What on earth is the NUJ doing supporting council newspapers?

And so the fight we thought was almost over takes another peculiar turn. Yes, I’m back on about council newspapers. Bear with though, I’ll try to make this one interesting.

In the latest edition of its magazine, the Journalist, the NUJ gives some background to its opposition of Government plans to restrict the number of times a year a council can publish a newspaper.

According to the NUJ, it believes the problems facing the local newspaper industry go far beyond ‘any perceived competition from council newsletters which provide prompt, accurate advice and information not necessarily carried elsewhere.’

While the first part of that statement is true, the notion that just because it isn’t the silver bullet to solve an industry’s challenges it therefore isn’t worth doing is downright bonkers – a bit like a GP telling an obese person that just because chocolate alone isn’t responsible for all their weight gain, they might as well indulge in the £1 mega bars of Dairy Milk next time they’re in WH Smith.

The second part of the statement, however, is the bit which should frighten any journalist – the union which represents journalists claiming that council newsletters carry ‘prompt, accurate advice and information.’ What they actually carry is ‘prompt, accurate advice and information as the council sees it.’ It is therefore not journalism to put a council newspaper together, it’s an act of PR.

And in committing that act of PR, those who describe themselves as journalists working on them do cause real harm to a regional press industry which employs people who chase stories without fear or favour, and who always aim for their stories to be fair and balanced.

In 2009/10, the top-tier councils producing council newspapers at least once a year estimated they would offset the £19million combined cost of their publications with £9million of advertising, of which £3.97million would come from outside spending, be that private sector or other public sector bodies, such as primary care trusts.

In other words, £5million of council advertising is being diverted into publications run by the council.

Since then, communities secretary Eric Pickles has launched a very welcome crusade against what he calls the Town Hall Pravdas, and most councils have fallen into line with his voluntary rules of producing titles no more than a few times a year.

I would still argue that regardless of how infrequently South Kesteven Council in Lincolnshire publishes its council magazine, there was never any need for it to pack out pages with photos from the Olympic Torch passes through its various towns. If people cared, they were either there or bought the local paper. But overall, most councils have got better.

There are a few which cling on, including Tower Hamlets, which produced East End Life weekly. The NUJ’s remarkable new stance appears to originate from their Tower Hamlets Council chapel. Putting aside why the NUJ needs a chapel inside a council given that journalism doesn’t tend to go on in councils – another post for another time I suspect – the NUJ clearly hasn’t read East End Life if it believes it just there to share council information.

Helen Watson, of the council’s NUJ Chapel, argued: “If our newspaper ceased to exist tomorrow, would the rest of the industry up their games, increase pagination, raise wages and created more jobs in the newsroom? I think not.

“Our position is, and always has been, that we work in the same industry. We must stick together to defend the jobs, pay and conditions of all journalists, regardless of who they work for.”

Where to begin with this? First off, no matter how hard you try to recreate a newsroom in a council, it’s not the same thing as working in an independent newsroom. You can have all the news conferences you like, all the page planning discussions in the world, but it’s still a million miles away from being the same industry as the regional press.

Why? Because you exist to promote the council and its work. The fact that the front page of last week’s paper gave more space to the Mayor celebrating the A-Level achievements of people in the borough than anyone more directly connected with the story – headteachers for example – is just one example of that. And no room for the college with a 93% pass rate in the borough. You tell me, what is more important to an A-Level round-up? There was more coverage of A-levels again this week, celebrating the best results for the borough ever. Quite what the pass rate was, we don’t know – the paper doesn’t mention. Plenty of room for more Mayoral platitudes though.

On page three is a story saying the council is backing calls for plain packaging on tobacco – a political hot potato the government has parked. Are both sides of the issue covered here? Of course not. Why? Because East End Life exists to get the council’s point across, not to act as a newspaper presenting all views.

This week’s front page focuses on a teenager stabbed to death just days before getting his GCSE results. A true tragedy – but why is a council newspaper – set up to communicate council information with the public – running stories like that?

The acid test is this: If someone rang up the East End Advertiser, the local, Archant-owned newspaper, and East End Life,  with a tip off about a council up to no good, which title do you think would investigate it? And which title, at best, might refer it internally? One, after all, employs journalists who want to get their stories on the front page. The other has council employees who happen to have skills cfcommonly associated with journalists.

