The silence of the local
Historically, print newspapers have had a central
role in communicating important news to the public. That can hold
even more strongly for local newspapers which can carry news and
information not generally available elsewhere. However the circulation
for most newspapers, including local, has been declining steadily
over recent years as the Internet becomes an even more effective
substitute for it. One way for local newspapers to try to fight
this is to have a strong campaigning editor who gives the readers
what they need to know on things that matter to them and lobbies
on their behalf, such as Bill Jardine who was editor of the Dunoon
Observer until his retirement in 2007.
So when a local newspaper like the Dunoon Observer does not publish
matters of crucial local interest to its readers when even the nationals
are interested in the local issues in question, not only would this
seem to be against the public interest, on the face of it this would
also seem to be against the newspaper's interest.
On the 10th January 2011, I posted on my website an
analysis of Western Ferries, judging it by economic criteria
and other benchmarks set by other ferry services, both local and
others cited by some as the most expensive ferries in the world.
The article was fact-based with the facts checked (and independently
checkable), but many of the facts would not be known to local residents.
The article is of crucial relevance to a debate about the future
of the ferry services that virtually all local residents depend
on, directly or indirectly, given the imminent tender of the alternative
Amongst other things the article noted:
- Western Ferries fares, including discount fares, were already
at least comparable on economic grounds with others that had been
cited as the most expensive in the world.
- Its profit margins were close to averaging 30% for the last
six years for which figures were available, significantly higher
than for most other ferry companies, indeed significantly higher
than for most other forms of public transport.
- It had paid no tax (net) over the last six years, with a £6,000
tax rebate in 2003-04 balancing a total of £6,000 tonnage
tax paid in lieu of corporation tax over the six years 2003-09;
the issue of whether or not Western is liable for corporation
tax is the subject of an ongoing dispute between HMRC and Western
Ferries which has still not been resolved.
- It is now set to become the monopoly vehicle carrier over the
Clyde later this year on the basis of information obtained through
Freedom of Information on vessel availability and shortlisted
tenderers for the CalMac route.
Issues such as these could all be seen as being of strong local
interest, especially since they were based on facts, much of which
was in turn based on new research.
The analysis was quickly
taken up by For Argyll on Wednesday the 12th January. Before
that on Tuesday 11th January a reporter on the Dunoon Observer confirmed
that they had written up a story for the paper based my article.
On Friday 14th January, the Dunoon Observer was published but without
even a mention of my article and no contact from the newspaper.
I e-mailed the reporter to ask what had happened but instead of
a reply from the reporter I got an email from the editor which could
best be summarized as waffle.
There were others locally interested in the article and why it
had not been published and on the basis of the editor's reply I
told them that I did not expect to see anything about it in the
On the same day, Friday 14th January, The Herald carried an article
on the Western tonnage tax situation. Later the next week (Thursday
20th January) I was contacted by a national news paper to say they
were interested in running a story based on my article.
The Dunoon Observer the next day (Friday 21st January) still carried
nothing about it or even the tonnage tax issue, despite Western's
tonnage tax issue having been the subject of an article in the Herald
the week before.
entry for the Dunoon Observer says "the newspaper currently
has a circulation of around 7,000". In fact, the "view
history" link for this entry indicates that that figure has
not been updated since the first entry in the summer of 2007. However,
the year 2008 the Dunoon Observer's audited circulation was
down to 6406 and for
the last six months of 2009 it had fallen to 5225
From this, it would appear that the Dunoon Observer has lost a
quarter of its circulation in about three years, and on the basis
of these figures there is no evidence the rate of decline is slowing,
if anything it would seem the opposite is the case. Ignoring issues
of extreme local importance is hardly a way to stem this trend.
As I know to my cost down the years, anyone who posts anything which
can could be interpreted as not being in Western's interests can
expect vitriol from third parties (as the comments on the
For Argyll article above confirms). However if a private individual
like me is prepared to accept the abuse that inevitably attends
this, one would think that no less should be expected from the local
paper (as an aside it is worth noting that such vitriol rarely focuses
on the facts, and when it does it usually gets the facts wrong).
There are issues which can make for personal tipping points and
this is one for me. I am not going to speculate on the specific
reasons why the paper chose not to publish these issues or why it
did not even refer to them, I'll leave that to others. But there
is no point in the local paper campaigning on easy targets such
as why there has been no tender for the CalMac service Gourock-Dunoon
- not when it continues to ignore the elephant in the room, the
issues and effects of Western Ferries' dominance in this area and
its likely imminent monopoly of vehicle-carrying post-tender. As
Herald article referred to above confirms, even Western Ferries
actively supports the campaign to get the tender done. This is not
surprising because as my FoI questions revealed the tender is set
to lead to the CalMac route going passenger-only (at best) and a
Western monopoly of vehicle-carrying Gourock-Dunoon
There is equally no point in relying on the Dunoon Observer for
these matters when there are other modes such as the Internet websites
such as For Argyll and old fashioned word of mouth which do better
the job they should be doing. And once everyone starts thinking
that way, it could also be a tipping point for the Dunoon Observer,
if that point has not been reached already. Which is unfortunate,
not just for the paper and its readership (not all of whom are logged
in to the Web) but also for the good reporters who still work there.
And it should be emphasized that there are really good reporters
in the Dunoon Observer, there is no evidence the problems lie there,
and I do not believe they lie there.
Those with an interest in this can read my original article through
the direct link here or at:
Neil Kay 23rd January 2011