helping to get across our key public health messages. That is why Scottish Labour has highlighted the issue in its amendment.
However, that issue runs even deeper than the financial viability of our newspapers. It has been almost a year since the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture hailed our journalists and declared them key workers. She said that,
“in these challenging circumstances, having access to reliable information is a key part of a functioning society and public confidence” and she agreed that
“the news publishing sector plays a vital role in this.”
Yet, almost 12 months on, the decisions of the Scottish Government risk turning many of those key workers into non-workers. In fact, the research group Enders Analysis estimates that the revenue crunch that is facing newspapers puts a third of UK journalism jobs at risk.
Our newspapers were already facing challenging times before the pandemic. In the words of the National Union of Journalists,
“the Covid-19 crisis has hit an industry with underlying health conditions.”
The Cairncross review reported that the number of full-time front-line journalists working in the UK had fallen from 23,000 in 2007 to 17,000 in 2019. Newspaper annual advertising spend had already dropped by 69 per cent, or £3.2 billion, and annual circulation revenue had declined by 23 per cent, or £500 million. Even before the pandemic, that led to drastic cost cutting. Few of our local titles are now printed locally and, given the shedding of jobs, the small teams left at many of our local papers are performing miracles to keep stories flowing week in, week out.
However, sadly, many titles have not been able to keep going in recent years. Others have been on the brink of printing their final edition altogether, such as the Eskdale & Liddesdale Advertiser in my region, which, just a few years ago, was saved from closure by the local community, who stepped in to keep the printing presses running—not just because of the paper’s 168-year history but because of its important role in serving the community, which it continues to do right now
As we have already heard, during the pandemic some titles, such as the Stranraer and Wigtownshire Free Press, stopped printing for a period during the first lockdown but have been able to fight back and are now up and running again, delivering for the local community.
The pandemic has brought home to us all how important the role of local newspapers is, not just in keeping readers up to date with stories affecting their lives in their community but in providing a reliable and trusted source of information. At a time when verified and factual public health advice has never been more essential and in the face of the plague of misinformation that we see every day on social media, the trusted journalism from our local newspapers is crucial.
The decision by the Scottish Government to extend rates relief for other sectors into the next financial year but to axe that relief for newspapers and pull back on advertising really is a case of trying to undermine that role and kicking a sector when it is down. We cannot wait for working groups to report. That decision will mean job losses in weeks and ultimately a loss of unbiased local news, fuelling the rise and rise of online fake news.
I know that the Government opposed the extension of rates relief to newspapers last year, but the Parliament voted to amend the Coronavirus (Scotland) (No 2) Bill to deliver that relief. If Parliament votes for the motion and Labour’s amendment today, I hope that the Government will respect that decision and the will of Parliament and continue that rates relief to give our newspaper sector the support that it needs in these difficult times.
I will start by saying that I agree with Graham Simpson that we should be able to have interventions during these hybrid debates.
Newspapers have been facing a challenging time for a number of years, with circulation falling and more people getting their news in other ways. I confess that I have been quite traditional when it comes to newspapers and persisted in buying printed copies of The Herald and the Evening Times right up until Covid started. I like the fact that we get a summary of the day’s news in one place, and one advantage of a newspaper is that we get to decide what we are reading and what we are skipping, whereas with television and radio, it is the broadcaster who decides how long we spend on each topic.
With Covid and the encouragement to stay at home and only to shop when necessary, I switched to subscribing to The Herald and to the Glasgow Times, as it is now called, online, and I have to say that that has been working well for me. [Interruption.] I am being slightly put off by my party whip and the Deputy Presiding Officer talking behind me.
As has been said, newspapers have been struggling for quite some time and that has been made worse by Covid, with people being discouraged from a daily visit to the shops to get a paper.
If we assume that The Herald is a national newspaper and the Glasgow Times is regional, perhaps serving some 15 constituencies in and around Glasgow, my constituency has no local newspaper. We used to have a couple, but they died out some years ago. Why did that happen? Presumably because, in a less affluent area, there has not been sufficient advertising revenue to go around. I am not arguing that only richer areas have local newspapers. The neighbouring constituency to mine is Rutherglen, where I grew up. It is quite a mixed area and it still has the Rutherglen Reformer. I would dearly love to see a paper like that in the east end of Glasgow.
