Public Health Advertising: Letter to John Whittingdale MP.

An open letter signed by over 20 signatories, including PINF Executive Director Jonathan Heawood and ICNN Director Emma Meese calls on John Whittingdale MP to broaden the announced Public Health Advertising partnership between the government and the news industry to include #independent publishers. 

Read the letter below:

Rt Hon John Whittingdale MP

Minister of State Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport

17 April 2020


Dear Minister,


Public Health Advertising


According to a statement published today by Newsworks and the News Media Association (NMA), ‘the government and the newspaper industry have formed a three-month advertising partnership to help keep the public safe and the nation united throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.’


We welcome the Government’s support for news publishers at this challenging time.


The Minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove, is right to say that ‘newspapers are the lifeblood of our communities and we need them now more than ever. Their role as a trusted voice and their ability to reach isolated communities is especially vital at this time.’

However, this is not only true of the newspapers represented by Newsworks and the NMA. It is equally, if not more, true of the many independent and community news publications which are not represented by these bodies.


More than 150 independent news publications belong to IMPRESS and/or the Independent Community News Network (ICNN). Collectively, they:


• reach 14.9 million unique website visitors every month; and

• circulate 427,000 printed copies of their publications.


Between 23 and 26 March, the Public Interest News Foundation surveyed independent news providers across the UK in partnership with ICNN, IMPRESS and Bureau Local. More than 60% of respondents said that they are going beyond traditional journalism in their response to the COVID-19 crisis – not only publishing news and information, but also providing direct support to vulnerable citizens; organising online events; coordinating volunteers; and working with local businesses to provide information about home deliveries.


Michael Gove says that, with this campaign, the Government is ‘both saving lives by providing essential information to the public, and supporting cherished local institutions.’


This may be true. However, by excluding independent publications from the campaign, the Government is in fact failing to provide essential information to the readers of those publications, and failing to support cherished institutions.

Independent publications are supported by Members of Parliament from across the UK.


Alistair Carmichael, MP for Orkney and Shetland, has said that the Government ‘needs to be looking at using the full suite of measures to get their message to the public about how they should respond to Covid-19.

The role of small independent news outlets must not be overlooked in this. Quite apart from anything else the collective reach of all these outlets is significant. More than that, because they are rooted in their own communities, they tend to be trusted news carriers. If Government goes only for the low hanging fruits of the bigger regional and national outlets then they risk damaging the effectiveness of any public information campaign.’


Richard Fuller, MP for North East Bedfordshire, has said that ‘the current medical crisis has brought into even sharper focus the importance of local media outlets, including online publications such as The Bedford Independent... which can be relied upon to provide useful local reporting. I am joining calls for local councils and government departments to channel more of their public notices through these outlets so that local people can access important messages more easily and quickly.’


Mohammad Yasin, MP for Bedford & Kempston, has said that ‘quality, community news is in peril and as shown by the recent demise of the Bedfordshire Times and Citizen, it’s more important than ever that the scarce local news platforms that remain, like the Bedford Independent, are cherished and supported for the vital role they play in our community and to democracy.’


Kieran Mullan, MP for Crewe & Nantwich, has said: ‘I know how trusted the Nantwich News is and how big their reach is. I have asked the Department of Health to ensure they are considering local news media as avenues for public advertising which is so important at the moment. We need to reach everyone.’


Hilary Benn, MP for Leeds Central, has said that ‘independent publications like South Leeds Life are vital to local communities like ours, especially at times like this. We need to keep them going through this crisis so that they can carry on serving local people once it’s over. The problem is that advertising revenue has been severely hit, so one way Government could help would be to place public health information advertisements in these newspapers.’


Tommy Sheppard, MP for Edinburgh East, has said that ‘independent community news networks are vital to ensure our communities have accurate, informative, local news. The Edinburgh Reporter provides news and information to the people of Edinburgh that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Now, more than ever, the government must help ensure community news sources survive.’


