One of the papers I work with, the Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle, last week launched a campaign against the Hammersmith & Fulham News, a fortnightly newspaper which looks like a newspaper and is designed to make anyone who reads it think it’s just your average newspaper.
Only it’s not. H&F News is a fortnightly newspaper run by Hammersmith & Fulham Council. I last mentioned the H&F News on here just before Christmas when it produced a Christmas TV guide to go with one edition, and I asked whether it was really good use of a council’s resources to be putting together TV listings guides.
Of course, the fact H&F News carries sport, a large what’s on section, restaurant reviews and gig guides all helps build up the image of a regular, run-of-the-mill newspaper. But get to the news section and it gets interesting. No surprises to find here that the news is relentlessly positive about Hammersmith & Fulham Council.
A classic example of this was on its recent coverage of the budget set by the council. Now there’s now disputing a 3% council tax cut is a very positive news story in one respect, but the cuts have to fall somewhere to make that happen. efficiency savings generally mean jobs cut, services reduced or less spent with local suppliers. H&F News, which purports to follow the code of conduct for local authority publicity, only mentioned that some people had been critical of the budget. The gushing of the council continued from that point.
On one hand, you might argue that of course a council publication wouldn’t put across the opposing view, but then again the code of conduct for local authority publicity does state that material should be objective. And if you want to put across just the council’s view, then do it in a way which makes it abundantly clear that it’s the council’s view.
Another recent edition splashed on the fact the council wants to ban For Sale boards throughout the borough, well beyond the existing conservation areas. At first glance, it appears that estate agents were in favour of the proposal – they had quoted two. But they were actually speaking in favour of the current ban on for sale boards in conservation areas, which was also referred to in the article.
The support for such a borough-wide ban comes from a consultation run by the council which 85% supported and, to prove the point, had the quotes of one resident – yes, one – who wasn’t pictured either. How big was survey? Why, if person cared so much about it, wasn’t her picture in? Questions journalists would ask – and questions which the council can dodge easily if it controls the newspaper.
Interestingly, it took a resident writing in to query why the council hadn’t talked about its own advertising hoardings in a conservation area for H&F News to even mention that in passing. An oversight? Maybe – but burying at the bottom of the letters page at the back end of the book wouldn’t be what most newspapers would do. But then again, H&F News isn’t most newspapers.
As it is, H&F Council seeks to have its cake and eat it. It wants to get its propaganda – and I don’t use that word lightly here – across to the entire borough on a regular basis, but knows that the public won’t pay much attention if they know it is one-sided council spin. So they seek a middle ground: A fortnightly product designed to make people think it’s a regular newspaper.
There is just one mention in the whole newspaper that it is produced by the council – at the bottom of page two, in very small letters. Even on the letters page, they omit the name ‘Hammersmith and Fulham Council’ from the address. You could argue that the presence of the council’s url at the top of every page – complete with .gov.uk – would be a giveaway, but that only works if everyone understanding the conventions of URLs.
The reason for launching H&F News, the council has long told us, is because they wanted everyone to see their public notices. They argued they’d get better value from printing their own newspaper, with public notices plus regular advertising, than from going into the local paper, which at the time had a small circulation.
That doesn’t explain why public notices are slapped even further back in H&F News than they would be in most normal newspapers.
And the fact the Chronicle is now a weekly free paper, and going into every home in the borough, should in theory knock the need for H&F News as a fortnightly ‘newspaper’ on the head.
So what was the council’s response to the campaign?
A spokeswoman for Hammersmith and Fulham Council said: “Hammersmith and Fulham residents prefer h&f news, the only local family paper that does not take sex ads.”
So now it’s not about getting total coverage of an area, it’s about giving residents a newspaper which won’t take sex ads? Really? What next – opening up a rival to WH Smith which won’t sell Nuts magazine or Loaded?
By Monday, H&F Council was delivering a stronger line, via Journalism.co.uk:
“Our residents want to know what their council is doing. They expect us to promote community groups, theatres, businesses and schools.
“h&f News was launched to fill a communications void because, for more than 10 years, Trinity Mirror had no interest in our borough and produced newspapers that very few residents wanted to read.
“While we welcome The Chronicle going free, it is still very much early days and their readership and circulation has yet to be proven. h&f is a vibrant borough that deserves a strong, vibrant media,”
Again, if the council felt there needed to be more shops in a town centre to make the area more attractive, would it open shops to give it a ‘strong, vibrant’ feel? Of course not. It’s not the job of the council to ensure an area has a strong, vibrant media. And even if it was, a council-produced newspaper which tries its hardest to disguise the fact it is a council-produced newspaper would not achieve that.
Of course, the biggest unanswered question in their statement is this: Would people still like H&F News – if indeed they do anyway – if it was honest about what it was? Or, indeed, the fact it costs £170k a year? Probably not.
Nobody disputes the need for councils to communicate with the public, but at a time when national opinion of politicians is so low, surely local politicians in H&F are on a hiding to nothing by serving up something which is design to look like a non-partisan, local, independent newspaper but which, in reality, is anything but. There’s a reason people don’t trust propaganda, and that’s the very reason why H&F News tries so hard to disguise what it is really about.
NOTE: Just to be clear, I work as head of multimedia for Trinity Mirror Regionals. This blog is my own, and I hope the views expressed here would apply equally to this situation anywhere.