Neil Martinson: Comms could be 'easy target' in Spending Review

The whole of the public sector, and significant areas of the private sector, await the outcome of the government's Comprehensive Spending Review in October. That there will be cuts on an unprecedented scale is certain. Communications could be seen as an easy target with its somewhat toxic association with spin and a more general 'waste of money'. But how does such an approach fit with the coalition's philosophy of a smaller state where citizens are empowered through informed choice?

Neil Martinson: Don't cut council newspapers
Neil Martinson: Don't cut council newspapers
Council newspapers in particular have taken a hammering. They've been described as Stalinist propaganda sheets and charged with raking in advertising sales that would otherwise have gone to struggling local newspapers. The accusations are somewhat contradictory as it's difficult to see why propaganda sheets would be attractive to advertisers. But if they are, could it be they are filling a gap in the market?

It goes back to that question of cost versus value. I saw a case study recently of an elderly Asian woman who was struggling with day-to-day life because of her mental health. Even going to the shops to buy food was a problem and her family were having great difficulty in supporting her. She contacted specialist support from social services and slowly she was able to take greater control of her life and become a more active member of society. She knew about that support because she read about the service in a council magazine. That kind of response and its effect on her life challenges any kind of evaluation but, surely, has to score highly as to its value.

Likewise, the temptation to do everything digitally because it's cheap doesn't stand up to much scrutiny especially when considering the most vulnerable in our society. The recent report by the Office of National Statistics (ONS - Internet Access 2010) reveals the gaping chasm that is the digital divide.

More than nine million adults have never used the internet, the majority of whom were aged over 65. The lowest use was in the North East (at 71%), and two-thirds of those employed in semi-routine and routine occupations had used the internet compared to 91% of professionals. Almost 40% of those with an illness or disability had never used the internet. The rate of internet use decreased in line with income and almost three out of ten adults on an income of less than £10,399 had never used the internet. So digital may be relatively cheap and easy but may not be the right answer to every communications challenge.

Communications used to be so much simpler. Winston Churchill could broadcast to the nation in the sure knowledge that his message would have been received by pretty much the whole population. Those days have long gone. We live in a complex, and confusing, jungle of communications and messages. It's not just about money or technology, but about being smarter in how we use the multitude of channels at our disposal to empower citizens. Citizens' entitlement to know their rights and responsibilities has not changed and is fundamental in a modern democracy. Perhaps it's time for a new call to arms – ‘No taxation without information’.

Neil Martinson is director of news & PR at the COI

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