The Scottish Government is presently consulting on its plans for changing the law to allow public information notices to be advertised electronically, in place of newspapers.
Its case is based on delivering cost savings with little, if any, consideration for what is a fundamental part of the democratic process, namely, that information which legislation requires to be communicated to the public should be targeted to give maximum visibility on a cost-effective basis.
All the evidence is that such information posted on a CoSLA [Convention of Scottish Local Authorities] website will fail to reach the public when, according to broadcasting regulators, Ofcom, only three per cent of people in Scotland use the internet as the main source of information about their local area compared to 28 per cent using newspapers. The UK Government recognised this 'democratic deficit' when it announced last month that there would be no changes to rules which oblige councils in England to advertise planning applications in their local newspapers.
The previous month, the UK Government, in responding to a report of the Scottish Affairs Committee, agreed that “there should not be a policy of publishing public notices only online. While notifying bodies have a duty to be efficient they must also use appropriate means to reach their target audience, and should not adopt a policy of publishing online simply to save money”.
The Scottish Newspaper Society – representing local, regional and national press – is in no doubt that notwithstanding the views of the UK Government and the Scottish Affairs Committee, local authorities, if permitted, will abandon the advertising of PINs in newspapers for no other reason than to save money.
Yes, the newspaper industry has a financial interest to declare, given that public notices, like all forms of advertising, provide important income to sustain a newspaper’s ability to report local, national and international news. But, let’s be clear, the industry does not seek public subsidy.
Newspapers are entirely supportive of the need to drive efficiencies across the public sector but not by denying the public’s right to know.
We are greatly encouraged that our view is shared by the opposition parties in the Scottish Parliament.
Jim Raeburn, Director, Scottish Newspaper Society