Council newspapers: Is Lambeth Life all it’s cracked up to be?

lambeth life

lambeth life

The issue over council newspapers – ie council propaganda sheets which dress themselves up as newspapers on the assumption tax-payers are too thick to notice the difference – raised its head again today.

While the company I work for, Trinity Mirror, has been (rightly, in my opinion, for what it is worth) vocal against councils effectively setting up against established local newspapers, today’s row was sparked by  Ray Tindle, one of the country’s most respected press owners.

He said that the South London Press has lost £500,000 in advertising in recent years – with a good chunk of it going to council-run newspapers, such as Lambeth Life.

Editor Hannah Walker went further, saying papers like Lambeth Life were “political propaganda.”

Lambeth Council hit back,  with Labour council leader Steve Reed saying: “It would help if they could be a little more positive about the area. The South London Press has become a paper for bad news.”

The SLP has reported that Lambeth Life costs in excess of £500,000 a year to produce of which £250,000 is offset by advertising, apparently. But as the SLP points out, much of that advertising comes from the council itself.

Opposition councillors claim it is just propaganda, too. So who is right?

The council leader, Steve Reed insists it is not about propaganda, which doesn’t really explain the need for his fortnightly column in said newspaper. (But at least he manages to write once a fortnight, which is more frequently than the blog promoted from the column. He has a second blog here which is updated more often and which has a rather negative story about a new strip club near to the top).

Nor does it explain the need to turn over a page a fortnight to quiz councillors on taxing issues such as their biggest ever achievement, why they got into politics and, oh yes, their favourite book. Would this appear in the local newspaper or on the local hyperlocal website? Probably not, and for good reason.

The front page of the most recent edition features details of a council petition to make the Government release more funds for primary school places. But why the shortage of school places? Well,  according to the Labour-run council’s newspaper:

“The borough’s schools had their best ever GCSE results this year, putting the borough above the national average pass rate. This is in parallel with a programme of investment, including millions of pounds for new builds and improvements to secondary schools. This is likely to mean even more parents want their children to go to school in Lambeth and that will put more pressure on the system.”

How very on message! But the very essence of Lambeth Council’s argument that the SLP failed to cover positive stories is wrong. And I suspect when Cllr Reed says “positive stories” he really means “positive stories about Lambeth Council”.

Even assuming that Cllr Reed is referring only to positive stories about Lambeth Council, he appears to be wrong. Searching for Lambeth Council on the SLP’s website for this month generates nine results: five of which are clearly positive stories – youth crime down, cash bids for youth centres, Olympians backing an ice rink etc etc – and two of which are negative: Lambeth Council criticised over fire checks in high rise towerblocks and a local primary school being “slammed” by Ofsted. Both stories included Lambeth Council comments.

So straight off, more than half the stories featuring Lambeth Council in search were positive in nature. That blows Cllr Reed’s argument straight out of the water. It’s no wonder the Lib Dems and Tories on Lambeth Council want it scrapped, and make claims about heavy censorship. Do a pdf search of the latest edition of Lambeth Life, and you won’t find the word “Conservative” or “Democrat” – as in the Liberal Democrats, who have 18 councillors against Labour’s ruling 30-odd.

The primary school story first appeared on the SLP website on November 16th, while the most recent edition of Lambeth Life is dated November 15th. There’s no mention of this school on the education page of Lambeth Life. If you’re kind of nature, you might assume it’ll appear in the next edition. A cynic might suggest that the council will have known about this Ofsted report for a while and could easily have covered it, had it chosen to.

In fairness to Lambeth Council, it makes it clear on page two that Lambeth Life is the product of the local council. That doesn’t stop little propaganda adverts such as “Your Lambeth Life costs you less than the price of a loaf of bread for the whole year” from appearing here and there.

And it certainly doesn’t appear to be designed to encourage easy reading. It does, of course, pack in a lot of local council advertising – all the public notices are tucked in there. And we all know that councils, deep down, don’t actually like people to see their public notices, hence why they tuck them away in the classifieds sections of local newspapers.

So what better way to make sure people don’t see them than by putting them in a council newspaper, which the vast majority of recipients will chuck to one side as soon as it arrives. Why do I say that? I firmly believe that readers are not stupid – if they realise the council is producing the newspaper, and they’ll trust it less. That makes them less likely to read it, making it an even bigger waste of money.

Councils do have an obligation to keep people informed and to make them feel involved. But the issue of Lambeth Life I’ve just read contained very few details on how to access the services which most people tend to need – bins, schools, leisure services etc. It’s not even as though the council can argue it is useful to readers.

What if the worst came to the worst, and Lambeth Life killed off a local newspaper? Lambeth Council would be the only show in town, free to pick and choose the stories it covered – stories which, going off the most recent issues, are relentlessly positive and designed to paint the council in a positive light. But if few people trust the newspaper, then all that’s left is a council propaganda sheet which no-one reads.

And that, by anyone’s standards is a bad news story. And a waste of £500,000 in anyone’s book.

* Of the nine stories returned on the SLP website, two were what I’d call council neutral: they only had passing reference to Lambeth Council: a former Lambeth Council youth worker being convicted of paedophile offences while working (not for the council) at a local church, and residents on a local estate complaining of yob terror. While I wouldn’t expect the former to be covered in Lambeth Life, it will be interesting to see if the latter, which you can find here, is covered – especially as the man quoted in the story has written to Cllr Reed about the problems.

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