Bob Seely, MP for the Isle of Wight, has said that ‘local journalism, both in printed form and on online news sites, is important to help keep people in the community informed, especially people who are self-isolating and are not out and about hearing news from their family, friends and work colleagues in the way they normally would.’


Joanna Cherry, MP for Edinburgh South West, has said that ‘local independent news journalism covers stories that the national titles don’t cover and reaches people in our communities who are often neglected by the mainstream media. It performs an essential function by informing people about what is going on in their local communities and about local services they might benefit from. Its digital formats are particularly useful for the housebound and so invaluable in the current crisis. The Edinburgh Reporter is the go-to source for many local people who want to know what is going on in their immediate locality. It is essential that it does not fail.’


Kate Osamor, MP for Edmonton, has said that ‘local independent news is essential to any democracy, and must not fall victim to Covid-19. Without papers like the Enfield Dispatch giving a crucial voice to locals, our media landscape will be little more than billionaire-owned corporations and vested interests. The Government must do far more to make sure local media survives Covid-19, and must do so quickly.’


Feryal Clark, MP for Enfield North, has said that ‘local, independent news organisations, such as Enfield Dispatch, are the lifeblood of trusted reporting of news relevant to their communities. Government should financially support local media outlets at this crucial time, especially as we try and combat fake news, and where the public are more likely to trust local news sources.’


Chris Clarkson, MP for Heywood & Middleton, has said that ‘local news media is an essential part of our democratic process. Through small and independent outlets communities are informed, empowered and supported. Diversity of opinion is a necessary part of our national discussion and a local perspective is a needed part of that dialogue.’


We are sure that MPs of all parties will be disappointed and mystified by the Government’s failure to support this innovative and entrepreneurial sector, which is now facing the very real risk of collapse. They may also want to understand how this arrangement satisfies public procurement regulations.


We urge you to reconsider your decision to work exclusively with Newsworks and the NMA, and to ensure that your campaign truly provides essential information to the public, and truly supports cherished local institutions.


Yours sincerely,


Dame Frances Cairncross, author of The Cairncross Review

Michelle Stanistreet, General Secretary, National Union of Journalists

Emma Meese, Director, Independent Community News Network

Jonathan Heawood, Executive Director, Public Interest News Foundation

Jo Adetunji, Trustee, Public Interest News Foundation

Professor Stuart Allan, Cardiff University

Dr David Baines, Newcastle University

Professor Steven Barnett, University of Westminster

Hilary Benn MP (Leeds Central)

Steve Buckley, Managing Director, Community Media Solutions

Tom Chivers, Goldsmiths, University of London

Professor James Curran, Goldsmiths, University of London

Professor Natalie Fenton, Goldsmiths, University of London

Mary Fitzgerald, Editor-in-Chief, openDemocracy

Professor Des Freedman, Goldsmiths, University of London

Professor Jonathan Hardy, University of East London

Professor Sylvia Harvey, University of Leeds

Dr Gholam Khiabany, Goldsmiths, University of London

Danny Lawrence BEM BCAc, Chair, Community Media Association, Gateway 97.8

Pete Leydon, Liverpool John Moores University 

Megan Lucero, Director, Bureau Local

Professor Justin Lewis, Cardiff University

Maria Michalis, University of Westminster

Professor Robin Mansell, LSE Kate Morris, Goldsmiths, University of London

Professor Tom O’Malley, Aberystwyth University

Professor Julian Petley, Brunel University London

Dr Phil Ramsey, Ulster University

Sir John Redwood MP (Wokingham)

Matt Rodda MP (Reading East)

Isabelle Roughol, Trustee, Public Interest News Foundation

Professor Richard Sambrook, Cardiff University

Professor Jean Seaton, University of Westminster

Hannah Storm, CEO, Ethical Journalism Network

Patrick Swaffer, Trustee, Public Interest News Foundation

Dr Damian Tambini, LSE

Professor Einar Thorsen, Bournemouth University

Professor Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, Cardiff University

Dr Rob Watson, Director, Decentered Media

Martin Steers, Chair, Community Radio Awards & Station Manager - NLive Radio