Plop. A newspaper came through my letter box yesterday called the Hammersmith and Fulham Chronicle. Previously it has been a paid for paper, selling around 1,500 copies, but it is now going to 72,000 homes in my borough for free. It is an interesting development in terms of the debate about whether councils should spend money advertising in independent local papers (which costs around £15 million a year) or fufil this statutory requirement by producing their own newspapers.
In my borough the Chronicle was already struggling before the Council replaced its monthly magazine (which cost £400,000) with a newspaper (self financing.) The Chronicle's circulation was already under 2,000 and had a "penetration" figure of under 3% of households. As a "local" paper it was something of a fraud as apart from the front page most of the news stories were from other boroughs and were syndicated from sister publications. The only reason it made sense to continue its rather nominal existence was the life support system of huge Council subsidy via advertising of the statutory notices, etc, unseen by 97% of residents.
With the end of this dependency culture of Council advertising I quite see that the way the Chronicle operated would have to change. They could give up like moaning minnies or expand and operate on a viable commercial basis. I am pleased their publishers Trinity Mirror (who also publish the Daily Mirror) have chosen the latter course. I have great respect for Andrew Gilligan but in reporting on these developments he doesn't seem to have grasped that what Hammersmith and Fulham Council has done has prompted the Chronicle to develop into a local, independent paper that is genuinely local and independent. As we have seen elsewhere subsidies seldom cause a concern to flourish.
Not that the development is politically helpful. Stories attacking the Council are naturally more newsworthy than ones praising it. The Labour MP for Ealing Acton and Shepherd's Bush Andrew Slaughter tells lies about Hammersmith and Fulham Council in the House of Commons on an almost weekly basis. He and the Labour councillors supply hostile allegations about us to the Chronicle which will then be presented in the headline as fact – with a denial from a Council spokesman burried away in paragraph 17. Scandal is what's needed for the front page - a non-scandal doesn't quite measure up.
As an example the current issue has a piece about a rather splendid building in my ward called Palingswick House. It is in King Street just along from the Town Hall. At the moment it is being used for voluntary groups but the Council is looking at selling it. (Early days at the moment, obviously not the ideal time for sales just at the moment.) Architecturally the building must be preserved but a change of use for it strikes me as entirely sensible.
Now I am proud that we have increased funding to the voluntary sector to £4,480,299 this year compared to £4,192,233 a year under Labour. I am also proud that debt repayment through asset sales means our annual bill for debt interest is over £600,000 down on what it would otherwise have been. The two are linked. We should give more help to the voluntary sector but using Palingswick House for their offices is bonkers asset management. Alternative arrangements would be more cost effective. I can understand the staff like working in such a magnificent location. So would I. But support for the voluntary sector should not go on palatial offices for their staff.
Anyway I had better send the Chronicle a letter about it which they may or may not decide to print. Not that I'm complaining. As Enoch Powell used to say: "Politicians who complain about the press are like sailors complaining about the sea."