WHY ARE THE SNP IGNORING PRESS FREEDOM?

BILL HEANEY’S NOTEBOOK

I swithered this morning about going out and taking a few pictures of the almost deserted streets of Dumbarton.

These were to illustrate updates I had written on the coronavirus and other news in The Democrat.

And my intention was to ask a few questions of local people who had met the key worker criteria which allows them the freedom to go out and about, or had broken out of social isolation.

We hope our readers consider that we have done a relatively good job of covering the coronavirus story, which is the biggest story I have covered in 60 years in journalism.

These include the Pipe Alpha disaster, the Lockerbie bombing and the so-called Troubles in Northern Ireland.

It is sobering to think that more people could die in a few weeks with corona virus than died in 30 years of conflict in the Six Counties.

According to media website HoldThe FrontPage (HTFP) today, newspaper industry executives have demanded Scottish journalists are given the same ‘key worker’ status as their English counterparts.

The Scottish Newspaper Society (SNS) has called on the Scottish Government to categorise journalists in such a way, following Westminster-based culture secretary Oliver Dowden’s announcement in relation to those working in England.

HTFP reports: “Mr Dowden has confirmed that print journalists and necessary ancillary staff are included as key workers in the Government’s list of people who are critical to the coronavirus response.

“But in Scotland, decisions on who is classed as a key worker are set to be taken at local council level, with potential for different local authorities to come up with varying definitions.

“A guide produced for Scottish local authorities by the Scottish Government in Holyrood makes no specific reference to journalists.”

I greeted this news with dismay. My own chances of being defined as a key worker are zero since the SNP Council here are unlikely to lift the ban and boycott they have imposed on The Democrat since last July.”

Regular readers will know the details of this ongoing, anti-democratic dikat, so I will spare you from providing the details yet again.

However, the consequences of the virus lockdown for the newspaper industry came literally to our doorsteps this week when newspaper delivery persons announced that due to the current situation with the corona virus, it is not safe for them to be coming round our doors to make deliveries.

Our own delivery girl dropped a note through the letterbox, which said: “I am sure you will understand and I am very sorry as you have been great customers these past few years.”

There was a note of hope that our local newspaper will survive. The final paragraph said: “Keep safe and when this is all over I will hopefully start things up again.”

We can only hope that will be the case since production of the Lennox Herald has been significantly scaled down in recent times with redundancies and even the closure of their High Street office.

What if the Lennox Herald and other local newspapers, whose sales figures have been dropping like a stone,  fail to survive the coronavirus? Will this be the final nail in their coffin?

What will the Council do then to get its message out to the public?

They are surely not going to continue their ban and boycott of The Democrat, which would get their news and information out to the public?

Would they rather stand on their dignity and let people become seriously ill or even die through their deprivation of vital information across to a significant group of people who might not otherwise be warned about the imminent danger?

People don’t have to leave the house or depend on door delivery persons to receive local news. They can get it at the press of a few buttons on a telephone, i pad or PC via The Democrat.

Times are a changing but West Dunbartonshire Council is so last century, not to say petty minded.

Advertising from the Council is nothing like it was. Most of it goes on-line. The revenue from it has reduced dramatically over the past 20 years.

The “news” side of the Council’s own website is far from impressive. The number of stories it has had about coronavirus and how the public should deal with it pales into insignificance when compared with The Democrat.

One wonders why the highly-paid person in charge of Communications has also been given responsibility for the bins when there is still so much still to do in regard to press and public relations.

Scottish Newspaper Society (SNS) director, John McLellan, is calling for clarification as to what constitutes classification as aa “key worker”.

He said: ‘There is the potential for 32 different definitions of key worker across Scotland, which will be complex for Police Scotland to enforce.

“We hope the Scottish Government will recognise the importance of our communities being able to access vital, trusted information, particularly the elderly and isolated who might not have internet access.

“The UK Government has rightly recognised the importance people being able to receive reliable information, both locally and nationally, and that independent news publishers have a key role to play.

“We have been in discussion with senior civil servants and politicians and we hope the Scottish Government will follow suit.

“’The vast majority of editorial personnel are now working entirely from home, but without official direction there is a possibility we won’t be able to get our papers into supermarkets and corner shops so people can get a paper with valuable local news along with their groceries.

“We are also speaking to Cosla [Convention of Scottish Local Authorities] to see if they will follow UK guidelines and allow councils to add as local circumstances dictate.”

The SNS has also called for Holyrood to divert cash spent on Facebook and Google advertising to be invested in local media, and facilitate access to immediate interest-free loans for working capital.

McLellan added: “The First Minister has promised more clarity for all businesses later this week and we very much hope this includes recognition of news publishing’s role in the crisis and the contribution it will make in the recovery.”

One can only hope that Mr McLellan has more luck than I had when, on behalf of a host of local newspapers, I told the then Enterprise Minister, Jim Mather, that the government and local government’s policy of diverting public notices, which had been ritually placed for a century and more in local newspapers, would lead eventually to the demise of weekly newspapers in Scotland.

Nearly 250 local papers have folded since then, councils and courts are not covered daily as they were and West Dunbartonshire Council have banned and boycotted The Democrat without as much as a nod in the direction of the ancient Scottish tradition of Freedom of the Press.

This could never happen in an Independent Scotland? Or is that the direction of travel for the SNP?


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