KATE Forbes is under growing pressure to perform a U-turn and maintain financial support for newspapers struggling to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.
The SNP Finance Secretary confirmed this week that she intended to withdraw the current 100 per cent relief for newspaper offices at the end of March.
The move provoked an outcry from opposition parties at Holyrood, who warned she was threatening the flow of vital information about Covid to Scotland’s communities.
The Tories and Liberal Democrats both wrote to her demanding she change her plans, accusing her of throwing local newspaper outlets “under the bus”.
Delivering the draft budget for 2021/22, Ms Forbes announced she would continue the year-long rates relief for the retail, hospitality, leisure and aviation sectors.
The three-month extension will cost £185m.
However Ms Forbes refused to extend the rates relief for newspapers, which was added to the other group of reliefs by Holyrood last year against her wishes.
A vote by opposition parties in May saw “premises for the production of newspapers, and related news platforms” granted full relief for the year to 31 March 2021.
Ms Forbes now says that if “if other parties wish to make changes to the Budget, then I am willing to consider proposals to secure its passage”.
It would cost around £1m to extend the rates relief for newspaper premises for another three months.
Tory MSP Murdo Fraser, whose amendment to the Coronavirus Scotland (No2) Bill last year secured the newspaper support, said: “This decision to scrap rates relief is a real slap in the face to journalists and the industry who are working tirelessly to provide vital news to readers about the pandemic in particular.
“The SNP are threatening to leave Scotland as the only country in Europe not providing publishers with crucial Covid related support.
“That will only threaten jobs and livelihoods across national and local newspapers.
“The SNP have a record budget from the UK Government so it beggars belief that they can’t find the funding to support our newspaper publishers.
“SNP MSPs failed to stand up for newspapers last year. Now they are showing contempt for publications which are essential in the communities they serve.
“As a matter of urgency Kate Forbes must listen to the industry and reverse this illogical decision.”
The three Northern Isles parliamentarians also wrote to Ms Forbes urging a rethink.
LibDem MP Alistair Carmichael and MSPs Beatrice Wishart [Shetland] and Liam McArthur [Orkney] said a trusted local press had played a vital role in the pandemic.
Mr Carmichael said: “If Ministers take seriously the future of our diverse press businesses in the isles and beyond, they should not play games with their support. This is not about one party or one region – we all benefit from strong press organisations.”
Ms Wishart said: “We’re fortunate to have good news reporting in Shetland, giving our communities a shared forum and keeping us informed through challenging times.
“It is no secret that lockdowns and restrictions have been tough on these businesses – until things return to normal it is right that we keep supporting them as much as we can.
Mr McArthur added: “By withdrawing emergency rates relief, the Scottish Government has effectively thrown local newspaper outlets under the bus.
“I would urge Scottish Ministers to think again about the serious damage that this decision will have on news publishers, as well as the wider impact it will have on rural communities, and instead look at how support could be extended.”
Jamie Stone, the LibDem MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, also wrote to Ms Forbes, reminding the Skye MSP of the vital role of local newspapers in the Highlands.
He said: “Local media outlets are important employers here in the far north – the SNP must do better to support our local businesses, not destroy them.
“Local journalism ensures that people can hold us to account. The SNP should be supporting local independent press outlets, not just nationalist mouthpieces.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We have invested £3m in the Scottish newspaper industry through increased advertising over the course of the pandemic.
“We continue to value high-quality journalism and have established a short-life working group to consider how to support public interest journalism. It is expected to make recommendations at the end of the summer.
“Details of the rates relief package for next year were announced in the Scottish Budget 2021-22. If other parties wish to make changes then we are willing to consider proposals to secure passage of the Budget.”