Scottish Government backs off moving public information notices to free online access

The Scottish Government, under Cabinet Secretary John Swinney, has long identified for reform the practice of local authorities and the Government spending money on newspaper advertising of public information notices (PINS) such as planning applications, tenders and public health information.

It felt, rightly, that the mass migration of audiences and content to the Internet left this practice of paying for print publication out of kilter with today’s society and unnecessarily wasteful.Local authorities currently spend a total of £6 million per annum on advertising such notices.

Government has a statutory duty to provide such notices to the public domain but this can now be fulfilled in more than one way.

Its consequent proposal to remove PINS to website-only availability in the near future caused a predictable furore. The newspaper industry, national and local, found an energy for vigorous protectionist lobbying against the proposal which it has failed to show in taking steps to ensure the viability of its own future.

The move to the Internet of audiences, content and advertising revenues has been marked and constant for a considerable time. The threat to much information delivery by print has been serious and clear.

Newspapers, in the days before they lost a high proportion of their audiences to the Internet, had the opportunity to seize change – as any vigorous industry must do. They should have accepted the inevitable, embraced the opportunities of the new medium with invention and shepherded their audiences, while they had them, to their own new online services.

Instead of this they have fought a doomed rearguard action, seeking to preserve their traditional practices in the face of evidence of progressive failure.

Yes, they have websites – but with few exceptions, these do not use the immediacy of the internet in information delivery to any great extent. News can be a day old in the nationals and the major provincials and, as in print, a week old in the local press websites.

As we have often said, the concept of ‘keeping’ news for a week is nothing less than bizarre in today’s world – but hey, that’s what they do and that’s what we’re used to.

The ‘last orders’ call in the last chance saloon is daily nearing.

But instead of getting to grips with what they need to do to survive, the newspapers – an industry whose previous weddedness to so-called ‘Spanish Practices’ almost killed it off before – have simply fought to protect what is nothing more than a public subsidy: being paid to print government public notices that can more effectively, searchably, be provided free elsewhere.

With opposition parties grasping at anything resembling activity, the lobby has been successful.

The minority Scottish Government has accepted that it cannot muster the support needed from the other parties to get the reform measures through the Scottish Parliament. It has now withdrawn from this proposal.

This is of course no more than a stay of execution. PINS will, sooner or later, be published only on the Internet and will be freely available there.

If the newspaper industry uses this subsidy to buy itself time to make up lost ground on Internet services as best it can, it will be money worth paying – in the short term.

It is in Scotland’s interest that it should do so.

The growth of a strong, independent, vigilant, informed and fast news information service is the only hope we have to offer scrutiny to an increasingly authoritarian, unaccountable and baldly dishonest UK government.

In the meantime, For Argyll will continue what, presciently, it began last week – publishing free the weekly digest of planning applications submitted to Argyll and Bute Council.

The Scottish government will continue to develop its online advertising portal for the public sector; and the vacuous Ian Gray, Leader of the Scottish Labour group described the withdrawal of the legislation as ‘a victory for local newspapers’.

Can he spell the word ‘pyrrhic’? He – and the newspapers – may learn to do so.

Note: Argyll and Bute Council spent £118,000 on advertising public information notices in the year 2008-2009.

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Related Articles & Comments

  • The consultation process about the placing of Public Information Notices (PINs) was initiated by the local authority organisation CoSLA at the time of the previous adminstration and was designed to free the councils and other statutory bodies from the obligation of placing PINs in local newspapers. Councils could, if they so chose, advertise in local papers but the compulsion that exists today would be removed. Many who increasingly obtain their information from IT screens could see that this was an efficient and effective means of obtaining information. I now use the forargyll site to oversee Planning Applications and can do so quickly and conveniently. For me that is progress.It has always been the fact that those directly affected by planning applications receive neighbour notifications to it seems odd that there could be any suggestion that such announcements could avoid scrutiny.It is in the positive interest for local authorities to ensure that their public is informed.

    The arguments about accessibility will persist but it is udeniable that the circulation of newspapers is in decline and the use of IT is growing. Eventual change is inevitable.At present around 60% and falling of the population read local newspapers. Around 60% of the population and rising have access to a computer. How many computer users search for public notices is not known but a survey suggests that as few as 2% of the 60 % read the PINs in the papers.

    Obviously the local and national newspapers were opposed to such a move as they derive substantial income from the present arrangement. The opposition from the papers to the proposal is understandable but that of the opposition MSPs en bloc is more problematical. Remember that the Lab/LibDem government were the first recipients of the CoSLA request. It costs the local authorities around £6 million per annum to place advertisements that hardly anyone reads at a time of severe financial restraint was the reported response of the Chair of CoSLA. The SNP government has no particular axe to grind in advancing this legislation and it is clear that it would not succeed at this time.Could it be that this was opposition for opposition’s sake or rather cynical cosying up to the local media?

    Safe to say that this change will eventually take place and this is merely a delay in the inevitable

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

    Ken MacColl March 18, 2010 2:25 pm Reply

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