The Scottish Parliament has voted narrowly to extend business rates relief for newspapers, despite the SNP opposing a Conservative motion calling for the support to continue into the next financial year.
A Government amendment which tried to make the issue part of the ongoing budget process failed by 63 votes to 62.
MSPs from all opposition parties backed Graham Simpson’s motion, which said the local press had been “vital” in keeping the public informed during the pandemic and called for rates relief to continue into the 2021/22 financial year .
During a debate at Holyrood on Wednesday, Mr Simpson said a vibrant newspaper sector was “essential for local democracy”.
He said the Scottish Government’s plans would mean the rates relief support for newspapers would come to an end next month.
Mr Simpson said: “For democracy to thrive it needs checks and balances. That debate is very much live here in Scotland right now.
“A vibrant press is one of those checks and we must all be prepared to be subject to the full glare of publicity, good and bad.”
He said the industry had faced challenges before the pandemic, including the shift to digital consumption, but coronavirus had “made a bad situation worse”.
Mr Simpson said: “The commitment to continue to invest in Scottish news publishers has not been renewed.
“By contrast, the UK Government’s initial £35 million has been extended twice – by £15 million and £22 million – to a total of £77 million.”
Trade Minister Ivan McKee responded for the Scottish Government, saying newspapers had been supported in other ways including through advertising.
He said an independent media is “central to a strong democracy” and local newspapers are particularly important in holding power to account.
In May last year, £3 million was invested in advertising public health information with a particular focus on local newspapers, he said.
Mr McKee said: “It is this advertising support that we have seen as the most effective way to direct resources into the sector.
“It enables more effective targeting where support is needed most, in particular towards those local newspapers which are the main focus of this debate.”
The Government had been speaking to the Scottish Newspaper Society and the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) about the issues facing the sector, he said, with a working group on public interest journalism due to report by the end of the summer.
Mr McKee said rates relief was a “blunt tool” which could provide the biggest benefit to those who need it least, while the NUJ had called for support to only go to publishers investing in journalism.
An amendment from Scottish Labour’s Claire Baker calling on the Government to “ensure that its advertising budget spend is invested in a way that supports innovative journalism and regional and local news” was also passed at Holyrood.
Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “Throughout this pandemic local news sources have been some of the most valuable and trusted sources of information across our communities.
“In a world of fake news and misinformation, local press stands true.”
Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie also spoke in favour of the motion, saying many of the objections raised by the Trade Minister were “irrelevant”.