Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been contacted by a number of council PR officers keen to distance themselves, and their profession in general, from the rogue band of council newspapers which have hit the headlines in recent weeks.
Strangely, these council press officers also write for or edit council publications in their own areas. But they’re keen not to be tarred by the same brush as the likes of Hammersmith & Fulham Council, which believes the best way to communicate with residents is to dress up council press releases inside a newspaper which is designed to give very few clues about who actually publishes it.
All the council press officers I’ve spoken to recently say they need a way to communicate with residents, to share information, but that doing it via a fortnightly newspaper which takes external advertising and indulges itself with what’s on listing, restaurant reviews and gardening features isn’t the right way to achieve that aim.
Interestingly, Roy Greenslade reports in his blog about a letter from a group called LGCommunications, which stated:
We agree with much of the commentary concerning those publications paid for by public money that seek to imitate local newspapers in terms of look and feel… However, very few council publications could be said to fit this description.
And now MPs are giving council newspapers a good kicking too. The culture select committee wants an OFT inquiry into the impact council newspapers which seek to ape commercial newspapers – such as Hammersmith & Fulham News – are having.
The Guardian reports:
“There is a real problem with local authority newspapers and magazines that needs to be addressed,” according to the committee’s report. “While it is clear that most of these publications, such as Portsmouth city council’s Flagship, are legitimate communications from a council to its citizens, this cannot be said for all local authority publications.”
“Publications such as Hammersmith and Fulham borough council’s H&F News effectively pose as, and compete with, local commercial newspapers and are misleading to the public. It is unacceptable that a local authority can set up a newspaper in direct competition to the local commercial newspaper in this way. Nor should any council publication be a vehicle for political propaganda.”
We already know that senior politicians on all side have said they don’t like the way the likes of H&F behave, and now we have something formal from one of their select committees. Add to that the above mentioned distancing by council PRs from the councils with the most commercial newspapers, and who do you have left supporting these publications?
Well, there’s Simon Jones, Hammersmith & Fulham Council’s communications boss, a journalist by trade. His 2006 think piece in Press Gazette is still quoted by many as the defence for the council newspaper. This week, the council added that it felt most people knew its publication was produced by the council:
Dave Hill’s London Blog at the Guardian quotes the council as saying:
The vast majority of our residents realise and understand that H&F News is published by H&F Council – our masthead now includes the fact that H&F News was judged to be Council Publication of the Year in 2009.
Interestingly, if you look through the online archive of H&F News editions on the council website you’ll see that the award reference has only been added in recent editions – but the award itself was presented last July. Now I know councils can be slow at times, but if you can put a newspaper out once a fortnight, surely this could have been done sooner? In other words, why do it now?
In fact, back in October when the councillor responsible for communications, Coun Mark Loveday, appeared before the select committee, he was quizzed about why the council didn’t state on the front page that the News was a council newspaper. He responded that their surveys suggested 80% of people knew it was a council newspaper. An MP suggested that 100% would know it was a council newspaper if they said it was a council newspaper on the front page:
Q205 Philip Davies: I am asking you, on here, to make it abundantly clear to your residents that this is a council publication, right on the front page. You are saying how good it is. Why are you ashamed of it? Surely you should want to be proud of the fact that the local authority is putting out this kind of propaganda. Let everybody know why you are hiding your light under a bushel.
Councillor Loveday: The majority of copies, I think, certainly did have a strapline reference.
Q206 Philip Davies: I am just unlucky, am I?
Councillor Loveday: No, I have not followed the details of the straplines on the various editions. The front cover, of course, is a slip advert, or a wrap-around advert.
Q207 Philip Davies: Yes, inside is even worse.
Councillor Loveday: Inside this, obviously, the front page—
Q208 Philip Davies: Yes, I know exactly what you are doing: you are putting out propaganda and masquerading it as independent news.
Councillor Loveday: Propaganda is a loaded word.
Actually, none of the pages say its a council newspaper on a strap – they simply have a council url, which will mean nothing to many people.
As I’ve discussed in other posts, H&F Council has lost the main defence it had used for producing a newspaper – that the commercial rival, the Chronicle, only had a small circulation and the council wanted everyone to have the chance to see its statutory information – now that the Chronicle is free and going through every door, every week.
The Chronicle – part of Trinity Mirror, the company I work for – has launched a high-profile campaign alerting people to the fact the News is being subsidised by the taxpayer and is filled with propaganda. Given that an A-board van has been touring the borough with posters about the difference between the News and the Chronicle, along with large poster boards in the area, and news coverage in virtually all media, you’d have thought H&F News might report on the campaign.
It does, after all, claim to be providing a news service which is more than just council news – indeed, that’s one of the reasons why the council won its award in 2009:
Editorial is split 70-30 between non council and council-led articles ensuring that the newspaper is a fully rounded product that has real reader value.
Yet there’s no mention of the campaign, other than an odd spread thanking advertisers for supporting the News, and making the point that they pay for H&F News. As ever, and as with the reference to promoting the council award on the masthead, this isn’t the full story. The paper is subsidised by the council to the tune of more than £170,000 a year. So it’s not just the commercial advertisers who pay for its publication.
Ignoring inconvenient facts is what sets apart a council newspaper from a regular publication, and this behaviour stretches into the ‘news’ content too. This week’s article about a judge blocking expansion at Heathrow is a case in point. H&F Council opposed the expansion and found space to quote those who backed what they were saying, but couldn’t find any room for the other side of the debate.
The situation is perhaps best summed up by the awards judges at the ‘Good Communications’ awards:
Judges comments: “..Hammersmith & Fulham News looks, feels and reads like a quality local newspaper. Its great layout, superb use of colour, excellent journalism and story selection have once again raised the bar and set a new standard for council publications. The council’s efforts to offset costs to the taxpayer by accepting paid for advertising are to be applauded, and it is no wonder the local newspaper groups are worried when they are up against quality like this…”
Inadvertently, the judges’ praise sums up the whole problem. H&F News looks and feels like a quality local newspaper. But it isn’t one. The story selection the judges praise are the problem – they are selected based on what the council wants you to read, and then dressed up in a way to make you think you’re reading the real thing. Even the judges say local newspaper groups have reason to worry – but then miss the point about asking whether a council should even be doing this in the first place.
Councils have to communicate – they don’t need to control a news agenda.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that there are fewer and fewer supporters of council newspapers. Now the OFT will hopefully prove once and for all what many have known all along – that council newspapers are not only morally wrong, but damaging a newspaper market by creating an unfair playing field.