13 Jun 2010

Speech on the Newspaper Industry 28 January 2010

Karen Whitefield and Cathie Craigie mentioned the double edge of local newspapers, which can certainly be difficult outlets for many politicians. As a public representative for many years, I have been on the receiving end of withering criticism from local and national papers, but that is healthy—it is a fundamental of the democratic process.

Politicians should not seek to use only the outlets that are favourable to them; they need to recognise that local papers play a vital role in keeping the public informed and giving access to information, as Iain Smith and others have said.

Anything that damages that function should be opposed. The change has the potential to be a financial dagger to the heart of many of Scotland's newspapers. The people who will be the beneficiaries will be those in power at the local or national level. The danger is that no one will be left to scrutinise and criticise the decisions that are being made. I will come back to that point.

Ian McKee asked who reads newspapers. I have spoken to my local newspapers on the subject—The Gazette, a weekly newspaper, and the Paisley Daily Express, a campaigning daily newspaper. Anne Dalrymple, the editor of the Paisley Daily Express told me that, over the course of a year, over 60 per cent of local people read her paper—a significant number. Indeed, in any one week, something like 55 per cent of local adults read the Paisley Daily Express.

What would the loss of revenue mean to such local papers? Scottish and Universal Newspapers has estimated that its group could lose up to £1 million. That is equivalent to the annual revenue of the Paisley Daily Express—a staggering and significant amount. Amanda Ramsden, the editor of The Gazette and the Barrhead News said:

"I can say categorically the plans for changing the law to allow Public Information Notices to be advertised electronically in place of newspapers would be a devastating blow to our titles."

The debate is not only about what newspapers and politicians are saying but, as Cathie Craigie indicated, the duty and responsibility that politicians have to the people whom we represent. What are members of the public saying on the subject? To its credit, the Paisley Daily Express took time to go out on the streets and ask.

A woman from Glenburn in my constituency is quoted as saying: "I get all my information from the Express, I read it every day. They've already stopped advertising councillors surgeries in the papers so I had to go down to the library to ask the staff there how I could find out about contacting my councillor".

Renfrewshire Council has stopped advertising councillor surgeries; its councillors are now hiding from their public, which is a disgrace. The paper also quoted Paisley worker Carolan Forbes, who had not heard about the Government plans. She said:

"I think it sounds like a very bad idea ... not everyone has access to the internet or uses the internet."

Gordon Barr from Paisley told the paper that he uses the internet easily but that his parents would struggle if the Government's plans went ahead. He said:

"My parents are both well into their 70s and they don't use the internet at all."

Ian McKee: Mr Henry rightly mentions the importance of consultation. Does he feel that it is wrong for the Scottish Government to consult on whether to end the automatic right for public information notices to be put in the press, when it was asked to do so by COSLA, which represents all local authorities?

Hugh Henry: It is a farce to consult on an issue to which there is such overwhelming opposition.

Another of my constituents, who lives in the west end of Paisley, is quoted in the paper as saying:

"We feel it's the thin end for the wedge. They could push through all sorts of planning things without anyone knowing."

That is the critical issue. As well as the financial blow to local newspapers, a huge democratic issue is involved. Those in power, whether councillors or Government ministers, will take decisions and no one will know what is happening. In essence, the Government case is based on cost savings; little consideration has been given to what many believe should be a fundamental part of the democratic process, which is that the information that legislation requires to be communicated to the public should be targeted to give maximum visibility on a cost-effective basis.

Yesterday, I spoke to a journalist who told me of decisions that are being taken "under the radar". In other words, decisions are being pushed through and no one knows about them. If it were not for local newspapers, how would my constituents, whose children are having their school transport removed, know about the decision? The council did not tell them in advance of its decision. Local newspapers were the only ones to highlight the issue.

Without local newspapers, how could my constituents campaign to save libraries that the council is attempting to close in Elderslie and Johnstone? Those local papers are the only means that people in our communities have of reading about what is going on in the council and of expressing their outrage. The suggestion challenges democracy, which will be under threat if the proposal goes ahead. We need healthy, campaigning and functional newspapers.