Because we do not have a local paper in the Glasgow Shettleston constituency, we do not get news of local schools, churches, scouts or guides, or even local politicians, which is what I was used to when I was younger and which, clearly, some other areas still get. We need to go looking for such local news on websites or social media and I think that it is a real loss for the community when we do not have a local newspaper.
However, the economics have shifted over time and, just as so much shopping has shifted online, so has the availability of local information. I certainly would not oppose support for local newspapers if the money can be found and I would rather see them expanding than contracting. However, let us remember that any such support will not help the people in a less well-off constituency such as mine who have no local newspapers.
I would like to make some general points about the budget. If the Conservatives are looking for specific changes to the draft budget, I am certain that Kate Forbes will be happy to discuss those changes with them. However, it would be useful to know whether they are serious about negotiating for funding for local newspapers. If that was agreed to, would they then support an amended Scottish Government budget or would they produce a long list of contradictory requests, as normally happens, and then still oppose the budget, no matter what? Their usual mantra is that they want taxes cut and spending raised—sorry, but that does not add up. Are we going to see more realistic and financially literate proposals from the Conservatives this year?
The 2021-22 budget has clearly been made complex because of Covid, which was unavoidable. It has also been made more difficult for all of us in the Parliament by the totally avoidable delay in the Westminster budget. It did not need to be delayed until 3 March but, because it has been, Kate Forbes, the Finance and Constitution Committee and all the rest of us have been left very much in the dark as to what we have to spend on non-Covid-related and Covid-related matters.
I want to be supportive of local newspapers, but let us have a more realistic approach to the budget from the Conservatives.
The debate has been short but interesting. Graham Simpson opened it by saying that he remembers when local newspapers were the lifeblood of the local community, and he painted quite a bleak picture of the current circumstances. In fact, it was so bleak that John Mason was provoked to intervene and to ask whether local newspapers are recoverable, in a rather apocalyptic intervention.
I want to say that, in many parts of Scotland, local papers still are the lifeblood of our communities. In East Lothian, as we have been since 1859, we continue to be served every week by the award-winning East Lothian Courier—it comes out tomorrow. Colin Smyth told us about another local paper that is close to my heart, the Stranraer and Wigtownshire Free Press, which fought back from going digital only and is now publishing again.
Alex Cole-Hamilton talked about the important role that the Edinburgh Evening News has played during the Covid pandemic. That is an important point. Local papers are important at any time in our communities, but they have been absolutely critical during the pandemic. A year or so ago, when the first lockdown happened, we spent a lot of time in the Parliament praising the local resilience groups, community support groups and other volunteer groups that had sprung up in our towns and villages. In East Lothian, the local paper—the East Lothian Courier—was critical in allowing those groups to do their work. Every week, the paper gave over one or two pages to report on what the groups were doing, the services that they operated and how they could be contacted. Of course, that was particularly useful for older citizens who perhaps are not online.
It was not just those special things that were so important at that time. The East Lothian Courier and other local papers continued to do what they do, week in week out, yet more so. Sadly, local death notices became important in letting people know what was happening when, tragically, many of our fellow citizens were losing their lives to Covid.
Local papers covered and promoted local fundraising efforts, many of which sprang up to support work such as the purchase and even the manufacturing of personal protective equipment. Of course, as the papers do every week, they continued to support local businesses in what for many of those businesses were the darkest of times. For example, the papers told people about which restaurants were continuing to do takeaway and which shops were doing click and collect. Local papers have been critical.
The minister’s contribution was pretty disingenuous. It was just fatuous for Ivan McKee to talk about the importance of local papers and then to reduce that to a party-political challenge to Opposition parties’ call to save those papers by changing the Government’s budget. I have to say that it was equally fatuous for Annabelle Ewing to point to the Scottish Government’s working group on the press, because the members of that group have today publicly called for a reversal of the decision on rates relief.
