Council newspapers: A fightback, and the council’s unanswered questions

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.

5 comments

  1. Err – it costs rather more than £170k a year. That’s just the print costs, *some* of the writers & fees to the occasional external photographer or stringers. Does not include accommodation, heat, light, phones, computers, mobiles, internet, security, HR/personnel etc etc etc, which all disappear conveniently into Hammersmith Town Hall’s slush fund sorry running costs.

    LBHF is incapable of allocating these costs to the relevant teams & less than keen to make estimates. It would be an interesting exercise to estimate the costs of running HFN as a standalone operation that had to pay its way.

    Plus of course there are more bylines in most editions than the number of press/PR officers declared in the official figures.

    Moral – never believe in running costs without a full breakdown!

  2. Further thought! All London boroughs should soon move into ‘purdah’ as council elections approach. This means elected members don’t get quoted in council publications as that would be considered party political.

    At the last election, the then monthlyish LBHF glossy simply suspended publication. It will be interesting to see how H&F News (& its brethren in Greenwich & Tower Hamlets) respond.

  3. Great post David, thanks for bringing this campaign to my attention. It’s shocking to see so much money spent on this and I don’t think the defences given by the council are strong enough. Their attack on the paper about advertising etc isn’t the point, they are just trying to distract. Will be interesting to see how this campaign unfolds and also whether it plays a part at the next local election in the area – I wonder how a H&F news ‘election special’ would take shape?

    The saddest thing is that those people producing H&F news are probably on far more comfortable salaries/packages than the journalist’s on the Chronicle.

  4. Dave I have to admit I love the humourous sentiment behind your column.

    I mean it is meant to be funny right?

    First of all you say the council hides the fact it produces H&F news in small print at the bottom – and then you do the same with your disclosure that you work for Trinity Mirror.

    And finally – does your group not print more council newspapers than any other news paper group in the country? Smacks of hypocrisy to me. If you/your employers really believes that council newspapers should not exist – stop printing them. Simple!

    Instead you are happy to take the revenue and play this double agent game.

    Shocking really….

    1. Hi Steven. I don’t write this blog for Trinity Mirror, I write this blog in a personal capacity. I make it quite clear what I do for a living so people can make up their own minds.

      I don’t have a problem with councils communicating via their own newsletters or magazines, but for councils to set up publications which are clearly design to be fool the public into thinking they are independent publications is wrong. Why do they take this approach? Simple really – they think it’s a way of getting people to trust what they are reading more. They then take advertising to pay for the distribution of their propaganda, and in some cases, offer terms and conditions to other public sector advertisers which companies sticking to ASA guidelines couldn’t. This clearly distorts the market.

      Take The Shuttle in Blackburn with Darwen for example. It comes out around 9 times a year and clearly is a council newspaper. It takes minimal local advertising and doesn’t seek to look like the local newspaper. That’s the difference. Does that make me a double agent? Exciting as such a title would be, I don’t think it idoes.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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