South Scotland MSP Colin Smyth has paid tribute to the invaluable work of local papers, during a debate in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday.

The local MSP was speaking during a debate on Covid-19 and the role of local newspapers, following the news that the Scottish Government has decided not to extend business rate relief to Scottish newspaper publishers for the coming year, while extending it for other sectors such as retail and hospitality. Finance Secretary Kate Forbes has also confirmed that there will be no renewal of the advertising support package.

Speaking during the debate Colin Smyth said: “Newspapers are struggling partly because retail and hospitality are also struggling. Lockdown means that our shops, hotels, restaurants and pubs currently have little to advertise in our newspapers. The fact that fewer people are visiting our high streets due to lockdown means that fewer of them are picking up a paper.

“Therefore, if the extension of rates relief is needed for retail and hospitality, it is also absolutely needed for our newspapers. The same can be said for a continuation of the advertising support that has been so critical to supporting newspapers over the past year and so important in helping to get across our key public health messages.”

He continued: “Our newspapers were already facing challenging times before the pandemic.  The small teams left at many of our local papers are performing miracles to keep stories flowing week in, week out.

“However, sadly, many titles have not been able to keep going in recent years. Others have been on the brink of printing their final edition altogether, such as the Eskdale & Liddesdale Advertiser in my region, which, just a few years ago, was saved from closure by the local community, who stepped in to keep the printing presses running—not just because of the paper’s 168-year history but because of its important role in serving the community, which it continues to do right now

“As we have already heard, during the pandemic some titles, such as the Stranraer and Wigtownshire Free Press, stopped printing for a period during the first lockdown but have been able to fight back and are now up and running again, delivering for the local community.

“The pandemic has brought home to us all how important the role of local newspapers is, not just in keeping readers up to date with stories affecting their lives in their community but in providing a reliable and trusted source of information.

“At a time when verified and factual public health advice has never been more essential and in the face of the plague of misinformation that we see every day on social media, the trusted journalism from our local newspapers is crucial.

“The decision by the Scottish Government to extend rates relief for other sectors into the next financial year but to axe that relief for newspapers and pull back on advertising really is a case of trying to undermine that role and kicking a sector when it is down.”

At the end of the debate the Government were defeated in a vote and MSPs backed a motion which stated: “That the Parliament recognises the vital role that local newspapers have played in keeping people informed during the COVID-19 pandemic; believes that a vibrant newspaper sector is essential for democracy, and calls on the Scottish Government to extend business rates relief to newspapers during 2021-22.”

In addition to this, MSPs also supported an amendment from Labour to add “to ensure that its advertising budget spend is invested in a way that supports innovative journalism and regional and local news”. Colin Smyth is now urging the Government to listen to the will of Parliament and adhere to the motion and amendment.

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