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Recommendations made to Scottish Government by media industry working group 'to safeguard' the future of public interest journalism in Scotland

By Ali Morrison

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The working group hopes its recommendations will help 'safeguard' the future of public interest journalism in Scotland.
The working group hopes its recommendations will help 'safeguard' the future of public interest journalism in Scotland.

A NEW Scottish institute for public interest journalism is at the heart of a series of recommendations published today in a bid to "safeguard the future of news gathering in Scotland".

The Public Interest Journalism working group was established by the Scottish Government last year in response to industry-wide concerns that more support was needed to sustain quality journalism at all levels in Scotland.

It was made up of 14 industry representatives, picked from across Scotland's media landscape – from national newspaper groups, to local and regional publications, as well as union figures. Three Scottish Government representatives from the creative industries were also part of the 17-strong working group.

And it has now made eight key recommendations – including exploring the possibility that community groups might take over any local publication at risk of closure, work to create a new institute for public interest journalism, and the launch of voucher schemes enabling teens to access public interest journalism free of charge.

Welcoming the publication of the recommendations, Scottish Newspaper Society director, John McLellan, said: “The proposals are ambitious and innovative but also deliverable, and can put Scotland at the forefront of the international quest to secure a sustainable future for public interest journalism.

“Scotland has a justifiable reputation for brilliant journalism, not for its own sake but for the benefits fearless, independent reporting brings to all parts of society. The technological revolution has created significant challenges which the sector cannot solve on its own, but we believe solutions are at hand.

“If fully implemented, our recommendations will help ensure a viable future for independent public scrutiny of decision making and democratic accountability in Scotland at local, regional and national levels.

“The working group drew from the different components of the news publishing sector, from hyper-local to international, and we are confident our proposals can provide the basis for a stable and flourishing sector in which rewarding careers can be sustained.”

Highland News and Media was represented in the working group by Stuart Birkett, who is non-executive director at the publishing firm.

Steve Barron, publishing director at Highland News and Media, said: "The appetite for trusted news sources is as strong as ever, evidenced by the unprecedented levels of growth of visitors to news publishers' websites during the pandemic.

"Like all other publishers, Highland News and Media places the highest importance on public interest journalism. We exist to help our local communities be well informed and engaged on issues which impact their daily lives.

"This report is an excellent first step on the industry, government and stakeholders working together to ensure that public interest journalism remains accessible and that business models are sustainable."

The eight key recommendations are:

  • That the Scottish Government helps establish a new, independent Scottish Public Interest Journalism Institute to co-ordinate new and existing initiatives, and administer grant funding to support a diverse and sustainable Scottish public interest media sector.
  • That the Scottish Government and OSCR, the Scottish charity regulator, enable non-profit public interest news providers to register as charities, and grant tax benefits to other non-profit public interest news providers.
  • Embed media literacy in the school curriculum, and launch a voucher scheme for 15-19 year-olds to access public interest journalism free of charge.
  • Launch a feasibility study for provisions to allow community groups to take over a local news publication set to close.
  • Carry out an annual official audit of advertising and marketing investment by the Scottish Government and public bodies, including the impact of this expenditure on the health of Scottish news publishing. The Scottish Government should invest no less than 25 per cent of its central advertising and marketing budget with public interest news providers.
  • That Audit Scotland conducts an annual audit of public notices, and the Scottish Government improves the accessibility of public notices and strengthen ties with public interest journalism. Produce best-practice guidelines for local authorities and other public bodies.
  • That the Scottish Government works with the UK government to ensure the new Digital Markets Unit enables public interest news providers of all shapes and sizes to thrive in the digital economy. Scottish Government to encourage big tech companies to support the new Scottish Public Interest Journalism Institute.
  • That the Scottish Government to engage with the UK government to create tax incentives for businesses to advertise with public interest news providers.

Welcoming the working group's efforts, Angus Robertson, cabinet secretary for the constitution, external affairs and culture, said the Scottish Government would look at the recommendations "carefully".

He said: “A strong and vibrant news sector is essential to a well-functioning democracy. I’d like to thank the working group for the recommendations which we’ll consider carefully before responding.”

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