Local news should be protected – not banned and boycotted by officialdom

Church Street council offices covered up; Council communications manager Amanda Graham and Scottish newspapers.

By Democrat reporter

The Society of Editors has welcomed the central theme of the Cairncross Review into the future of the UK media industry, particularly its focus on the need to protect the reporting of local news.

West Dunbartonshire Council refuses to recognise the right of local news organisations such as ours to be allowed to ask and expect to receive answers to questions unless they  join an obscure organisation called IPSO, which succeeded the lame duck Press Council which was disbanded following the Leveson Inquiry.

The Dumbarton Democrat has been banned from asking questions through the council’s communications department, which costs in the region of £500,000 a year,.

This is against all custom and practice, and we have been told to go through the complaints department or make Freedom of Information requests, which are time consuming and therefore expensive.

Other than this, the Council has never given a reason for banning The Democrat from asking questions – and neither have their political masters, the SNP administration, who have gone along with the ban and boycott.

Communications manager Amanda Graham sent us the following e mail – “On average, the communications team receives around a dozen media enquiries each week and this number is growing. As I’ve said previously I’m keen to ensure that all of the journalists we work with are regulated by IPSO and are therefore working to the Editor’s Code of Practice. This allows us to focus our resources and provides reassurance for everyone involved.  If you can provide me with confirmation that you are regulated by IPSO, I can ensure you are included in our media distribution lists.

“Any member of the public is entitled to ask questions of the Council or seek clarity on any matter relevant to the Council’s operation and can do this by contacting our customer services team or if applicable by seeking a response through our FoI team.”

Democrat editor Bill Heaney said: “Amanda Graham is well aware of my credentials as a journalist, as are her bosses. I have worked in and around Dumbarton for more than half a century.  The Council is not required by any law to demand any credentials of me other than my press card to show that I am a bona fide journalist.

“Apart from that, I have always believed that we lived in a democracy where the elected members made policy and it was implemented by officials. This clearly is not the case at West Dunbartonshire Council, where the freedom of the press is being challenged by this ban on me.”

The Cairncross Review underscores the importance of high-quality journalism and the role it plays in ensuring a vibrant, working democracy and that such a service is expensive to maintain.

The Society applauds calls set out in the review for the digital giants – Google, Facebook and Apple – to work more constructively with the media industry and proposals to seek new, innovative ways of funding quality news production.

The Society notes recommendations in the review that call for the establishing of a new digital regulator and an Institute for Public Interest News and looks forward to working with the government to ensure that such initiatives do not damage the vibrant and independent media industry in the UK.

“It is extremely gratifying that Dame Frances and her panel have underscored the need to protect and indeed reinvigorate the reporting of local democracy and open justice, areas which have suffered and continue to suffer as the industry contracts,” commented Society of Editors executive director Ian Murray.

 “An enlarging of the present Local Democracy Supporting Service, which sees funds from the BBC supporting around 150 local journalists covering councils, also makes sense, although again there is no indication where such funding would come from and on what scale.

“Crucial to all of the recommendations for what is really state support for the local media industry in particular, are the report’s insistence that bodies such as the proposed Institution are free from political and other interference in deciding what constitutes public interest news worth supporting. The Press in the UK has not fought long and hard to maintain its independence and freedom to then find itself regulated by state-appointed bodies, no matter how well meaning was their original creation.”

The Society welcomes recommendations to extend the current VAT exemption for newspapers to on-line publishers as well as magazines and considering charitable status to assist the industry.

Dame Frances said she had not been asked to look at the effect of the BBC on the market, but still felt it necessary to call on the broadcaster to work more in partnership with local media to act as complimentary rather than as a competitor to commercial news bodies.

Another of the report’s recommendations called for a regulator to be able to enforce a requirement on digital giants such as Google and Facebook and perhaps Apple to ensure that it is made clearer the sources of news carried on their sites.

“While proposals to ensure genuine news from reliable sources is easier to identify are to be welcomed, this is again an area that if poorly executed could lead to a situation where the digital giants feel obliged to block whole topics of news simply to avoid falling foul of a regulator, “ added Murray.

“We must not see the public’s ability to access fact-based and checked news, whether of public interest or just of interest to the public, reduced through well-intentioned but poorly executed new regulations.”

The Dumbarton Democrat is an independent, free to access digital newspaper in which all advertisements for community organisations and events go FREE. We receive no government grants of any description and all costs are met by the proprietor.

Full details of the Cairncross Review including a summary of findings and recommendations, can be found by visiting:

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