Patrick Harvie wondered, with some justification, what the Scottish Government has got against local papers and why it singles them out for a lack of support. The Government has form on the issue. In 2010, it tried to take away the requirement to place public notices in local papers and the Opposition had to get it to change its mind. A year ago, the Government excluded papers from rates relief and the Opposition had to make it change its mind. The Government had to think again 10 years ago and one year ago, and it needs to think again tonight.
I, too, thank Graham Simpson for bringing forward the debate. The local newspaper sector is one that is worth the chamber focusing on.
I take issue with the point that Iain Gray has just made. The Scottish Government does not have anything against the sector. I concur entirely with the sentiment that has been expressed by various members that the foundation of any free society must be a free press, and the idea that the Government has something against newspapers in this country is, I am afraid to say, fatuous.
I observe that there are many sectors that have not had such support extended to them because, frankly, we cannot extend that form of support to every business in the country.
During the debate, much has been made of the fact that, as part of its consideration of the Coronavirus (Scotland) (No 2) Bill, Parliament voted for an amendment to extend rates relief to the newspaper sector. I accept that, and the Government has adhered to that vote, which put in place such relief for this financial year. We have adhered to that, but unless members are going to say that that vote stands for time immemorial, surely we must look at the process that we are presently engaged in. It should not come as a surprise to any member of the chamber that we go through the budget process on an annual basis. This might just be me being cynical, but there could be a question about how genuinely others engage in the process of dialogue around the Scottish budget. We have an annual process of setting the budget and, frankly, we are not doing anything inconsistent here.
When other members made their point during consideration of the bill to which I referred, the Government articulated its position in respect of non-domestic rates relief for the newspaper sector, and we continue to hold to that position. I understand the argument, and it is entirely legitimate for it to be advanced and articulated by Opposition members, but we must think about how we use public finances most effectively and get best value for that investment.
I am grateful to the minister for giving way. The Government has agreed to extend business rates relief for other sectors, but not the newspaper sector, when the Parliament voted for relief for that sector. Why is that? It looks as though the Government has something against the sector.
I hope that Mr Simpson appreciates my giving him the opportunity to intervene. I know that he thinks that that is particularly important, and I was glad to facilitate such an opportunity.
I return to the point that we do not have anything against the newspaper sector, but that was our position at the time. We accepted that the perspective of Parliament in relation to the Coronavirus (Scotland) (No 2) Bill was that the newspaper sector should have had the support in question extended to it for this financial year, but our position is consistent as we approach the budget.
It is not “fatuous”, as Mr Gray put it, to say that consideration of the issue of relief for the newspaper sector should be part of the process of budget dialogue. Of course it should be part of that process. [Interruption.] Mr Gray says that there is no dialogue. Every year, the Government seeks to facilitate dialogue with other parties—[Interruption.]
I beg your pardon—it was Mr Gray who was not speaking through the chair. There was a dialogue between the two of you as if the rest of us were on another planet. That is not appropriate.
I apologise, Presiding Officer. I said that Mr Gray had uttered from the sidelines. I could not help but hear him suggest that there is no dialogue on the budget. There is the opportunity for dialogue each and every year, and if the issue of rates relief for newspapers is a priority for other parties, they are welcome to advance that perspective as part of that discourse.
We take the need to support our newspaper sector seriously, and I regret that Patrick Harvie felt that the points that Ivan McKee advanced around long-term sustainability for the sector were somehow irrelevant to today’s debate. Mr Simpson accepts their relevance; he talked about—and I agreed with him on—the long-term challenges that the sector has faced. It is appropriate for that to be raised today, because we know that the pandemic has had an impact.
We have sought to respond. We have sought to leverage our advertising budget to support the sector. We have done that over the past period and it was appropriate for us to do it. However, we have to consider the sector in the round. The trends that we have seen in newspapers have been in place for some time, although Covid-19 has of course exacerbated them.
We have stepped up to support newspapers, but we need to consider how we support the sector in the longer term. Rates relief is not a long-term solution in itself, which is why I believe that the work of the working group on public interest journalism should not be dismissed. It is important and, as members have mentioned, the group contains the relevant people to take that discourse forward.
We are serious in our intent to support newspapers, but we have concerns that non-domestic rates relief is not the most efficient or cost-effective way to respond to the long-term challenges that are facing the newspaper industry.
