MSPs voice disapproval of plan to switch public notices from newspapers

THE Scottish Parliament has voiced its disapproval of Scottish Government plans to allow local authorities the discretion to switch their public notices from newspapers to the internet – thus potentially saving local authorities millions of pounds, but also risking the financial viability of some newspaper titles.

It follows a debate (essential viewing) yesterday morning, which considered a motion from Labour MSP, Pauline McNeill. After two hours-plus of discussion, MSPs voted in favour of the motion – as amended with input from Tory MSP, Ted Brocklebank – by a margin of 76 to 48: in other words, all SNP MSPs voted against, while everyone else voted for.

It will leave the Scottish Government now wondering whether to risk placing the proposal in front of Parliament for a formal vote for or against.

The vote on McNeill’s amended motion took place yesterday evening and it read:

“That the Parliament notes the important role played by local newspapers in Scotland; believes that, in the current economic climate, it is more important than ever to recognise the importance and value of community newspapers; notes that local newspapers provide a forum for expression that enables local people to deliberate on issues affecting their community; regrets that almost a year after the Glasgow Caledonian University seminar on 4 February 2009 on the newspaper industry, organised by the Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism and involving newspaper proprietors, journalists, trade unionists and other stakeholders, there appears to have been little further dialogue between the Scottish Government and the sector;

“…notes with concern the Scottish Government proposals to remove the legal requirement for local authorities to advertise public information notices in newspapers; believes that, if this proposal succeeds, it will deny the 38 per cent of Scots who do not have internet access vital information currently available to them in newspapers,

“…will create a democratic deficit and damage the local and national newspaper industry at a critical time; fears that a smaller newspaper industry will dilute quality journalism and training opportunities for young journalists, and calls on the Scottish Government to withdraw the draft Local Authority Public Information Notices (Electronic Publication) (Scotland) Order 2010.”

Said Jim Raeburn, director of the Scottish Newspaper Society: “The vote, with all four opposition parties supporting the Scottish newspaper industry, is a pleasing result. The Scottish Government should accept the Parliament has spoken and now withdraw its sham consultation about electronic publication of local authority public information notices as an alternative to newspapers.

“Given that market research carried out by [broadcasting regulators] Ofcom showed that nearly 10 times as many people in Scotland use newspapers than they do the internet as their main source of information about their local area, we believe that the Scottish Government’s proposal is flawed and will undoubtedly lead to greatly reduced scrutiny and therefore accountability for local government announcements and actions.

“Moreover, 40 per cent of households in Scotland (60 per cent in Glasgow) do not have a broadband connection.

“Against this background, it is difficult to understand how in a democratic society the Scottish Government can still contemplate disenfranchising large numbers of the public by resorting to less effective communication channels”