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Scottish Parliament Speech: Newspaper Industry (January 2010)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

I declare an interest, as a member of the board of the Scottish Review of Books and, I suppose, as a member of a journalistic family that goes back about 100 years. My grandfather ran a paper called the Motherwell Speaker and almost went bust as a result of a libel action.

I have never quite fathomed what Motherwell politics were like at the time, but they seem to have been lively. It is 50-odd years since, as Kipling said, “I sold my heart, to the old Black Art we call the daily Press, with my first articles as a freelance on The Scotsman.”

I apologise for my late arrival in the chamber, the circumstances of which suggest that we might learn a bit from local newspapers in other countries, notably in Europe - the area that lies on the other side of the Conservative solar system. My local paper in Tübingen, the Schwäbisches Tagblatt, publishes local bus and train timetables as they change, as part of a public service. The boundaries between public information notices and the ways in which newspapers can use them to increase circulation are fluid.

I welcome the consultation, because many interesting ideas are coming forward as a result of it, as is clear from the debate. However, even orthodox newspaper coverage is threatened. Long before the proposal that we are debating came up, people were lamenting that notices in local newspapers about local politics and coverage of council meetings were dying out. There have been developments, such as the freesheet, but we do not necessarily want to read about the private life of Jordan every day of the week. There has been a drift from the use of the newspaper as a means of reflecting the freelance world. The Herald in Glasgow publishes hardly any articles by freelance journalists.

Speakers from all parties have talked a lot of sense. We are in difficult times, and I would like the issue to be moved forward in some respects. The notion of a portal is significant and has been welcomed by Governments, and not just by the current Government. I am a user of the internet, which will have more and more readers as time goes on. However, I am aware of the disadvantages of purely visual forms of communication. Members should recollect that a recent report showed that about 25 per cent of the Scottish population has reading difficulties. Among the elderly - a group that I am about to enter - there is considerable need for some sort of oral internet from which we can get information.

At the same time, the funding stream of our printed press has been under constant attack.

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

I will suggest ways in which one can combine internet coverage and partnership with local newspapers. In Germany, there is a public official gazette that the local newspapers can pick up and use as part of their funding. Something like that could be of use here. As I suggested, we are not simply dealing with print media. We may be overestimating the impact of print media and underestimating the need to use other forms to reach people who are socially disadvantaged or elderly and lack expertise in handling new media. We could also spend a lot more time ensuring that our senior citizens - I stand more or less in the middle of that age group - are helped by back-up from younger people who have the hang of the media. We should always remember Groucho Marx's famous remark on trying to break into a safe. He turns to Chico and says: "This is easy. A child of three could do it" and then, about five minutes later, says: "Bring me a child of three!" We require an army of children of three that will make our older people capable of handling new media.

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