Council newspapers: Political interference will always be suspected

One of the worst offenders on the council newspapers front is Tower Hamlets, one of the poorest parts of London. It spends more than £1.5million a year producing East End Life, recouping around £1.4million a year in advertising, although £625k of that comes from internal council advertising.

Published weekly – because councils have so much to communicate EVERY week – it runs to 52 pages, has a print run of 99,000 and is delivered to every home in the borough plus 475 drop-off points. It isn’t so much competing with the private sector newspapers in the area so much as appearing to try and run them out of town.

The East London Advertiser is the newspaper facing that sort of opposition, and it has stumbled across a very interesting FOI:

A Freedom of Information request for details of the mayor’s diary revealed that Lutfur Rahman met with the head of communications Takki Sulaiman to “look at the proposed news list for East End Life.”

Now it may well be just that he wanted to have a chat about the paper, albeit on a regular basis, and nothing more sinister than that.

But it does rather neatly sum up the problem with council newspapers: People will suspect interference from politicians, even if there is a very innocent reason for these meetings.

Look at the newspaper produced by Hackney. Mayor Jules Pipe talked up the importance of making sure as many people as possible saw the public notices, something not possible in the existing media. So why place the public notices at the back, and his ‘Mayor’s column’ right at the front end, on a right-hand page?

I remember when working as a political reporter, a Tory councillor vowing to scrap the council newspaper if he became leader  of the authority. I asked him if he was serious, and he replied: “No, because it would then become OUR council newspaper.”

East End Life is one of the few council newspapers in the country to have an editorial policy, which is just as well, given how often it is published.

That policy states:

Discretion over topics covered, style, content and presentation rests with the editor, and in her absence, the deputy editor, with the approval of the head of communications and/or the assistant to the chief executive. Judgements are made within the restraints of the Local Government Act 1988 and council policies and priorities. The council has agreed that East End Life should function with professional independence, within the objectives set out above and with the oversight of the deputy leader, who holds the communications portfolio. Vetting of stories or features before they are published is impractical on a weekly publication, although standard fact-checking is carried out and a reasonable oversight given when appropriate.

The two parts I’ve highlighted in bold seem to contradict each other. I’m not sure how you can have professional independence while at the same time being overseen by the deputy leader of the council.

The fact the council’s editorial policy also states the purpose of the newspaper is ‘To communicate the council’s policies, initiatives and successes’ also suggests that the sort of professional independence mainstream journalists enjoy, that of pursuing the stories readers want, isn’t possible within the confines of a council newspaper.

There simply isn’t the need for councils to put out newspapers containing just their own news.

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