Last week, the thorny issue of council newspapers returned to Westminster as the communities and local government select committee reviewed the new local government publicity rules, which have been proposed by new communities secretary Eric Pickles. (watch here)
At the heart of the new publicity code is a rule which forbids councils from publishing newspapers more than four times a year. Pickles has also said that external advertising won’t be permitted, and that only information - as opposed to propaganda masquerading as news stories – will be allowed in them.
The Mayor of Hackney, a chap called Jules Pipe, was among those from local government circles to be called before the committee to discuss the issue. As the elected mayor of an authority which produces a newspaper – Hackney Today - fortnightly, he is not surprisingly keen to hang on the right to publish a newspaper. The fact he is a former journalist perhaps exaggerates this.
Mayor Pipe said that the council needed to communicate with residents to let them know what was going on, and that the local paper – with a cited distribution of 8,000 by Pipe – doesn’t cover all the news that comes out of the town hall.
The stories he said had been overlooked by the local paper include the fact council tax had been frozen in Hackney and how he’d shifted £65million of resources from back to front office services in the last five years. In other words, the papers weren’t covering the positive stories he wanted to put out there. Perhaps that’s because the big black hole in the council’s finances causes more concern to some.
He suggested government would be better off using council newspapers to get their key messages out, such as the new drive on obesity. Mayor Pipe said local newspapers won’t cover those sorts of campaigns, which perhaps will come as a surprise to any health or council reporter working on regional newspapers.
Mayor Pipe also quoted figures which suggested his council would end up spending more money as a result of the government’s decision to cull council newspapers. The cost of putting public notices in the local paper would be £543,000, compared with £448,000 for producing 25 copies a year of Hackney Today – much greater than than the £50k a year difference the council claimed in an FOI request about council newspapers earlier this year.
What’s more, that annual cost of producing Hackney Today is offset to the tune of £179,000 by external advertising. The council boasted in that FOI request that the entire cost of producing Hackney Today was offset by internal and external advertising. In other words, that’s around £500k of advertising the council has taken out of the local marketplace.
Publishing the public notices in Hackney Today, Mayor Pipe said, meant many more people in the borough got to see the public notices than if they went into the local newspaper. Hackney Today shifts 96,000 copies a fortnight around homes in the borough, plus an additional 10,000 to drop-off points such as supermarkets. Ample opportunity to get these public notices right under the noses of everyone?
Not if the layout of the most recent edition of Hackney Today is anything to go by. In most regional newspapers, public notices appear in the classfieds section, and some argue they are tucked away back there. So presumably Hackney Today gives public notices a better show?
No – they appear on pages 30-35 of a 36-page book. Unlike most regional newspapers which carry sport at the back, so providing two directions in which a reader might stumble into public notices, Hackney Today doesn’t. All that seperates the public notices in Hackney Today from the back of the paper is a full-page ad on the back page. Unlike Mayor Pipe’s column, which gets pride of place on the right of page three, the sort of slot which advertisers pay big bucks for.
And that’s where Mayor Pipe’s defence of council newspapers runs into trouble in my opinion. Hackney Today at first glance looks like a newspaper, smells like a newspaper and feels like a newspaper – yet is there primarily to drive the council’s agenda using money from the public and private sector to do so.
He handed around a few copies of Hackney Today and it didn’t take long for one of the MPs present to point out the fact that there doesn’t appear to carry any bad news about Hackney, to which Mayor Pipe replied:
“It’s not meant to be reflective of life in Hackney. That’s the job of a newspaper. There are numerous magazines and many websites and blogsites which are independent and critical of what the council does. If we tried to pass that off as an independent newspaper I’d think we’d have a hard job convincing anyone of its credibility. It doesn’t pretend to be.”
He also argued that the paper is clearly labelled as a council publication on the front page. It’s not – it simply says ‘Circulated to 108,000 homes and businesses by Hackney Council.’ That doesn’t say it’s a council newspaper at all. Much as you might expect a council to collect all the rubbish or educate all children, it’s not a giant leap to assume that if it’s going to the trouble of distributing a newspaper, it’d be one which did the job properly, rather than just cherry-picking the good news in the borough.
As for not pretending to be a newspaper, it has non-council features, stories about gardening, four pages of what’s on listings, a history page, recipes and Sudoku – all elements which can do nothing but confuse people about the paper is supposed to be there for. After all, how many of those do you expect from a council publication?
But perhaps it’s the treatment of the front page story which sums up the problem with council newspapers – the council’s take on pending spending cuts. The headline is ‘cuts condemned’ and talks about how Mayor Pipe is asking ‘serious questions’ of the government while councillors are ‘outraged’ at what is going on. It’s the sort of story which wouldn’t look out of place in a council press release – but not on the front page of a publication which looks like a newspaper but has the one thing every proper newspaper dreams of: a guaranteed income come what may.
Roy Greenslade argued last week that perhaps the government was taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut by banning council newspapers. I’d argree for him, if it wasn’t for the way many councils, including Hackney, had used the previous rules to create a publicly-funded propaganda direct line into thousands of homes which are dressed up as newspaper where it suits.
As with most council publications and their defenders, the actions within the publication speak much louder than the howls of protest.
Note: As I’ve said in previous posts about council newspapers, my employer is Trinity Mirror, which has argued against council newspapers. However, this blog is written in a personal capacity.