Posted: Wed 10th Jul 2024

Plaid & Conservatives vote to keep public notice ‘subsidy’ status quo for legacy print newspapers

Wrexham.com for people living in or visiting the Wrexham area

Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Conservatives joined forces to ensure a huge ‘subsidy’ of public money will continue to prop up legacy print newspaper publishers – for now.

At a debate yesterday on Stage 3 of the Local Government (Wales) Finance Bill, Welsh Conservative Peter Fox MS introduced an amendment saying Welsh Conservatives backed the position to continue placing Council Tax statutory notices in newspapers.

As part of the Bill the Welsh Government had proposed removing this requirement – which often sees unreadable notices placed in the back pages of a newspaper.

Peter Fox MS said: “While there has been a move of most things online, it’s important to note that these online notices are not always accessible to everyone. There are people who rely on the publication of these notices in newspapers, and maintaining this will help to increase accountability and transparency.

“While we accept that the Cabinet Secretary noted that, if a local authority wanted to keep using papers to publish notices, this section will not remove that from them, the Welsh Conservatives believe that it is still important for these notices to continue to be published in local newspapers, as it will ensure that this information will be accessible to everyone.”

“What we were hoping we could have done was to find a transition period that would enable this to kick in over a five-year period. We weren’t able to do so, so I will be moving forward with the amendment as is.”

Peter Fox MS also confirmed that formal protection of the subsidy during an incredible five year ‘transition period’ had been discussed, but had not made it to the Senedd floor to be put to a vote.

Coincidentally earlier this year Reach PLC Chief Exec was quoted by the Guardian pointing to the company looking at a five to seven year window regarding print – more here.

Plaid Cymru backed the Welsh Conservative position, with Peredur Owen Griffiths MS saying that stopping the subsidy of legacy media via such notices would “would “deprive local journalism of vital source of revenue at a time when such media sources are under sustained financial pressure.”

Peredur Owen Griffiths MS said: “Not only would this be a retrograde step in terms of upholding the rights of the public to access information, especially those that are digitally excluded, as often highlighted by the older people’s commissioner.

“Wales is particularly poorly served by its media environment, caused in part by the retreat of local journalism from our communities over recent years.

“This provision of the Bill would undoubtedly compound the issue, which brings with it broader detrimental implications for the democratic health of our nation.”

There was no speculation as to exactly whom was ‘retreating’ from local journalism from our communities, and if they were the same entities who benefit from the status quo of ‘subsidy’ via public notices.

Welsh Labour’s Hefin David MS, interjected, stating: “I’ve spoken to the editor of the Caerphilly Observer, and one of the things that Richard Gurner said is that this is a subsidy, as you say, to an extent, but we also need an honest discussion about how we subsidise hyperlocal journalism, and really, in future, this isn’t going to be the way to do it. We need to think carefully about how we do it, and a further discussion is needed on that. ”

Peredur Owen Griffiths MS continued with a stat, provided by some of those who benefit from the public notice revenue.

“The appetite for printed public notices of this kind clearly remains widespread among the Welsh general public,” explained Peredur Owen Griffiths MS.

“A recent survey by the News Media Association found that 47 per cent of respondents from Wales used local news media to inform themselves of council tax decisions, the highest proportion of all UK nations.

“The rationale for introducing clause 20 to the Bill is therefore based on assumptions on the digital engagement, and pose unnecessary risks to the commercial viability of local print journalism.”

Welsh Labour’s Jenny Rathbone MS pointed out that changes to Council Tax are already directly mailed by local authorities to households.

She added that “a lot of newspaper notices are actually unreadable to most people, because they’re in a font that is so small that particularly elderly people, which are some of the most avid readers of local newspapers, are simply not going to be able to read them.”

Welsh Labour’s Lee Waters MS added: “I think it’s important we don’t confuse means and ends here. I think the ends we want to see is to support local journalism.

“Subsidising impenetrable advertisements is not the way to do that. We want to support accessibility for people to information.

“Publishing impenetrable advertisements in these papers is not the way to do that. We’re not going to reach agreement today but I think this does throw up that this is a much more complex issue than is being presented, and does require further thinking from us all. ”

Welsh Labour’s Alun Davies MS followed up his colleague, referencing a tiny circulation of a newspaper in Wales of just 393 (It is actually now down to 279 – table below).

“I agree very much with that. I disagree with what was being said earlier,” he argued.

“The circulation of the Gwent Gazette is 393 people. Now, the readership will be somewhat higher than that, clearly, but to suggest that this is a means of communication for a local authority or anyone else is simply a nonsense.

“It simply isn’t true. The numbers don’t sustain the argument

“At a time when particularly the Conservatives are talking about saving some public expenditure, the state funding of some of the largest newspaper groups in the country is probably not the place to start.

“So, I would suggest that—. The Cabinet Secretary has made this agreement this afternoon, but I would suggest we revisit this very quickly because at the moment what we are doing is saying on the one hand that public services are under enormous pressure, and on the other hand we’re going to throw away tends and hundreds of thousands of pounds on advertisements that are read by virtually nobody.”

Welsh Labour’s Mike Hedges made a trio of confusing points, with newspapers printed to ‘keep local people happy’, authenticity issues of information on social media and trying to link public notices to the – optional for those who decide not to use services covered- TV licence fee.

In an odd analogy it was unclear if he favoured making a TV licence statutory for all to continue a subsidy.

He prefaced his comments promising clarity of explanation due to his background: “I think that, coming from a working-class background, I have to explain things to some people. There’s a lot of elderly people who rely on printed media in order to get information.

“There’s also a problem of people putting things out on social media and other forms of media that are easily edited, easily changed to give entirely incorrect information.

