Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has announced a toughening up of rules governing taxpayer-funded council newspapers.
The goal is to ensure a robust and healthy independent local press can continue to scrutinise the activities of local councils.
In recent years there has been a major growth in the number, frequency and scope of council newspapers. At the same time, local communities are seeing a decline in the number of local newspapers.
Council publicity can be an effective way for councils to communicate with their residents on council business and activity. However, there are concerns that too many of these papers are branching into non-council content such as TV listings and sports reviews; that the councils dress up their literature as ‘independent’ publications; and the frequency of the free, delivered newspapers undermines commercial local newspapers.
Independent local papers are a vital part of any thriving democracy. The rigour with which local journalists scrutinise the activity and spending of councils is a key factor in open and transparent government where local people can hold their councillors to account.
The steady creep of publicity beyond council-related matters started in 2001 when a watering down of a statutory code lifted the restrictions on council publicity. The new Secretary of State intends to clamp down on this by making changes to the statutory code that will stop unfair competition, ensure a tougher value for money test, and prevent municipal literature passing itself off as independent journalism.
Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles said:
The previous government’s weakening of the rules on town hall publicity not only wasted taxpayers’ money and added to the wave of junk mail, but has undermined a free press.
Councils should spend less time and money on weekly town hall Pravdas that end up in the bin, and focus more on frontline services like providing regular rubbish collections.
In an internet age, commercial newspapers should expect over time less state advertising as more information is syndicated online for free. The flipside is our free press should not face state competition from propaganda on the rates dressed up as local reporting.
Subject to consultation the new government is minded to revise and tighten the ‘Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity’. The Code was originally introduced in 1988 and amended by the last government in 2001. It is statutory guidance to local authorities. The Secretary of State is legally obliged to consult on the revised code.
The Newspaper Society has warned:
“The Code(s) implicit encouragement of the expansion of local government media and local government produced ‘news’ at the expense of an independent local press is unacceptable and requires revision. The regional media industry is very concerned by the ever increasing threat posed by local authorities’ publications, websites and broadcast services, which purport to offer ‘independent’ local news and compete with local media for readers and advertising revenues. They do not focus upon the local authorities’ core activities. Their objectivity must be highly questionable. Yet it is very difficult to mount any legal challenge” (Newspaper Society, ‘Response to the DCLG consultation on the Code of recommended practice on local authority publicity’, March 2009, para 7.4).
A survey by the Taxpayers’ Alliance has found that town hall publicity now costs £430 million a year - double the rate of 1997 (TPA, ‘Council spending uncovered: Publicity’, December 2008). Yet some councils have identified significant savings from cutting back spending on town hall newspapers. The Lancashire County Council has saved nearly £300,000 a year from scaling back its ‘Vision’ newspaper (‘Lancashire Telegraph’, 3 August 2009). The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has saved £2.9 million a year from the City Hall publicity budget by abolishing ‘The Londoner’ newspaper, and is using some of the savings to help plant trees instead (GLA press release, 13 May 2008).
Tower Hamlets states:
“As well as news releases provided by the Corporate Communications Team, the council’s community weekly newspaper ‘East End Life’ is delivered free to more than 80,000 homes and businesses in the borough and is packed with local news and information as well as entertainment listings” (www.towerhamlets.gov.uk/lgsl/351-400/359_council_news_and_informati.aspx).
The Audit Commission has published a limited survey of the frequency of local authority newspapers by council (PDF, 63kb, 4 pages).
Research conducted by MORI for the Local Government Association found that the majority of residents (55%) value a local ‘A-Z of services’ as the most useful form of council publicity. This is followed by the council website (40%) and council tax leaflets (38%). Newspapers are valued by just one in three residents (36%) (MORI, ‘Business Case for the Reputation Project: Research study conducted for the LGA’, January 2006, p.21).
The new government has already set out ambitious plans to help our local media sector. Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has announced he will be relaxing local cross media ownership rules and has started work how government can help foster the emergence of local television stations. Together with these plans to crack down on unfair local authority newspapers, the government is doing all it can to foster the sustainable and independent media that is so vital to our democracy.