by Peter Urpeth
That news media ownership is a hot political issue at present, is not in doubt. The reader has only to look to the recent row surrounding Rupert Murdoch’s take over of BSKYB to see that plurality and competition in news media is an issue that can strike at the very heart of the coalition’s cabinet, and one that excites reasonably founded fears that media monopolies – or near monopolies – currently have or will have, too great an influence on our democracy.
But I am not in this blog going to examine the merits of the peculiar solution found to the issue of Murdoch’s ownership of SKY News that enabled Murdoch to proceed with his take over of the rest of BSKYB. Instead, I propose that whilst Vince Cable was busy declaring war on Murdoch, a real threat to democracy was and is taking place quietly, beyond the scrutiny of MPs, MSPs and statutory competition watchdogs on a very local level, and with very real implications for the future of local democracy. In turn, that means a threat to the vitality and strength of local communities, and no communities are more vulnerable to this than the fragile and remote communities of Scotland’s Highlands and Islands.
My experience of this issue is through being a reporter on, and subsequently Editor of the Stornoway Gazette, and then being the founding editor of The Hebridean, a newspaper established by a local company, as a rival to the Stornoway Gazette. At various times I have also worked on other newspapers including a short spell as editor of the Girvan Gazette when that was in the same ownership as the Stornoway Gazette.
During my editorship of the Stornoway Gazette, I endeavoured to increase that newspaper’s scrutiny of the local authority and the activities of our local MP, MSP and European representatives. I did so with a sense of duty toward the local community. At the same time I cancelled the weekly diary by the local MP on the basis that such content is little more than free advertising.
The newspaper in a very short time became something of cause celebre with the national tabloid press, and indeed in leader comment, The Express referred to me as the ‘self-appointed guardian of political correctness in the Western Isles.’ I am genuinely proud to be the subject of their disapproval. But on a local level, the Stornoway Gazette was not owned by a local company, and much of my dissatisfaction at the Editor’s job came from the interference of the then owner.
Shortly after leaving the Gazette, I became editor of The Hebridean. This was a new paper started by a small group of local businessmen with, it must be said, a shrewd eye for the opportunity and a keen sense of the need for the monopoly Stornoway Gazette to have a rival, especially due to the expense of its advertising and the bland ‘churnalism’ it had adopted as the main means of filling its pages. The Hebridean did well with a very small staff and with the limited resources of its owners. As soon as we started publishing, the Stornoway Gazette began to make large cuts in its advertising rates. It saw us as a real threat and moved to undercut our market and to restore its monopoly. It did this finally by buying The Hebridean and closing it down.
In that entire process, there was not room for a single consideration for the benefit to the local community of duality in local media or media ownership. The law provided us with no protection from our rival, event though we were delivering real benefits for the local community and for the local economy.
In Sweden, the position of The Hebridean as the smaller of two local papers would have entitled us to state-aid through a scheme that taxed the advertising revenues of the first or largest newspaper in the local area. The same would also have been true of another newspaper in the region, Orkney Today, that started at roughly the same time as The Hebridean and which was bought and closed by its rival, as part of a new company that acquired the two titles at the same time. Both The Hebridean and Orkney Today achieved significant reputations for the quality of their output, yet both are now closed. Does Sweden suffer from a democratic deficit from its enabling of this competition?
It is fair comment to say that the market must be allowed to function, but only if you consider that the value of local newspapers is such that they can be left to the vagaries of the market, and that the consequences of failure are acceptable. To me, they are not. Our local communities need local newspapers. They need this for news and information, and for local businesses to address their markets. Local newspapers are part of the vital glue that holds local communities together.
It is also my assertion that locally owned newspapers are far more likely to provide a decent quality of journalism than their non-local counterparts, even when both are in monopoly positions in local communities.
In terms of local newspaper ownership in Scotland’s Highlands and Islands, I found 34 local newspaper titles – defined by me as being published at least weekly; covering a specified or implied local area, and for commercial sale with advertising.
Of these 34 titles, 5 – or 15% – are currently in independent ownership – defined by me as being the sole title of a local publisher, or sole paid-for with an allied free advertiser. In addition the main regional daily in the Highlands & Islands, The P&J, is part of Aberdeen Journals Ltd, but this is owned by DC Thompson & Co. Ltd.
The main newspaper holdings in the region are:
Scottish Provincial Press – a local company but with 15 titles including Inverness Courier, Highland News, Ross-shire Journal, and with titles from John O’Groats to Lochaber, Nairn and Banffshire. The group also owns Highland Web offset in Dingwall, a major newspaper printing press in the region, printing SPP titles and other titles on a commercial basis belonging to other owners.
Johnston Press Ltd – major local newspaper ownership in Scotland, and third largest owner of local newspapers in the UK. JP has 5 local titles include: Stornoway Gazette, Buteman, Buchan Observer and titles in Deeside and Donside. Also has blanket ownership /coverage in Aberdeenshire, Angus, Perthshire, Edinburgh and other parts of the central belt, Borders and Dumfries and Galway.
Wyvex Media Ltd – are owners of Campbelltown Courier, Oban Times, Argyllshire Advertiser and The Arran Banner.