“And I think that you can rely fairly carefully on what is printed in a local newspaper because they need to keep local people happy. That may not be true of national newspapers.

“But, if we’re talking about subsiding things, can somebody explain to me why we have Radio 1 where we subsidise pop music?”

With a clear split with some in Welsh Labour the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Constitution and Cabinet Office Rebecca Evans noted that Section 20 of the dull-but-important Finance bill had “been the surprise star of the show”.

She said that the way people consume news had changed since the “statutory requirement for local authorities to publish council tax notices was put in place in 1992”.

Rebecca Evans MS continued onto add: “I’m afraid I also don’t think it’s reasonable to argue that the loss of revenue generated from one advert per financial year, which might bring in as little as £600, would make a newspaper unsustainable.

“But I do agree with colleagues this afternoon who have talked about the importance of having that wider discussion about what’s really a much more complex issue in terms of how we support local media and also how we communicate most effectively with residents.

“An annual advert published on an unspecified day in March that reaches less than an estimated 1.5 per cent of residents doesn’t appear to achieve the outcome of effective communication.

“Having said all of that, I do absolutely recognise the strength of feeling amongst colleagues on this particular issue, and I’m always keen to find areas of compromise, where we can, and to work with other parties.

“I have had to ask colleagues to resist other amendments today, because of the potential unintended consequences that might negatively impact on taxpayers, but I don’t think that this amendment is in that space.

“So, in the spirit of listening to colleagues and also listening to stakeholders and respecting those conversations, we’ll be abstaining in the vote on this particular amendment today.”

Other amendments on the Finance Bill fell away – all but consistently 24 v 25 – however on the question on the future of public notices in the back of newspapers it was 24 with 23 abstaining and two against.

As the worked example below shows, there are a large number of uninformed people across Wales, and currently legally they will be officially communicated to, but in reality that is not happening.

(Top pic: Example of tax payers, via Welsh Government, paying for white space in the back of a newspaper in Wales via this type of public notice law.)

 

Worked example of lack of communication via such notices:

Flintshire has 155,319 people living there. 128,000 of those people are over the age of 16.

The Leader product that covers that area has a circulation of 3,041. The circulation certificate says 65% are for Wrexham edition so 1976 copies and 35% for Flintshire edition so just 1,064 copies there.

In Flintshire alone Stats Wales say there are 16,000 ‘older people’ (75+). The Older Peoples Commissioner say roughly a third of older people could be classed as digitally excluded ( Source: ‘Access Denied’ report 2024) – so 5,280 such excluded people in this example.

  • Let’s assume every single purchaser of The Leader Flintshire edition is a digitally excluded older person and makes up the entire 1,064 circulation, and no one else buys a copy.

  • Let’s assume the obligation to pay £0.95 every weekday, £4.75 a week or around £240 a year, to stay informed is a fair requirement in our society for older digitally excluded people (in a cost of living crisis) .

  • Let’s assume they all read every paper from front to the back – where the statutory notices are.

  • Let’s assume they can read the usually very small print the notices use – as referenced in one Senedd committee.

This still could leave 4,216 digitally excluded people with zero communication in Flintshire. Currently there is no legal requirement to communicate with them, so it can’t be challenged. The new law on the table would have made it legally challengeable.

This also leaves the other 112,000 adults in Flintshire entirely uninformed. Not updating the law leaves the 27,000 under 16’s, future generations, who are likely never going to grow up buying newspapers, with an out of date law.

Circulations

More circulation data from ABC.org.uk certificates below. ABC say the certificates “contain all the data we have for a product for a particular period”, are “trusted” data, and are industry standard. The certificate figure is ‘circulation average per issue’ – Statutory Notices usually appear just once. Data accessed from ABC.org.uk July 2024. 

Title / Circulation average per issue / PDF source

Western Mail 5271 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50783645.pdf
South Wales Echo 4574 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50826560.pdf
South Wales Evening Post 5471 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50825909.pdf
Daily Post 8350 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50807587.pdf
South Wales Argus 3623 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50828782.pdf
The Leader 3041 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50826166.pdf
South Wales Guardian 1513 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50794601.pdf
Western Telegraph 4240 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50786143.pdf
Powys County Times 6187 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50793105.pdf
North Wales Pioneer 2442 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50802904.pdf
Barry and District News 1408 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50795446.pdf
Penarth Times 1276 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50793224.pdf
Rhyl, Prestatyn, Abergele Journal 3862 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50805989.pdf
Tivyside Advertiser 2037 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50793884.pdf
Denbighsire Free Press 1329 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50802500.pdf
Glamorgan Gazette 870 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50798980.pdf
Gwent Gazette 279 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50799000.pdf
Caernarfon & Denbigh Herald 270 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50799909.pdf
Rhondda Leader 331 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50801866.pdf
Merthyr Express 388 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50799101.pdf
Llanelli Star 1923 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50785647.pdf
Holyhead & Bangor Mail 220 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50811867.pdf
Cynon Valley Leader 260 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50798861.pdf
Carmarthen Journal 2451 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50790661.pdf
North Wales Weekly News 439 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50780202.pdf
Wales on Sunday 2514 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50795226.pdf
Abergavenny Chronicle 1986 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50821309.pdf
Brecon and Radnor Express 2982 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50800425.pdf
Cambrian News 5685 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50784921.pdf
Monmouthshire Beacon 1928 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50821886.pdf
Tenby Observer 1505 https://www.abc.org.uk/product/19080
Free Press Monmouthshire & Pontypool 1614 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50809084.pdf
Pontypridd & Llantrisant Observer 262 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/50801985.pdf
Pontypridd & Llantrisant Observer Group 593 https://www.abc.org.uk/Certificates/51062646.pdf



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