The decline of local journalism, including staff cuts and centralisation of offices away from the towns they cover, is a threat to democracy and is fuelling the rise in fake news, Theresa May said while launching a review into whether state intervention was needed to preserve national and local newspapers.
Veteran journalist Bill Heaney, editor of The DEMOCRAT, has been calling for many years for a Royal Commission on the Press and for the Scottish Government to intervene as local newspaper sales plunge through the floor and haemorrhage advertising revenue.
He said: “I raised this matter at a meeting some years ago with the then Scottish Enterprise Minister, but no one in Government seems to care about the demise of local newspapers and the death of democracy here in Scotland.
“Successive cheapskate governments – and this goes back to the Labour First Minister Donald Dewar – and local authorities such as West Dunbartonshire Council have cut off the advertising lifeblood of local papers and switched it to the internet and free publications which do no real reporting or commenting on local affairs but suck up substantial income from local councils. We have one right here in West Dunbartonshire.”
Mr Heaney, an award winning columnist and one-time special adviser to the First Minister of Scotland, added: “Openness, transparency and access to public forums for debate are no longer a consideration for these people or for the SNP Member of Parliament and councillors here.
“It doesn’t seem to matter whether they are Tory, Labour, SNP or Green, they appear to be content with the situation. It is an absolute scandal and should not be allowed to continue.
“It would appear that politicians who don’t like their business – that is public business being paid for by public money – being held up to public scrutiny are being vindictive.
“They need to grow up and embrace a mature democracy instead of going off in the huff every time they are challenged over their decisions.”
The SNP in Dunbartonshire and Helensburgh have declined to send media releases to The Democrat or to answer calls for comments on controversial matters such as why Cllr Iain MacLaren though it was a good idea to sell Langcraigs Old People’s Home to a company with a questionable track record.
Cllr MacLaren was asked for an answer to this question last September. He appears to have boycotted us while we have not boycotted him or his SNP colleagues (see story about recycling posted today and many other stories in The DEMOCRAT).
The UK investigation, according to the Guardian, is set to examine the rise of low-quality “clickbait” news and whether more could be done by either the industry or government to undermine commercial incentives to produce such content.
Speaking in Manchester to mark 100 years since the Representation of the People Act, which extended the vote to all men over 21 and some women over the age of 30, the Prime Minister said advances in modern technology were having “a profound impact on one of the cornerstones of our public debate – our free press”.
The review will examine the supply chain for digital advertisers and whether content creators, rather than platforms, are getting enough of the revenue. May said the review would examine “whether industry or government-led solutions” were needed to help tackle the issue.
The prime minister, wearing a purple jacket and suffragette pin, called journalism “a huge force for good” but said its existence was under threat. “Good quality journalism provides us with the information and analysis we need to inform our viewpoints and conduct a genuine discussion,” she said. “But in recent years, especially in local journalism, we have seen falling circulations, a hollowing-out of local newsrooms and fears for the future sustainability of high-quality journalism.”
May said that more than 200 local papers had closed since 2005, naming several in Greater Manchester including the Salford Advertiser, Trafford Advertiser and Wilmslow Express. About two-thirds of local authority areas do not have a daily local newspaper.
“This is dangerous for our democracy. When trusted and credible news sources decline, we can become vulnerable to news which is untrustworthy,” she said. “So to address this challenge to our public debate we will launch a review to examine the sustainability of our national and local press. It will look at the different business models for high-quality journalism.”
May said the review would consider whether “the creators of content are getting their fair share of the advertisement revenue” from the articles they produced. “Digital advertising is now one of the essential sources of revenue for newspapers, the review will analyse how that supply chain operates,” she said. “A free press is one of the foundations on which our democracy is built and it must be preserved.”
Welcoming the announcement, Ian Murray, Executive Director of the Society of Editors, said the review was welcome as it underscored the government’s recognition of the importance and high standards of the British press.
“At a time when it seems the Press both locally and nationally is under extreme pressures from a number of sources, it is gratifying that the Prime Minister recognises that it plays a vital role in the health of the nation,” said Murray.
“No serious democracy that wishes to hold its government and those in high office to account can permit the erosion of a free and vibrant media.
“All too often it seems we hear the siren voices of some in power who wish for the press or some sections to be muted. This, coupled with economic pressures present as the industry copes with the challenges of a new digital age has meant there are genuine fears that freedom of expression itself is at risk.
“I’m delighted therefore that the government is sending a strong message that it appreciates an independent media in this country and is seeking ways to protect it for future generations.”
In a statement after May’s speech, Hancock said the industry was facing “an uncertain future” and the review would ensure the UK did not lose a vibrant, independent and plural free press. Hancock said it would examine “clickbait” news to consider if action needed to be taken to reduce its commercial incentive.
The review would also examine how data created or owned by news publications was collected and distributed by online platforms.
David Dinsmore, chair of the News Media Association, said he welcomed the plans: “This review acknowledges the importance of journalism in a democratic society, the vital role that the press takes in holding the powerful to account and producing verified news which informs the public. Viable business models must be found that ensure a wide variety of media are able to have a long and healthy future.”
A panel of experts will be appointed to lead the review in the coming months, with a final report expected early 2019.