‘The only security of all is in a free press…,’ wrote Thomas Jefferson, ‘it is necessary to keep the waters pure’. But in recent years, the waters in local communities have become increasingly muddied. More and more councils have begun printing their own newspapers, squeezing the free and independent press out of the market. This has been a giant step in the wrong direction for local democracy.
Journalists like Jim Naughtie and John Humphrys, Roy Greenslade and Richard Littlejohn, cut their teeth on their local papers. As we all recognise, local journalism has been under increasing pressure from the relentless news cycle and the internet. But if local newspapers disappear, where will residents get an independent, thoughtful critique of how their councillors are behaving and how their council is performing? Certainly not from the town hall Pravda where glossy print meets spin.
Councils should let their achievements speak for themselves: not use glossy freesheets to tell people what to think. Many councils are already embracing a new era of transparency: putting the facts about their spending online without an editorial gloss and letting people make up their own minds. Others have started to work with, rather than against, their local newspaper: so that straightforward information about local services and community resources reaches local residents without compromising the papers independence.
As well as the democratic principles at stake, I also have deep concerns about the amount of money some councils are spending blowing their own trumpets. As the BBC reported, Newham council spent upwards of half a million pounds on their newspapers; while Greenwich’s magazine looks like a local edition of Vogue – though the quality of reporting doesn’t seem to live up to the production values, an issue which has caused a great deal of concern.
I’m determined to strike a blow for freedom of the local press who can’t compete with a bottomless pit of taxpayer funds. That’s why I’ve proposed tightening up the rules governing councils promotion and publicity. I don’t think, for example, that there will be any great loss to British journalism if councils can’t print their freesheets more than once a quarter. The consultation closed this week, and there has been significant interest in the issue, with more than two hundred responses. But it’s important to recognise that some councils don’t need to wait to be told: Hammersmith and Fulham council has decided to stop publishing its newspaper.
At a time when councils are facing up to really difficult choices, these excessive publicity machines seem completely out of kilter with public sentiment. Councils have got to ask themselves whether residents would prefer to see their council tax spent on frontline services or on self-promotion? Propaganda dressed up as journalism not only wastes money but undermines a free press and a healthy democracy. As the Prime Minister promotes those very values abroad in China this week, it’s more important than ever we actively promote them at home.