Highlands and Islands Labour MSPs, Rhoda Grant and David Stewart, have joined forces in asking government to step in to help the survival of local media throughout the region.
Both MSPs have been contacted by Highlands and Islands based media outlets who were struggling to compete with online media, with lack of business advertising, and who have been stretched even further since the outbreak of COVID-19.
Mr Stewart sought the help of Ian Murray MP, who is now Labour’s Shadow Scottish Secretary, in raising the issue with Ofcom before the COVID-19 outbreak. Ian Murray said at the time that he would write to Ofcom regarding the threat posed to local commercial media outlets by multinationals and that he will continue to work alongside David and other Labour colleagues to highlight the vital role that local newspapers play in our communities.
The Broadford based weekly newspaper West Highland Free Press stated last week: "After 2503 editions spanning 48 years we're devastated we won't be printing next week. A huge thanks to all in our great communities for the support and understanding. We aim to be back in June, but we'll also be staying online in the meantime." Stornoway-based EVENTS newspaper, the in-print cousin of welovestornoway,com, is continuing in publication.
EVENTS editor Fred Silver said: "The support of MSPs is welcome. However, newspapers and other media have to be wary of overt Government support, which is inevitably going to have strings attached. We are looking out for direct support from the communities which we serve."
MSP David Stewart said “I was pleased to have the support of our Westminster colleague, Ian Murray, as this is having a detrimental effect on our community based media groups and print businesses who are struggling to offer the same levels of support to charity and community groups in their area as they once did.
“In response Ofcom advised that several public bodies are looking at online advertising and its regulation. In 2018, the Government asked Dame Frances Cairncross to review the sustainability of high-quality journalism, including the role of digital advertising. Separately, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is also undertaking a market study into online platforms and digital advertising, and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is also conducting a review into the regulation of online advertising in the UK. Ofcom advised that it will be keeping a close eye on the outcome of this work and any relevant implications.”
Mr Stewart’s Highlands and Islands Labour colleague, Rhoda Grant, has now also called for funding support from the Scottish Government to be made available to the journalism sector or for current existing support to be extended to the sector.
Mrs Grant has been contacted by newspapers who believe they cannot access any support from the Scottish Government through the COVID-19 pandemic, even though their advertising income has plummeted. In addition, distribution has become harder as some paper shops are closed and generally people aren’t leaving their homes. Mrs Grant said “This has further impacted on income streams.”
She said the journalism sector cannot take full advantage of the furlough system that is now in place as journalists have been listed as “key workers” by the Westminster Government.
Mrs Grant has contacted both the Finance Secretary, Kate Forbes, and the Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop, asking if funding could be made available for the sector. She has suggested extending business rates relief to the journalism sector or by creating an individual grant for struggling media outlets. She has, in addition, suggested that the Scottish Government could buy advertising space to allow small local businesses to advertise for free, helping both the newspaper and the small business as it is now understood that the Scottish Government has paid local and nationwide newspapers for a coronavirus wrap around advertisement.
Mrs Grant said: “It has been long documented that small local newspapers have been struggling financially for some time now and it’s worrying that they face even further turmoil due to the coronavirus.
“These Government sponsored wrap around ‘stay-at-home’ newspaper advertisements are a welcome helping hand to newspapers as people depend on the journalism sector as a source of information – especially now. Big newspaper corporation’s will be able to survive this however, I am worried about the future of the small, local papers within the Highlands and Islands and I believe the Scottish Government could do more to help them through this so that they can continue to print now and for future years to come.”