Written evidence submitted by the Newspaper Society (DB 16)
1. The Newspaper Society represents the regional media industry. Its members publish around 1,100 local and regional newspaper titles, read by 30 million people a week (BRMB/ TGI2013 and 1,700 associated websites, attracting 79 million unique users a month. Local newspapers are more than twice as trusted as any other media channel (IPA Touchpoints 2012) http://www.newspapersoc.org.uk/top-ten-facts-about-local-media
Clause 47 – safeguards police access to journalistic material
2. The Newspaper Society welcomes the constructive discussions with the Government and the Criminal Rules Procedure Committee on the need for amendment of Clause 47, in order to retain unaltered, in primary legislation, the PACE safeguards of notice and inter parties hearings of police applications for access to journalistic material. The Written Ministerial Statement of 17 March by Oliver Letwin, Minister for Government Policy reflects our understanding of the current position insofar as the Minister has ‘met with representatives of both print and broadcast media groups, including lawyers and union representatives…At that meeting we agreed that our objectives were in fact the same and that we would work together to find a mutually agreeable amendment to the Bill. Some additional consultation is currently underway, I hope to be able to table such an amendment at Report Stage.’
3. The Newspaper Society and other media organisations have stressed the importance of appropriate amendment to the Bill, in order to maintain the full protection of PACE.
4. There are other provisions within the Deregulation Bill which would affect the local press, its investment in local journalism, covering courts, schools and other issues of importance to the local community. These include proposals to remove statutory requirements for local newspaper publication of certain public notices, statutory provisions removing requirements for pleas and evidence to be made public by being read out in open court in criminal proceedings and some access to information matters.
1. Removal of mandatory newspaper publication of certain public notices
5. The Newspaper Society repeats its previous objections to the Bill’s proposed amendments to Schedule 15 to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and Schedule 6 to the Highways Act 1980 to end mandatory newspaper publication of certain public notices in England, in favour of local authority websites. The statutory requirement for newspaper publication ensures that such notices are independently publicised in the most effective way to draw them to the attention of those who may be affected by the changes to be effected by the orders.
6. Past explanatory notes simply asserted that there will be a cost saving to the local authority, without any financial analysis in support of that assertion. Such assertions take no account of the impact upon the public through the ineffectiveness of local authority websites for publicising such information, the lack of internet access by significant sections of the population, the impact upon the local communities in general or particular interest groups potentially affected by such orders, or the financial impact upon local newspapers.
7. We would also draw the Committee’s attention to the two replies of the Parliamentary Under- Secretary for Culture Media and Sport which he made to the two questions to him last week, concerning the closure of local newspapers and what plans the Government had for their support. He gave a helpful re-iteration of the Government’s support for the local press, which specifically included the continued publication of public notices . On 13 March, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Ed Vaizey replied to the first question that ‘The Department does not hold that information, but our local press plays an incredibly valuable role in local communities, and we appreciate the challenges facing the sector. We have a number of policies to support local newspapers…The Government have restricted the amount of local papers that councils can put out, relaxed media ownership rules, and continued to have statutory notices in local papers, so we do want to support local papers where we can.’
8. The Minister responded to the second in similar terms:
‘Our local press plays a valuable role in local communities and we appreciate the challenges facing the sector. We have removed cross-media ownership rules, to allow the development of new business models, and in addition, the Local Audit and Accountability Bill will prevent unfair competition from council newspapers.’
9. Research has shown the effectiveness of local newspaper publication of notices. The previous Administration, the present government and the Welsh Assembly all decided to retain mandatory publication of statutory notices in newspapers for planning, Road Traffic Orders and alcohol licensing. This was endorsed in Parliament in both Houses. Baroness Hanham, the then Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Communities and Local Government on 17 July 2013 stated at the Report Stage of the Local Audit and Accountability Bill in the House of Lords, when rejecting a proposal for ending local newspaper advertising of statutory notices:
‘The purpose of a statutory notice, as everybody clearly knows, is to inform the public about decisions that affect their lives, their property and their amenity. That is especially the case where the public have a limited period in which to respond.
The Committee was in broad agreement that notices should be easily available for local people and that they are vital for local transparency and accountability. The noble Lord has highlighted the cost of statutory notices and suggested that local newspapers are on of the least effective ways to convey information to people. We do not agree. Research by GfK for the Newspaper Society found that the reach of local newspapers was much greater that council websites;67% of respondents to that survey had read or looked at their local newspaper for at least a couple of minutes within the past seven days, compared with 9% who had viewed their council website. Some 34% of adults questioned had into accessed the internet at all in the last 12 months.
