Council newspapers: The council with its own newspaper which wants to stifle council debate on its own newspaper

I thought I’d done writing about council newspapers when communities secretary Eric Pickles introduced his new code of conduct which prohibited councils from publishing their own newspapers more than four times a year.

Of course, given that Mr Pickles’ rules on council newspapers are a code of conduct, rather than law, there was always a danger the most ardent supports of council newspapers would carry on regardless. And so it proved in Greenwich.

They produce Greenwich Time there, a weekly publication which is, according to the council, ‘written in a journalistic style, containing a degree of community news, certain lifestyle features and residents’ opinions.’ Residents opinions tend to stand a better chance of getting into print if the concur with the council’s view of the world – and the 853 blog is worth checking out for more on Greenwich Time

Greenwich Time newspaper

Greenwich Time newspaper

As for how journalistic it is, it certainly lacks news values. Take the August 16 edition, which covered the riots in London (a good 10 days after it happened). The intro on the front page was:

“Greenwich councillors have given a firm commitment to stand beside residents and businesses affected in last week’s rioting and looting in Woolwich and Charlton.”

As local councillors, should we expect any less? The previous week’s front page, which hit the streets while the looting was dying down, was dominated by the fact a visit by a children’s author to a library was a sell out. Hold the front page! If ever there was proof that councils make duff newspapers, this it it.

Of course, I’m not saying the local newspapers in the area are perfect, of course they’re not. But in council newspapers, with their guaranteed income from their own departments’ advertising, we don’t get to see the news of the community, we get to see the news the council wants the community to see.

And when you look at Greenwich Council’s distribution points – which include libraries, stations and public buildings – you have a council publication which doesn’t have an unfair playing field so much as an unfair Olympic stadium at its disposal.

Not surprisingly, the decision to carry on publishing has upset the Tory opposition in Greenwich, which has sought to get the matter discussed by the overview and scrutiny committee at Greenwich.

Holdthefrontpage reports that this attempt had failed. No surprise there – it’s proof of the futility of the overview and scrutiny committee, which replaced the traditional talk-before-we-decide committee structure which had served local councils pretty well for hundreds of years.

But it was the reason for refusing to discuss it which caught my eye:

A spokesman for Greenwich Council said: “In initiating a ‘call in’ of the decision on Greenwich Time, councillor Drury requested the council to ‘properly’ explore the production of GT every two weeks.

“This itself would have been in breach of the guidance set out by the new code and was rejected by the Scrutiny Committee.”

In other words, Greenwich Council won’t discuss fortnightly publication at the scrutiny committee because it would breach Pickles’ code, the same code which the council has no problem with breaching to publish their weekly ‘newspaper.’

It’d be funny if it wasn’t so arrogantly breathtaking.

The Bexley Times reports that the council has now been reported to the District Auditor for not sticking to the code. The Auditor’s ruling will, presumably, determine whether Pickles was right in settling for a code of conduct rather than an outright law.

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2 comments

  1. Thanks for the link and the coverage – generally, GT gets ignored in these discussions since we’re south of the river… As far as I understand, the Tories tried to get it referred back to the council’s cabinet for further discussion, rather than by the overview and scrutiny committee.

    Worth pointing out Greenwich’s local press is very poor indeed, and has been before the council ramped up GT – the Mercury is run on a shoestring from Streatham by Tindle, and Newsquest’s News Shopper, based near Orpington, has never understood the area and flies off on all kind of tenth-rate Sun-style flights of fancy. Both are freesheets, both have limited distribution. Tindle won’t even allow the Mercury a website.

    It’s into this vacuum that Greenwich Council ramped up GT into a weekly. The council’s comms chief has said the paper “represents the views of the decision makers at Greenwich Council” and is no different from magazines published by the M&S or the AA. Basically, it is weekly propaganda, and worse still their whole comms strategy is based around it.

    We’re basically squeezed between an arrogant council with a propaganda rag, and local press barons who couldn’t give a toss. It’s a horribly unhealthy situation, and I can’t see it changing soon, since Pickles’ code is toothless and Tindle/Newsquest are squeezing the local media dry.

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