Many local councils used to produce their own weekly or fortnighty newspapers. Most (including my own authority of Hammersmith and Fulham) stopped doing so in deference to guidance from the Department for Communities and Local Government. The Communcites and local Government Secretary Eric Pickles decided that spending Council Taxpayers money on propaganda was wrong – especially when it made it harder for independent local papers to survive.
In the case of my own council our fortnightly paper h&f news was self financing, through advertising. It actually saved money – as once it closed we had to place the statutory advertisements in the Hammersmith and Fulham Chronicle. Despite this effectively providing a substantial subsidy from the council of around £80,000 a year the Chronicle still lost money – and Trinity Mirror have just announced they are closing it. That means residents in my borough don’t have any local newspaper at all. That is a great pity. I suppose it reflects the growth of the internet. Still perhaps a budding publishing tycoon will spot this gap on the market in this sophisticated and enterprising corner of west London.
Anyway, a few councils decided to defy the Code and carry on publishing their “Town Hall Pravdas.” Mr Pickles has now called time on five of them. Formal letters have been sent to require compliance with the Publicity Code for local authorities using powers under the new Local Audit and Accountability Act.
The action is being taken against the municipal newspapers of Greenwich Time, Hackney Today, the Newham mag, Waltham Forest News and (Tower Hamlets’) East End Life. The councils now have a fortnight to show why a direction is not necessary. Any council that does not follow the legal direction could end up facing a court order requiring compliance.
Mr Pickles said:
“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.
“Localism needs robust and independent scrutiny by the press and public, and municipal state-produced newspapers suppress that. ‘Town Hall Pravdas’ not only waste taxpayers’ money unnecessarily, they undermine free speech.
“I have given written notice to councils most clearly breaching the Publicity Code, noting that Parliament has passed new laws to tackle this abuse. We are prepared to take further action against any council that undermines local democracy – whatever the political colour.
“We have changed the law to protect the free speech of councillors. If councillors and political parties want to campaign and put out political literature, they are very welcome to do so, and it’s an important part of our democratic process. But they should be using their own money, rather than taxpayers.”
Good news. Local authorities have some legitimate reasons to advertise – recrutiing more foster carers being an obvious example. That doesn’t mean that councils should be in the publlishing business. However truly independent newspapres should function without taxpayers subsidy. Therefore Mr Pickles should also lift the outdated statutory requirement for planning and licensing notices to be publicised via the printed media. It is quite enough to make them available via a council’s website.
Councils should not run their own newspapers – but nor should they be forced to subsidise other people’s. I would love to see local newspapers flourish but to be truly independent they must pay their own way.