The most recent intern access quarterly update from the Office of National Statistics published in May, shows that 7.1 million adults in the United Kingdom-14% of the population have never used the internet. Two thirds of over -75s, a third of 65 to 74 year olds and 32% of disabled people, as defined by the Disability Discrimination act, have never used the internet. There are quite a lot of people therefore, who do not, would not and could not use the internet for these notices.
The GfK research for the Newspaper Society showed that local papers are spontaneously cited as the way in which most people- that is 39%- expect to be informed about traffic changes, for example. My noble friend Lord Shipley will be interested to know that the next placed source of information is street signs, at 26%- they come immediately to notice. When prompted, 79% of all adults responding said that they expect to be made aware of traffic changes in their printed local paper, second only to street signs and ahead of any other communication channels…
…the last Administration consulted in 2009 on removing the statutory requirements to publish planning notices in newspapers and found that was not well received, … Some 40% of respondents to that survey were against the proposals, with a further 20% giving only qualified support…the Party opposite concluded that some members of the public and community groups relied on statutory notices in newspapers, and was not convinced that good alternative arrangements could readily be rolled out. A recent debate on alcohol licensing notices showed the strength of cross- party feeling against repealing the requirement to publish the notices in newspapers.’ [The Government subsequently announced that it would not abolish this statutory requirement].
2. Deregulation Bill’s reduction of public access to information rights
10. We are also concerned by other examples of the Bill’s presentation of measures as ‘deregulatory’ benefits lightening the burden of the public sector, when its provisions are in fact abolishing the public’s rights to information about public services, such as the work of the schools and criminal courts. Statutory guarantees of public oversight and the mechanics of public accountability ought not to be lightly dismissed and discarded as unnecessary inconveniences to the public services scrutinised.
11. For example, given the relevance of information about schools’ performance to a wider section of the local community as well as pupils’ parents, there appears little justification for Schedule 14: ‘Schools: Reduction of Burdens’ paragraph 6 (1)-(4) ‘Publication of Reports’ which amend the Education Act 2005 to remove the specific duties upon governing bodies to make all inspection reports and any report on outcomes from a religious inspection available for public inspection and on request to anyone.
3 Open Justice: removal and reduction of statutory public rights to hear evidence and access court documentation
12. The Deregulation Bill also creates new inroads into open justice through Clause 45 Criminal Procedure: written witness statements and Clause 46 Criminal Procedure: written guilty pleas.
13. Local newspapers continue to attend and report the work of the local criminal courts, facilitating public oversight and helping to inform the public about their work. Reporting will be affected by the proposed amendment of the Criminal Justice Act 1967 section 9, which would remove statutory provisions requiring written statements to be read aloud or an oral account to be given in court. It will also be affected by the Bill’s amendment of Magistrates Court Act 1980 section 12 allowing the Criminal Procedure Rules to dispense with the Act’s statutory requirements for matters to be read aloud in court before the court may accept the guilty plea. These clauses would remove the open justice safeguards in primary legislation which assist public scrutiny and understanding of the courts, since the current Acts enable the substance of the case or evidence which forms part of it to be heard in open court, so that the proceedings can be properly understood by anyone attending.
14. If pertinent evidence no longer has to be read out in open court, the media’s ability to report it is affected, because it impedes the dissemination of contemporaneous, fair and accurate reports of court proceedings. It makes cases more difficult to follow for reporters and members of the public attending the proceedings. It also means that their published reports cannot benefit from the statutory defences against claims of defamation and contempt given to such reports of evidence read out in open court.
15. Consideration should be given to whether such streamlining of court procedures also requires any necessary adaption and extension of statutory defences for reports of such material. The statutory rights of public and media inspection of court documentation, with or without leave of the court, and corresponding legal defences also become even more important. Publication of court results and protocols on supply of registers of court judgements, proper identification of defendants by name, address and age (to avoid confusion with others in the locality sharing the same name) remain important to the local press, to ensure continuation of local court coverage and accurate reporting. We have appreciated the consultation of media organisations on access to court documentation by the Criminal Procedure Rules Committee and the Justice Secretary’s recent affirmation of the application of the HMCTS/ Newspaper Society/Society of Editors Protocol on supply of court lists and registers of judgements to local newspapers. It is important that open justice is not inadvertently and incrementally sacrificed in the pursuit of court efficiency. Both primary and secondary legislation effecting procedural changes that could affect public oversight and media reporting do need to be scrutinised carefully and measures taken wherever necessary to avoid any adverse effect, which may be a combination of legislation, Practice Direction, protocol or operational practice.