How one council newspaper knocked away the last defence for these propaganda publications

Despite the best efforts of councils in various parts of the country, justifications for council-run newspapers which stand up to any scrutiny have been few and far between.

The origins of council newspapers can be tracked back to the period of time when council communications began to be less about keeping the public informed, and more about news management.

Individual communications officers shouldn’t be blamed for this, it was part of a wider culture in which, for example, it was decided the best way for councils and police to score highly in the ‘How safe do your residents feel’ performance indicator was to reduce the number of crimes which were actively reported to the press.

After five years of constant – and thoroughly right – attack and scrutiny by communities secretary Eric Pickles, very few council newspapers are published more than once a quarter. Pretty much the only justification to hold water from councils, in my opinion, is their need to communicate with an entire borough, rather than just readers of any one publication.

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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.

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Council newspapers: The council with its own newspaper which wants to stifle council debate on its own newspaper

I thought I’d done writing about council newspapers when communities secretary Eric Pickles introduced his new code of conduct which prohibited councils from publishing their own newspapers more than four times a year.

Of course, given that Mr Pickles’ rules on council newspapers are a code of conduct, rather than law, there was always a danger the most ardent supports of council newspapers would carry on regardless. And so it proved in Greenwich.

They produce Greenwich Time there, a weekly publication which is, according to the council, ‘written in a journalistic style, containing a degree of community news, certain lifestyle features and residents’ opinions.’ Residents opinions tend to stand a better chance of getting into print if the concur with the council’s view of the world – and the 853 blog is worth checking out for more on Greenwich Time

Greenwich Time newspaper
Greenwich Time newspaper

As for how journalistic it is, it certainly lacks news values. Take the August 16 edition, which covered the riots in London (a good 10 days after it happened). The intro on the front page was:

“Greenwich councillors have given a firm commitment to stand beside residents and businesses affected in last week’s rioting and looting in Woolwich and Charlton.”

As local councillors, should we expect any less? The previous week’s front page, which hit the streets while the looting was dying down, was dominated by the fact a visit by a children’s author to a library was a sell out. Hold the front page! If ever there was proof that councils make duff newspapers, this it it.

Of course, I’m not saying the local newspapers in the area are perfect, of course they’re not. But in council newspapers, with their guaranteed income from their own departments’ advertising, we don’t get to see the news of the community, we get to see the news the council wants the community to see.

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The Hillsborough files: Actions speak louder than words

When the Information Commissioner ruled last month that the Cabinet Office should release documents it held on the Hillsborough disaster, I suspected that this wasn’t the end of the matter.

The Cabinet Office, after all, has form for not really embracing the spirit that we all have a right to know. And so it has proved, with the Cabinet Office now appealing the Information Commissioner’s decision.

The BBC’s Martin Rosenbaum blogs here about the current position. It was a BBC FOI request which was initially refused which triggered the Information Commissioner ruling.

Without wishing to sound dramatic, I do think that the Government’s real commitment to transparency and openness will be revealed by the outcome of this case.

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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.

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Council Newspapers: It’s more than just the money which makes them so wrong

The backbench communities and local government commitee of MPs which met before Christmas to discuss plans to restrict the publication of council newspapers last week returned its verdict: That the plans should be revisited.

The MPs, who heard evidence from those in favour of council newspapers – such as the mayor of Hackney, Jules Pipe – and those against them, such as the Newspaper Society, said there wasn’t sufficent proof that council newspapers compete with normal newspapers.

The MPs argue that to tell councils how and when to publish newspapers is to cut across the government’s localism agenda – ie ensuring decisions are taken locally as often as possible. However, if ever there was proof that councils can’t always be trusted to take the right decision about things which benefit councillors, such as propaganda, then this is it.

The MPs also suggested that local government minister Eric Pickle’s plan to limit council publications to just four issues a year aren’t needed. The MPs seem to be living under the belief that there are only a handful of councils which are producing newspapers which operate as a rival to existing newspapers.

If you look at this purely in terms of frequency, then this is the case. There are around a dozen councils in the country which publish their newspapers at least fortnightly.

But the damage council newspapers can do to the local newspaper market doesn’t stop there. 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 publication 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.

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The top 10 most read posts on this blog in 2010

I write about all sorts of stuff on this blog, but try to stay focussed on the stuff I think people would want to read about, so check the top posts stats quite a lot.

I’m always amazed that so many people read my blog, and thanks to everyone who takes the time to read my posts and comment on them.

With the clock ticking down to 2011, I thought it might be worth seeing which posts were the most-read in 2010. Happy New Year everybody.

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