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Richard Leonard MSP calls for a Scottish government fund to relocalise and democratise media ownership

At the ‘No News is Bad News’ event, MSP Richard Leonard delivered a powerful address on the vital connection between media ownership and democracy.

Richard Leonard speaking at the No News Is Bad News event | Photo by Iain McLellan
Richard Leonard speaking at the No News Is Bad News event | Photo by Iain McLellan

Delivering opening remarks at The Scottish Beacon’s Indie News Week event MSP Richard Leonard delivered a compelling address on the crucial role of media ownership in shaping democracy in Scotland. The event, which brought together journalists, publishers, students, and activists, focused on the state of local journalism, its value, and its impact on public life.

He began by paying tribute to Greg Philo, an academic from Glasgow University, whose work on news bias and power was described as “inspirational” and who passed away recently. Philo’s contributions, especially in the context of the miners’ strike, were acknowledged as pivotal in shaping public understanding of media and state relations.

He then highlighted the recent National Union of Journalists (NUJ) disputes at STV and The Scotsman, attributing these conflicts to private proprietors wielding “power without responsibility.” He emphasised, “Critical to the future of local journalism and the role of local media in promoting an engaged democracy is the question, who owns the media in Scotland? Because ownership is power.”

He urged the Scottish Government to establish a support fund to help relocalise and democratise media ownership, aligning with the NUJ’s policy of supporting employee and community ownership of local papers facing closure or sale, stating:

“It is my view that the Scottish Government should establish a support fund to help relocalise and democratise ownership of the media. These are local assets and should be located in the communities they serve.

Scotland’s media landscape, he explained, is dominated by three major companies: Reach PLC, Newsquest, and National World PLC. These corporations, along with others like Iliffe Media, control a vast majority of local newspapers. Reach PLC, for example, owns the Paisley Daily Express and another 19 weeklies, while Newsquest manages dailies like the Glasgow Evening Times and 21 other weeklies. National World PLC owns 42 local weeklies. This concentration, he argued, has led to a decline in local media diversity and a rise in ‘news deserts’, particularly in deprived areas.

Quoting a report on this topic by the Public Interest News Foundation (PINF), he noted:

“There is a strong correlation between deprivation and local news coverage. The more deprived the area is, the fewer the number of news outlets.”

He underscored the importance of media diversity and local ownership, citing the 2021 report produced by a cross-industry working group, Towards a Sustainable Future for Public Interest Journalism, which calls for a rich and sustainable news publishing landscape that enhances democratic accountability and represents all groups in society. One of the report’s key recommendations was the establishment of a public interest journalism institute, a proposal he has previously raised in parliament.

Richard advocated for alternative ownership models, such as employee and community ownership, to ensure media remains a public good rather than a commercial asset:

“Why shouldn’t there be a statutory right for employees and communities to have a preferential right to buy them [newspapers]? We have democratic forms of ownership, but they are rare.”

He highlighted successful examples of alternative ownership, including the worker-owned West Highland Free Press and the community-owned Eskdale & Liddesdale Advertiser. At the national level, cooperatively-owned outlets like the Ferret and the Morning Star were mentioned as models worth considering.

Reflecting on broader issues, he remarked:

“With ownership comes power, if not always responsibility. Proprietors will almost always have commercial and self-financial interests, which in turn can steer editorial policy on the big questions of the day.”

He concluded by emphasising the essential role of a free press in democracy, lamenting the loss of local journalism jobs and the decline of investigative journalism due to media consolidation. He stressed the need for legislative changes to protect public interest journalism from strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) and called for a more transparent media ownership framework.

In closing, he reiterated the urgent need for a participatory democracy, one that goes beyond merely voting every few years, saying:

“This is about a critical and timely struggle for the regeneration of our media, but also the regeneration of our communities. And in the end, it is about the struggle for democracy itself,” he concluded, leaving the audience with much to ponder on the future of journalism and democracy in Scotland.

We are taking part in the ‘No News is Bad News’ campaign. As part of this campaign, any money we raise for The Scottish Beacon during June will be doubled by an Indie News Fund. Support real indie media here.