Eric Pickles has had a bee in his bonnet about local council run newspapers or as he prefers to call them “town hall Pravda’s” for some time.
Pickles recently declared "It is scandalous that bloggers have been handcuffed for tweeting from council meetings, while propaganda on the rates drives the free press out of business. Only Putin would be proud of a record like that.”
The anger of the secretary of state recently resulted in five Labour run council papers in London being threatened with legal action for failure to comply with the publicity code for local authorities, part of the Local Audit and Accountability Act passed in January.
Formal letters calling for the closure of the publications were sent to Greenwich (GreenwichTime), Hackney (HackneyToday),Newham ( the Newham Mag), Waltham Forest (Waltham Forest News) and Tower Hamlets (East End Life).
Pickles has been supported in his crusade by the independent local papers and the Newspaper Society, which feel the pressure when a council paper opens in the area drawing away advertising and public notices from their publications.
The NUJ take an opposing view, claiming that the 2010 Audit Commission report had “debunked” the idea that council newspapers represented unfair competition for the local press. (The Audit Commission found that the money spent by councils was not unreasonable, that few council publications were published sufficiently frequently to be a viable media for most local advertising, and that the current accountability framework would ensure that any misuse of public money could be dealt with.)
The dilemmas of the independent versus council publication came home to me four years ago when working on the start up of the Barking and Dagenham Council paper the News.
One occasion that really brought home the conflict was when the police had set up an interview opportunity for the local press with the new borough commander.
When the interview had finished the Commander was interested to know how the local press operated, particularly the relationship between the council run local paper and the Archant title the Barking and Dagenham Post.
The problems of council run versus independently owned papers was immediately obvious with the council distributing the News free to 90,000 outlets across the borough, while the local paper sold around 10,000.
My involvement with the local council run paper only lasted a few months; however, it was enough time to gauge the issues at stake in the local paper versus council run paper argument.
The News was a substantial product, not just a news sheet. Distributed fortnightly, it included local news, features, events, entertainment and sport. I had the joy of trying to get interesting comments out of Essex cricketers and Dagenham and Redbridge footballers, though interviews with sporting legends Trevor Brooking and Graham Gooch proved more fulfilling.
No doubt the News did not help the fortunes of the local paper, nor was it likely to run stories that were embarrassing to its town hall paymasters. However, it was pretty cost effective, at that time, paying most of the costs of running the paper out of what was being saved in advertising and notices.
The concerns about the threat posed to free speech by council run papers no doubt has some validity. They do tend to be council good news sheets.
However, the local papers can hardly argue that they have been performing the role of being the guardians of democracy for some years now.
In the internet age, where the bean counters rule, the local papers have been stripped down to the absolute minimum. Many papers these days operate on very few staff, most of whom rarely leave the office.
The days when local papers reported council meetings and courts are a long distant memory. The local papers have become a shell of their former selves, often reflecting very little about what is going on in the local area. They certainly, in the majority of cases, can hardly be said to be doing a great job for democracy or free speech.
One noticeable development over recent years has been a growing trend for local newspapers journalists to migrate into local council press offices. Once they have mastered the basics of journalism, these individuals cannot then survive on the poor wages on offer at local titles. The local council offer more secure, better paid jobs, often without the same pressure of turning out a weekly publication on ever depleting resources.
The same attraction regarding pay, terms and conditions apply regarding working for a council run paper. The journalists are put on council contracts with decent pay, pensions and other benefits. Indeed, it was a better option because the journalists were still doing a sort of pseudo-journalism, almost straddling the fence between journalism and PR, rather than jumping right over from one side to the other.
So my feelings after my short sojourn at the News was that council papers were probably bad for journalism but good for journalists.
That said, the News was closed by Barking and Dagenham Council on 29 March 2013, as part of the council cuts being made at the time.
What could happen in the five boroughs being targeted by Pickles can be seen looking at Hammersmith and Fulham. It had a fortnighly council publication which came under pressure from the local Trinity run newspaper the Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle. This led to the council shutting down its paper.
Now, the Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle has shut down, leaving the council without any paper at all in which to place its statutory notices.
The response of the Communities and Local Government department was that these notices can be put in the Evening Standard. The council has argued that Standard’s advertising rates make this far too expensive.
The local councils that run the papers are certainly putting up a strong fight, refusing to roll over in the face of the Pickles onslaught. Mayor of Newham Robin Wales claims that approval rating for his magazine, the Newham Mag, has risen from 41 to 70 per cent.
Where things go from here remains to be seen. Council run papers no doubt have an impact on the independent locally run newspapers, however, such publications have also contributed to their own demise in other ways. What does seem unquestionable is that there has been a vacuum created at local level by the decline of local independent media. There is a democratic deficit, which needs to be rectified. Council run papers will not meet that need; however, commercially run independent titles seem unlikely to change what they are doing either. No doubt there are those among the independent titles that will argue if you want some of these accountability issues addressed maybe there should be a subsidy for them. This ofcourse could arguably be another check on independence and accountability. The probability is that there is room for independent and council run publications, just that there needs to clear parameters to stop one from putting the other out of existence.
Whatever happens there are certainly important issues that need to be addressed at the level of local media, which stretch way beyond the present feud between Pickles and local councils over their newspapers.
published - British Journalism Review - June 2014