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Conservative candidate Mackie calls rates relief move 'a slap in the face for newspapers'

By Alan Hendry

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Conservative candidate Struan Mackie has described the Scottish Government's move to withdraw emergency business rates relief from newspapers as "a slap in the face" for the press.

He accused the SNP of "failing to stand up for much-loved local publications" and seemingly being willing to risk jobs and livelihoods in Scottish journalism.

Councillor Mackie, who represents Thurso and Northwest Caithness on Highland Council, is the Scottish Conservative and Unionist candidate for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross at this year's Holyrood elections.

He was speaking after the Scottish Conservatives secured cross-party support in the Scottish Parliament this week for a motion calling on the Scottish Government to extend rates relief for the next year, with SNP MSPs voting against.

Finance secretary Kate Forbes has extended rates relief for retail, hospitality, leisure and aviation for at least three months from April. Opposition members say it should apply to newspapers, and the motion from Conservative MSP Graham Simpson was backed by one vote.

Mr Simpson said the outcome "should force them to think again".

Conservative candidate Struan Mackie said that with the pandemic continuing, 'people are turning to local newspapers for vital information'.
Conservative candidate Struan Mackie said that with the pandemic continuing, 'people are turning to local newspapers for vital information'.

Councillor Mackie warned later that "if local newspapers die then democracy does too" and urged the SNP administration to put aside what he called its hostility to media scrutiny.

“The refusal of the SNP government to extend business rates relief is a real slap in the face for local newspapers and journalists working here in Caithness, Sutherland and Ross," he said.

“The SNP needs to put aside its opposition to media scrutiny and give them this lifeline extension. As we continue to fight the pandemic, people are turning to local newspapers for vital information.

“Extending rates relief would be a major boost to them at the time they need it most. The SNP is failing to stand up for much-loved local publications and appears happy to risk vital jobs and livelihoods in Scottish journalism.

“The SNP seems completely willing to let newspapers go to the wall."

He added: “Alongside my Scottish Conservative colleagues I will be continuing to push Kate Forbes to make an urgent U-turn on this illogical move.”

Jamie Stone, the Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, and the party's Holyrood candidate Molly Nolan have written to Ms Forbes on the issue.

They state: "The Highlands has a long tradition of high-quality, local and independent journalism. These businesses have deep roots in our communities and are major employers. While the pandemic has introduced immediate challenges to their fiscal viability, we see no reason why you would seek to threaten that further by excluding them from business rates relief."

The Scottish Newspaper Society, the trade organisation representing the local, regional and national press, warned that the move created a crisis for Scottish journalism.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government has invested £3 million in the Scottish newspaper industry through increased advertising over the course of the pandemic. In addition, some newspaper groups have received funding through our Pivotal Enterprises Resilience Fund, including Highland News and Media.

“We continue to value high-quality journalism and have established a short-life working group to consider how best to support public interest journalism. It is expected to make recommendations at the end of the summer.

“We do not believe that rates relief is the most efficient or cost-effective way to address the long-term problems in the newspaper industry. However, discussions with other parties to secure passage of the budget are continuing and we remain willing to consider all proposals.”

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