Over the last week, newspapers up and down the country have been full of stories about councils struggling to cope with the recent bad weather. Councils have pleaded with the public to be understanding, that resources are stretched to the limit, that they’re trying their best. And so on.
So how lucky the residents of Hammersmith & Fulham appear to be. Because their council, which prides itself in reducing council tax each year, appears to have all the regular services sorted to the point that it can … provide every resident with a Christmas TV guide.
Hammersmith & Fulham Council is one of the authorities which published its own fortnightly newspaper. It looks like a newspaper at first glance, but actually read the articles and you notice several things: a lack of dissenting voices, a very positive attitude towards the council, and a sense that there’s only one party (the Tories) in Hammersmith & Fulham.
All of this could be fine if H&F News clearly stated it was a council publication. But it doesn’t. You really have to dig around to find any reference to the council. Even the address to contact the editor fails to include the phrase “Hammersmith & Fulham Council.”
The argument over H&F News is well worn. The council argues that by creating its own newspaper, it can meets its statutory obligations for advertising certain things – such as public notices – and then also serve up other public sector advertising, and sell private advertising, to reach many more people than it otherwise would in the existing newspapers.
The fact it then needs to fill the space around all those adverts with editorial is a coincidental bonus. Or, as Andrew Gilligan put it in July:
In H&F News, it is the Labour Party that does not exist and the Tory councillors who get all the quotes.
However, the true genius is in some of the apparently straight reporting. In H&F News, unlike all the other official papers, occasional controversy is allowed – but only in the context of the council listening and taking heed.
In H&F News, with few exceptions, the only crimes are committed by people who have been caught and jailed by the borough’s ever-vigilant police (regular advertisers in H&F News).
In H&F News, crime is nearly always falling, even when it isn’t.
And if it was just a mechanism to put out the information the council wished to shared with public, then their argument might have more support. But dressing up council PR as news seems to be much closer to council-sponsored propaganda than trying to openly share information.
Of course, H&F Council denies its operations are having an impact on the local newspapers, claiming it’s just filling an “information void” which already existed.
That doesn’t, however, explain why H&F News feels the need to carry Sudoku in each edition. Is there a shortage of Sudoku in the area? And local listings too. Aren’t they available elsewhere? Widely available, and free, in fact, on multiple websites.
But in the latest issue of H&F News, they appear to have opened up a new service for a council: providing TV listings. Sixteen pages of festive TV listings – half a page a day for the Christmas period, surrounded by lots and lots of advertising. And not one of the 16 adverts contained within this supplement is for a council service or a public sector partner.
Unless, of course, H&F Council is now also running vets, wine merchants, cancer charities, photo printers and Polish shops – among others. And lets face it, there’s no justification for publishing TV listings supported by private advertising. It seems to be just another way to dress up a council propaganda sheet as something it’s not. And it certainly isn’t a newspaper in the sense that we know them – impartial, fair and balanced publications which provide a voice to anyone within the community.
The irony here is that many local newspapers have stopped providing TV listings. Sometimes it’s because of cost, but for many it’s due to pressure on space. Given that electronic programme guides exist on all digital set-top boxes, many newspaper editors have taken the call to pull TV listings from weekly newspapers, rather than lose news pages, as pagination has fallen.
In essence, in its latest edition of H&F News, the council has bulked up the edition by serving up something which is well supplied elsewhere – national newspapers, online, TV magazines – and which many local newspapers have dropped. There is no public service reason for doing this, other than to make money for H&F News. I think we’ll struggled to find a more blatant example of a council’s actions distorting the local newspaper market for a council’s own ends.