March 12 2010

 

Without number

Still no joy with my efforts to persuade the Western Telegraph to publish details of the difference between what they charge the county council for public notices (mandatory) and other ads (discretionary).
For the record, discretionary ads cost £7.50 per column centimetre, while public notices are charged at £11.30 - a 50% premium.
These figures were revealed in a report on a Notice of Motion on the council's advertising policy submitted by Cllr Tony Wilcox.
According to that report, the Western Telegraph "is the only newspaper circulating in the area [the whole county] " and "Newspaper proprietors are aware that all local authorities have a statutory duty to publish public notices in relation to a range of their activities."
The report explained this 50% mark-up as a consequence of the laws of supply and demand.
Having read an economics book or two in my time, I reached a different conclusion.
The "only newspaper circulating in the area" indicated that the WT had some sort of monopoly or dominant market position and the statement that "newspaper editors are aware etc" seemed like a clear suggestion that that dominant market position.was being exploited.
Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the October meeting where Cllr Wilcox's NoM was debated, but I was present at the December meeting when Cllr Malcolm Calver asked for an addition to be made to the October minutes.
According to Cllr Calver, in the course of the debate on Cllr Wilcox's NoM, the leader had said that, where statutory public notices were concerned, the WT had the council "over a barrel".
This was not denied, though Cllr Calver's request for the minutes to be altered was refused.
In the meantime, I submitted an NoM calling for the WT's apparent abuse of its dominant market position to be referred to the Competition Commission.
This is not a trivial matter - the county council spends over £200,000 a year with the WT of which the vast majority is on public notices, so a back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates that these premiums are costing the taxpayer in the region of £50,000 annually.
The Head of Marketing and Communications produced a report in which he claimed that my NoM was based on "a false premise" though as I said earlier (Premises, premises) the false premises were all on his side.
It is interesting to note that when this matter came before full council, my written submission to Cabinet in support of my NoM was not in the papers sent out to councillors though there was a complete account of the officer's report.
When Cllr Bob Kilmister queried this omission he was told that my submission was contained in the Cabinet papers and it was up to members to bring those along to full council.
When he suggested that the same principle should apply to the officer's report it was pointed out that the officer's report had not been been reproduced in the council papers.
This was true because what the report before council said was that "In considering the report , Cabinet noted the following" followed by the officer's report almost in its entirety but with the tense changed.
I say almost in its entirety, because the only significant change is the omission of the figure of 22,000 for the Telegraph's circulation, which, as I said previously, differed substantially from the figure on page two of the newspaper itself.
During the debate the Leader effectively accused me of conducting a personal vendetta against the WT (Poisoning the well).
This is a very serious charge because, if true, it would put me in breach of the Code of Conduct which requires that members act in the public interest at all times.
No doubt, if his claim was based on the belief that I have a personal interest in this matter, the Leader will be reporting me to the Ombudsman as required by the Code.
Interestingly, at the end of the debate, Cllr Sue Perkins asked whether the Cabinet member for education Cllr Huw George should have declared an interest on the grounds that his son works for the Western Telegraph as a reporter
The Monitoring Officer's reply was somewhat difficult to follow, but I think the answer was yes.
Presumably, the same would apply to the Cabinet meeting of February 8.
But to return to the WT and my request for a right of reply to its distorted, one-sided report on this matter.
The editor has offered to publish my denial of a vendetta but refuses to allow me to explain the reason for my NoM i.e. the vast disparity between its general advertising rates and those for public notices which the council has a statutory duty to publish.
She claims that "advertising rates are a matter between the individual customer and this newspaper".
Not when the individual customer is a spending taxpayers' money, they aren't.
Indeed, anyone is free to go along to the council's offices in Waterston and take copies of the invoices during the pubic audit inspection.
Over the years, I have accumulated quite a collection.
And that to publish the figures would merely repeat the details of my allegations.
There would be no repetition in the pages of the WT where the substance of my case has still to make its debut.
But the most bizarre claim is that charging more for public notices is "standard industry practice".
I can find nothing in the Competition Acts to suggest that standard industry practice is a defence against a charge of market abuse.



Point of no return

There was time when the England - Scotland match was the highlight of my season.
For someone brought up just to the south of Hadrian's Wall, this was the annual opportunity to gain revenge for all those cattle stolen by the reevers in their regular cross-border raids.
And as Edinburgh is less than 100 miles from my home town (it's 300 miles to Twickers) it was to Murrayfield that we went to witness these matches.
In the alternate years the school used to organise a trip to Edinburgh to watch Wales v Scotland.
The memory of coming over the brow of the hill near Waverley station and seeing the sea of red scarves and hats remains with me 50 years later.
And here I have to make an admission - I used to cheer for Wales.
After all, Wales used to be part of Cumbria.
And coming from west Cumberland where the mining communities had the same passion for rugby as that found in the valleys, I felt a certain fellow feeling with the Welsh supporters that I didn't share with the toffee-nosed English.
All that changed when I came to live in Wales 40 years ago and discovered that I was expected to support England with the same fervour as the Welsh support their team.
This was not a happy experience as my arrival in Wales in 1966 coincided with a period of unparalled Welsh domination.
However, not wanting to be accused of deserting a sinking ship, I persevered, and I am now a fully-paid up Englishman.
Though having witnessed some of England's recent dismal performances I sometimes wonder if my loyalty is misplaced.
Unfortunately, the die is now cast and I must shoulder my burden with as much fortitude as I can muster.
In any case, Cllr Michael Williams has told me that if I apply for naturalisation he will get Plaid to exercise its veto.

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