Former Northern Echo editor Peter Barron believes Northumberland County Council may have removed lucrative public notice ads from the Hexham Courant because it does not like the paper’s editorial coverage.
He said that one councillor was concerned the decision amounted to censorship and added: “There’s also the suspicion that the decision was taken in response to the Courant criticising the authority’s handling of changes to leisure centre prices.
“The danger, of course, is that any council which doesn’t like being held to account could ‘punish’ its local paper by withholding advertising revenue that is part of the lifeblood of titles serving their communities.”
The CN Group-owned Hexham Courant has a circulation of 11,111. The ads have been moved to the Johnston Press-owwede Northumberland Gazette, located 50 miles away in Alnwick, which is not ABC audited and offered a cheaper rate.
Barron wrote: “Here’s what the Government says, via the Department for Communities and Local Government: ‘Legislation requires statutory notices to be advertised by local authorities in relevant local newspapers.
“Local authorities should abide by this legislation. If the public are concerned this is not the case, they should take this up with their local authority.’
“The people of Tynedale are doing just that by signing a petition calling for the county council’s trial to be stopped. The Mayor of Hexham, Councillor Trevor Cessford, is also rallying the town council to protest.
“I happen to think that local journalism – whether it is presented in print or online – is fundamental to local democracy and any attempts to undermine it should be fought as vigorously as possible.”
A spokesperson for Northumberland County Council said: “While the authority has sought to make use of new and innovative ways of increasing its income, we still need to consider what we can do to minimise spend wherever possible while at the same time acting fully within the confines of current legislation.
“As with all other Council budgets, we have recently reviewed the way in which we place public and statutory notices throughout Northumberland and the wider region.
“We took the decision, on a trial basis, to take a different approach to notice placement in an effort to both save costs and maximise internal administrative efficiencies.
“This involved an increased use of one publisher for the placement of notices, for which we receive a price discount. This is supplemented by their online presence, the erection of local notices on site and the maintenance of a public notices section on the authority’s website.
“Just recently the future of public notices was highlighted by the government which ran a number of pilot schemes looking at alternative ways of publishing these notices.
“It was launched by the then Secretary of State, Eric Pickles, who said it would ‘help us move on from the sterile debate based on a binary choice between the total retention or total abolition of requirements to publish notices in local newspapers’.
“The Council is looking to embrace that agenda and develop, in the fullness of time, much more responsive and flexible mechanisms to ensure that the public.”