Nick Pickles is Director of civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, and was the Conservative Parliamentary candidate for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford in 2010. Follow Nick on Twitter.
As you may have read on the internet, these are tough times for print
journalists, not least local papers.
However, a vibrant local press is an essential part of our democracy.
With localism comes greater power for councils, but equally it reaffirms the
importance for local accountability and scrutiny.
I am not calling for a subsidy, or a new state-backed lending scheme for
newspapers. But I do think that it’s time that the state, in the form of local
authorities, stop using taxpayers money to produce their own rival papers,
undercutting genuine reporting of local issues with town hall propaganda. In my
own patch, the pages of the Wakefield Citizen somehow managed to miss a major
childcare scandal, the fact the leader of Wakefield Council had a chauffeur-driven
Audi A8, and that a multi-million pound water feature on a busy junction might
not be a brilliant use of public money.
All is brilliant in Wakefield, nothing to worry
about. Having lived there for most of my life, it would be generous to describe
this as a rosy view.
Particularly for labour intensive and often quite dry beats like
politics and court reporting, editors face very real challenges about
cost-cutting and we are all worse off if local newspapers decide it is simply
no longer viable to continue publishing. At a time when the local press is one
of the most trusted sources of news, we need to protect our local press – and
not allow councils to hijack this important medium.
Rightly, Eric Pickles has recognised that council produced newspapers
(in the broadest possible sense of the word) are directly competing with local
papers. A substantive local paper will never be able to sustain itself as a
freesheet, yet councils are able to hand deliver thousands of copies of their
own rag, free of the burden of needing to report actual news.
This practice should have stopped when new guidelines on local authority
publicity came into force but some authorities have simply ignored them,
pressing ahead to undermine accountability, scrutiny and more importantly, try
keep themselves in power.
Today, Baroness Hanham will present the Local Audit and Accountability Bill for
its second reading. It may not have a glitzy title, or the financial bang of a
major infrastructure project, but it deserves a much greater hearing – and our
A free and vibrant press one of the best guardians against the excesses
of the state. We don’t need more council propaganda; we need more local
journalists fearlessly taking on corruption, waste and hypocrisy. This bill
does more to strengthen the local press than any word of the Leveson enquiry.
Restricting council publicity is not just good value for taxpayers, but
very good value for our democracy.