The council which tells people how to choose a good bottle of wine

One of the many allegations made by the Conservative Party in the run up to the general election was that Labour had allowed the state to get involved in too many aspects of life – both at central and local government level.

Maybe it’s ironic, then, that a flagship Tory council this week took a brave new step into a hitherto area of life uninfluenced by the public sector – how taxpayers choose their wine.

Really.

Tucked away in the what’s on section of Hammersmith and Fulham council’s fortnightly propaganda round-up, H&F News, is a three-page guide to picking the best wines for the summer, complete with ‘top tipples’ column written by someone from a firm which had also taken out advertising in the supplement.

Up until now, the only time I’d seen councils talking about alcohol was when they’d strayed into public health territory and talked about the dangers of booze. Of course, there’s a big difference between binge drinking and buying a bottle of plonk, as I’m sure the council would point out.

But since when did helping people buy a bottle of wine fall within the remit of the local council? How can publishing three pages, supported by advertising, be anything other than trying to raise income to support the delivery of propaganda through every door in the borough once a fortnight?

Local government minister Eric Pickles said in June:

Councils should keep residents informed about what is going on in the area, whether that be changes to local services, congratulations for a school or plans for new investment.

But that is not all these papers are doing. Too many are branching out into non-council content such as TV listings and sports reviews, swallowing much-needed advertising revenue from local papers and providing a vehicle for councils to dress up their literature as “independent” publications. Some are as glossy as Vogue and probably cost nearly as much.

H&F Council has defended its publication on more than one occasion by claiming it is helping to create a thriving media scene in the area. So what did their contribution to the thriving media scene splash on?

Massive shake-up aims to overhaul library services said the front page, along with the intro: “A radical shake-up of libraries by H&F Council could reward busy town centre branches with new spending and see some under-user branches moved to shut down.”

I think we can all agree the real story here is at the end of the intro, not the beginning. Indeed, it is only when you read on that you realise that it plans to close one library an axe mobile libraries – which any local government reporter will tell you often serve the most vulnerable and alone people in an area.

I’m not sure what is more disturbing – the fact that a council seems to think publishing guides to good plonk is a suitable use of its time or the fact it sees fit to do so while trying to dress up library closures on its front page as good news.

It’s worth point out that H&F isn’t alone here. Over at Lambeth Council, which produces Lambeth Life, councillors are suggesting they’ll use the paper to bring in extra income to reduce council tax:

On Twitter, the following post was made by local government watcher Jason Cobb:

Jason_Cobb@cllrstevereed responds saying aim is to make Lambeth Life make net profit & reduce Council Tax.

Using the council Pravda to make more money to reduce council tax? That’s good spin. But that’s also quite a worrying statement, and, when combined with H&F News continuing to expand its coverage of non-government subjects, suggests the government has a fight on its hands.

In short, it would appear that Local Government minister Pickles needs to do much more than just make a speech if the councils most in love with their mini Pravdas are to start sticking to doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

Disclosure: I work for Trinity Mirror, which has taken a vocal stance against council newspapers. However here, I blog in a personal capacity.

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