I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this matter and I thank the Minister of State for being present.
Last Friday evening with no advance warning to employees or to the National Union of Journalists, a large number of journalists across a range of well-known local newspapers were laid off. These included the well-known titles, The Midland Tribune and The Tullamore Tribune, the Clonmel Nationalist, the Tipperary Star, the Donegal Democrat, the Leinster Express, and the Leitrim Observer, all of which are part of the stable of the Iconic Newspapers group, owned by UK businessman Malcolm Denmark.
This stable also includes other famous titles such as the Kilkenny People, the Dundalk Democrat and the Longford Leader. These lay-offs are in addition to a reduction in working days and hours in the remainder of the newsrooms in these titles. This comes at a time when the public in all of these communities are depending on newspapers and journalists to give them a factual position on what is happening in their local areas in regard to Covid-19 and the impact on their communities. At a time when people are being asked to stay at home, the local newspaper provides them, in particular the elderly, with a connection to their community and, most important, to factual news as opposed to the unreliable dribble that can pop up on social media feeds. To put it in context, a cut of one reporter to a newsroom of a local newspaper can cause news reporting ability to drop by 25% and so the content drops accordingly and a community consequently suffers as well.
No business is being left untouched by the harshness of this pandemic, as the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, well knows in the context of his portfolio. Bar our healthcare teams, there is nobody more deserving than others in that line. I am not arguing that this morning. However, there are 50 plus local newspaper titles across this country, many of them in their third century of operation, which provide coverage of local news, courts, council meetings and sports. They are a record of our local democracy. If one takes that away, one is diluting local democracy and local accountability.
I have two asks of the Minister of State, Deputy Troy. The media landscape in this country and the world has changed massively in terms of how people access their news. I accept that. Many of these local newspapers were previously family-owned operations. In this particular case, some 26 titles are owned by one UK media mogul, Malcolm Denmark. By all accounts the holding company is profitable and so using of the cover of Covid-19 to lay off people is wrong and it needs to be called out as wrong. Business owners who seek to slash employees while remaining profitable need to be called out.
There is another backdrop to this issue. Prior to Christmas, the Joint Committee on Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht held two special sessions on the future of local newspapers in this country with the National Union of Journalists and Mr. Frank Mulrennan of Local Ireland, which represents 46 local newspapers across the country. They had been excluded from the Government supports that were allocated to local radio stations, also much deserving and providing local news coverage and local content to those who listen to them, and they were seeking parity in terms of those supports to the tune of €2.5 million. I remind the House that 91% of advertising revenue, which is the backbone of the income of local newspapers, comes from local shops, businesses and planning notices, all of which have ceased since Christmas and as a result a huge part of their revenue has been taken away. My caveat in respect of that is that profitable companies and newsrooms which seek to lay off employees should not be in receipt of the supports for which I am calling this morning. I made that point to the National Union of Journalists at the committee meeting. We cannot have a situation where a business is taking Government support and at the same time laying off employees.
I ask the Minister of State to address the concerns I have raised this morning and to confirm if Iconic Newspapers is in receipt of the employment wage subsidy scheme that has been made available to many companies around this country. I know that the Minister of State has a passion for local democracy and local reporting such as is provided by the businesses about which I am speaking this morning. I am interested to hear his comments on same.