In a column for the Echo, Peter wrote: “We live in austere times and public bodies have to make savings but, if this was simply about cost-cutting, why has the county council not sought a meeting with the Courant? Indeed, why was the decision taken without even consultation with local councillors?”
“County councillors across Tynedale have asked the council’s chief executive, Steven Mason, for an explanation and the leader of Northumberland Conservatives, Councillor Peter Jackson, said: ‘The feedback received was deeply unsatisfactory and smacks of press regulation and censorship.’
“Censorship. Now there’s a word which we should all be concerned about. The implication is that Northumberland County Council’s decision is about more than cost-cutting but stifling public information. 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.”
A petition is now being circulated by the Courant calling for the council to reverse its decision.
Added Peter: “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 spokeswoman for the council told HTFP the change had been undertaken on a trial basis “in an effort to both save costs and maximise internal administrative efficiencies”.
She added: “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 are kept informed in the most relevant and far reaching manner.”