The independent titles are:
The Shetland Times (Shetland Times Ltd)
The Ileach (Ileach Ltd)
West Highland Free Press (WHFP)
Am Paipear (monthly)
The Dunoon Observer
plus a host of micro local titles including Fios, Ullapool News etc.
In the last seven years, as mentioned above, this list would have included two other titles – The Hebridean and Orkney Today. Both were bought by their main rivals, and both were closed restoring monopoly positions for The Orcadian and the Stornoway Gazette.
Of these titles, I would assert that even the titles in locally owned groups are more respected within their areas than those of the non-local group owners. This has a great deal to do with the centralised content management and production processes that the large group companies have adopted, and a great deal to do with the shrinking investment large groups make in their staff.
Of course, the issue of ownership is in many ways a secondary issue to the fact that many local newspapers are under immediate threat from reduced revenues as a consequence of the recession, and from changing patterns in the consumption of news media that is hitting newspaper sales and advertising. The risk of some local communities being left without a local newspaper is now more real than ever.
In its recently realised interim financial report for 2010, Johnston Press, although back to making a modest profit after a number of year’s of losses, lists its first means of cost saving in 2011 as: ‘Closure of titles and waste management’.
JP’s revenues for 2010 were down 7% to £398.1 million. Like for like print advertising sales were down 7.1% on the previous year, and revenues from newspaper sales were down 2.8% at £96.7 million. JP managed to reduce it operating costs by £30.1 million. Income from digital sources was up 4% to £18.3 million, with 3% growth in usage of its digital services, and overall digital accounts for about 5% of JP’s evenues. A tiny figure.
Reading JP’s mission statements, it is almost laughable to read how they describe themselves as a ‘local community publisher’, with content by produced by ‘local experts who believe Content Is King’. In Stornoway, this equates to Churnalism being King. And how does JP square this claim with its proud boast to have cut operating costs by 8% due to the centralisation of content management and production?
The issue of the relationship between sales of printed newspapers and the use of the internet as source of local news, is now also becoming clearer, and to some extent more settled – even in terms of advertising revenues, with declines in print advertising slowing and levelling out.
The growth of web-based news provision has been much cited by Government committees as a reason for the decline in sale of local newspapers. That might to some extent be true. But Ofcom figures from 2009 show that 61% of Scots surveyed buy a local newspaper (compared with the UK average of 41%), and 64% listen to local radio stations (compared with 55% UK average).
In short, local newspapers in Scotland have considerably greater reach than in the rest of the UK, and there is evidence that the struggle between print and web is now beginning to level and settle, and whilst local newspapers have taken a hit, it is not a knockout blow. But closures, are still a real possibility, and that cannot be allowed to happen. if the banks were considered too big to fail, then I suggest that on a local level local newspapers must be considered too important to fail, especially in those areas where there is a monopoly, a single local title. I believe local communities should be empowered to act against such a threat.
The coalition in Westminster has already dismissed the idea of state funding for local newspapers and media on the basis that such a move would itself be undemocratic. But this decision needs to be re-examined on the basis that it was considered only in terms of local media assets – such as newspapers and radio stations – being owned by private companies, or possibly coalitions of local media owning companies.
Nowhere has the issue of alternative forms of ownership been properly assessed, and I propose that State funding (or State assistance) for local community owned media would ensure democracy on a local level, and not threaten it so long as their was the opportunity for shift in the form and nature of ownership of local media assets.
In conclusion, I would like to draw on recent experiences in the Highlands and islands of communities taking control of their destinies in the form of land reform and buy-outs, and I propose that this model is one that could and should inform how we address the issue of threat posed to local communities by monopoly position media assets, and by the closure of local newspapers.
What I propose – and this might require a significant slice of new powers either being devolved to the Scottish Parliament or coming as a consequence of independence in Scotland – is that communities be given the right and the means to acquire fundamentally important local media assets (such as local newspapers) in all circumstances from their private owners (as a first right of refusal), and where that media asset operates in a monopoly, to do so by compulsory purchase if the current owner is not willing to sell.
Communities could be owners through Trusts (as has happened wth land buy-outs), or social enterprises, and should be given the support necessary to run media assets as productive, independent local news organisations.
I recall the days before land buy-outs when the abilities of local communities to take on the large role of estate management and development was often called into doubt, and the same negativity will, I’m ure, be hurled at this proposal. But I do believe that local does not mean inept or weak, and I believe that with support and with the process of gaining experience, local media assets could become unique beckons of independence in an increasingly centralised media world. The local media owning trust would not e permitted to acquire other local or non-local media assets.
I assert that it would be good business for government to invest in community buy-outs of important local media assets, and the dividend comes in terms of the contribution such assets could make in terms of community strength and the strength of local economies.
To avoid issues of interference by governmental organisations, I also propose that the administration of the community media asset / buy out, and the decision-making process for the allocation of funds ec, should be at arm’s length through independent Trusts or similar.
In community ownership, State funding for local newspapers, does not risk local democracy, rather it would provide a new opportunity for local democracy and local participation.
If you’d like to discuss these issues come along to the Ramada Jarvis Hotel Inverness at 12.45pm on Friday 10th June 2011, when I’m chairing a panel discussion entitled Media As A Community Asset, held as part o Go North 2011.