I urge members to support our amendment. I think that it is entirely legitimate and appropriate that we urge others to come forward with their propositions as part of a coherent response to the budget process. I see that I am getting a thumbs down from members on the Conservative benches. That might indicate once again just how seriously they take the budget process this year.
Graham Simpson remarked in a wonderful speech that, if newspapers die, democracy dies, and Alex Cole-Hamilton followed up that theme and talked of a free and vibrant press being the hallmark of a functioning democracy. Ivan McKee spoke about the importance of local communities and highlighted the advertising support that is provided by the Scottish Government, which is very welcome along with that of the UK Government. Claire Baker spoke of trusted, independent and accurate news being absolutely essential, and I whole-heartedly agree.
There have been a lot of numbers flying around in this debate, but one number in particular stands out: 3,000. That is the number of people who are directly employed by the newspaper industry in Scotland. It is the number of people who face a direct threat to their jobs and will be worried about how they will support themselves and their families, and all because this SNP Government plans to cut off support when it is needed the most. That could be the death knell for the sector, and it is being done regardless of the value that the papers—especially the local ones—provide to their communities. My colleague Liz Smith highlighted that point.
Notable examples of journalism excellence include The Press and Journal and The Courier. My school playground was overlooked by DC Thomson’s offices, although I am glad to say that the Bash Street kids pre-date me. I am not sure which character I would have been. The Clydebank Post is at the forefront of providing cutting-edge local news. The Largs and Millport Weekly News holds the record for having Britain’s longest-serving editor, and The Arran Banner once achieved a Guinness world record by reaching 97 per cent of Arran’s population.
However, those and Scotland’s other local papers do more than support jobs. They are also a vital part of our society because they inform the public, hold power to account and support their communities. It should be a priority for this SNP Government to help to bring those papers back from the brink before they are lost forever. That is why the Scottish Conservatives are here today to ask the SNP to do the right thing and extend business rates relief to newspapers for another year.
I fully appreciate that that is not the SNP’s position. In fact, it extended rates relief to newspapers at the start of the pandemic only because it was forced to do so. That point was well made—I do not say this often—by Patrick Harvie. The Scottish Government’s short-life working group on public-interest journalism has called for rates relief to be extended to Scottish newspapers, as Iain Gray highlighted. There is still time to act, and an extension would have a minimal impact on the overall budget, costing around £4 million for the whole year.
However, newspapers are just the tip of the iceberg. Across Scotland, a great many individuals and businesses are receiving little or no support, including in the hospitality, tourism and leisure sectors. The Scottish hospitality group has warned that the strategic framework business fund is not serving licensed premises well, and it is sensibly calling for support to be focused on the premises that are suffering the greatest impacts, regardless of the tier level that they eventually return to.
Deficiencies in strategic framework support have also been highlighted by the Federation of Small Businesses, which warned that small specialist retailers—such as drinks, hardware and animal specialists—are not able to apply for grant and that few, if any, will get discretionary funding.
Others are also slipping through the cracks. Bingo halls, for example, have not seen dedicated support in the same way that other leisure activities have. Another example is the animal boarding sector, which is obviously reeling from the massive downturn in tourism and has no dedicated support. Again, they are at the mercy of discretionary council funding. They did not even receive the same business rates extension as the rest of the hospitality, tourism and leisure sector—the very support that is currently being withdrawn from the newspaper industry.
The director of the Scottish Newspaper Society could not have been clearer about the SNP’s plan to withdraw support, by saying:
“There is no doubt this creates an immediate crisis for Scottish journalism”.
“Crisis” is the right word, because the newspaper industry in Scotland is on its knees. Advertising revenue crashed by 35 per cent last year—a catastrophe for an industry that is so heavily reliant on advertising for its income. The situation has not been helped by the fact that much of that advertising comes from hospitality and retail businesses. I welcome the Labour amendment, and we will support it at decision time.
The debate is not about party politics; it is about saving jobs and protecting a vital part of our democracy. I am simply asking the SNP to do the right thing.
Thank you very much, Mr Golden. That concludes the debate on Covid-19 response and the role of local newspapers. After a short pause, we will move on to the next item of business.