The NUJ’s other argument in support of council newspapers – that they provide a place for councils to talk about cuts the Government would rather ignore – is laughable. At best, all council newspapers do is present the other side of the propaganda spectrum. Are council newspaper staff free to scrutinise council spending and report their findings? As the East End Advertiser discovered in 2011, the elected mayor’s diary includes meetings to look the news list for East End Life. 

Despite Watson’s protestations, councils like Tower Hamlets – and Greenwich – didn’t set up their newspapers to improve the quality of the local Press, or to improve the working conditions of those working on them. They set them up to try and speak directly to their residents, unfiltered by those pesky journalists who would scrutinise what they claimed. Is there really so much information councils feel every resident has to have, weekly or fortnightly, that they need their own 32-pages newspapers to do so? Of course not, as a quick look through any edition will tell you. Most of it, at best, fits into the ‘fluffy but not essential’ box.

East End Life’s editorial policy – available on the What Do They Know website – states that it exists to ‘to communicate the council’s policies, initiatives and successes.’ It also exists ‘To promote a positive image of the community and the borough.’

Apparently, ‘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.’  That sounds encouraging until you read: ‘The council has agreed that East End Life should function with professional independence, within the objectives set out above [ie promoting the council’s successes] and with the oversight of the deputy leader, who holds the communications portfolio.’

Ok, so the deputy leader has a say – so it’s already political – but the editor has free reign as long as s/he is doing so in line with the objectives set out by the council … to be positive.

When there was outrage around the world at Tower Hamlets’ plan to sell a Henry Moore sculpture, the protests were led by Danny Boyle. It made the front page of East End Life, but Boyle got just a fleeting mention. Again, the mayor’s ‘regret’ at having to sell dominated the coverage. A year ago, Boyle was a regular in East End Life …. but then again, that was a positive story about the Olympics then.

Tower Hamlets’ editorial policy is by no means unique. Blackburn with Darwen Council used to publish ‘The Shuttle’ 10 times a year and it included a column called ‘Fact or Fiction’ which was the chief executive’s way of putting across his version of events on stories which had criticised the council. When Lancashire County Council began publishing Vision, a monthly newspaper which seemed to have lifted a print template from the 1960s, covered the closure of 30 OAP homes which led to thousands marching through the streets of Lancashire towns, only the positive benefits of closing the homes was portrayed.

And in doing so, councils did do harm to the mainstream press. £9million of advertising sucked out of the local Press is just one part of the story. Another is the fact that in diverting their own council advertising spending, they created a guaranteed-income, costs-covered-if-not-profitable opposition. It’s not even as if papers like East End Life can argue their public notices get better placing the council publication – they still tuck them away at the back.

Most councils have seen sense and reigned in their newspapers – after all, they’re very hard to justify when they’re also making thousands redundant. In Tower Hamlets, the plan at the moment is to offset the losses the paper incurs by attracting more external advertising. That will appeal to councillors … but it also puts East End Life in competition with local newspapers.

Camden Council has also announced plans to up the number of times it circulates its magazine to 10 times a year. It says it isn’t seeking to compete with the local newspaper – but if it does what Lancashire County Council did with its monthly paper and divert ‘house’ advertising into its own title, the local independent press will suffer. (Lancashire had to change that policy when departments complained it meant jobs went unfilled for too long).

You can argue that’s not the council’s problem – but it should be the NUJ’s. In encouraging members to support council newspapers, they’re encouraging members to support propaganda vehicles which have stripped public sector spending out of the established press, subsidising door-to-door distribution of propaganda which they now wish to sustain through advertising from elsewhere.

As Anthony Longden confirmed in his chapter of ‘What do we mean by Local?‘, journalists might know the difference between a free weekly and a paid-for weekly, but readers often don’t. The same to can apply to council newspapers and regular ones. And that’s doubly worrying when the council newspaper is trying to promote only a positive image of the borough. That isn’t journalism as I understand it.

An opposition Tory councillor, fighting for the closure of The Shuttle in Blackburn with Darwen in 2004 once told me: “Of course, if we win office, it’ll be my Shuttle, and then it stays.” That sums up, in one sentence, why the NUJ should be opposed to council newspapers.

 

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