News Shopper declares war on Greenwich Time


FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT! Actually, the only thing that’s surprising about this week’s News Shopper front page is how long it’s taken one of the borough’s two freesheets to lay into Greenwich Council’s weekly dose of propaganda on the tax, considering it’s nearly two years since a relatively harmless info sheet suddenly got ramped up into a weekly psuedo-newspaper.

A Westminster debate last week, however, has spurred it into action.

Liberal Democrat MP Paul Burstow told the debate:

Greenwich Time, which is delivered 44 weeks a year to every home in the borough. Again, it mimics the format and content of a local paper. Its cost is £708,000 a year, of which at least £532,000 is borne by local taxpayers. Before it goes to print, every page is checked and approved by the council leader. The council claims that it is not trying to put the local independent paper out of business, but it has adopted the practice of holding back stories for exclusives for its own paper.

If we head west, we find that a similar story applies to Hammersmith and Fulham. The council’s h&f news, which is distributed to 75,000 homes, is a perfect example of what I wanted this debate to be about: pseudo-newspapers. It has lots of news, a 12-page property section pull-out, crosswords and a sudoku, a what’s-on section, advertising from local businesses and even a gardening section. Its counterparts in Tower Hamlets and Greenwich and all such publications are written to look at the world through the tinted glasses of the ruling party of the council.

It’s worth pointing out that while Greenwich is a Labour authority (as is Tower Hamlets), Hammersmith & Fulham is a Conservative one. Mr Burstow also criticised a “newspaper” put out by Waltham Forest – which is jointly run by Labour and the Liberal Democrats. They’re all at it if they think they can get away with it, it seems. It remains to be seen if this government (or the next) will take action.

You know what I think of it, of course, and there’s remarkably similar views expoused by some washed-out fellow with ginger hair on page 3. Reaction to my barnstorming of local newspapers across Greenwich and Lewisham was instant, with one pal instantly offering to take a better photo of me. That’s what friends are for.

Of course, there’s sound political reasons for disliking Greenwich Time, and with an election coming up it’s going to come under great scrutiny. But as a journalist I believe that weekly council newspapers, heavily funded and packed out with features, sports and TV listings like Greenwich Time, stifle free speech and put at risk independent journalism. Now, I don’t think the management of the News Shopper or its rival Mercury over the past few years are entirely innocent in this – indeed, I hope this campaign marks an end to the News Shopper deciding to splash with the witterings of psychics instead of actual, proper news which affects the people it claims to serve.

But happily for the News Shopper, the latest Greenwich Time only goes and proves its point

Violent crime is falling in Greenwich, the paper trumpets, and up pops council leader Chris Roberts to take credit for it in the huge pull-quote below the headline. He’s actually quoted before police commander Richard Wood in the story. Quoting figures from April 2008-January 2009, and April 2009 to 3 January 2010, it claims that “gun crime” has been cut by 18.6%. The story comes from this Met Police press release.

Except that if you look at the Met’s own crime figure stats, they tell a different story, with a 55% rise in “gun-enabled crime” in the year to November 2009.

Now, the definition of “gun crime” and “gun-enabled crime” may well be different – the latter definitely includes fake firearms, for example. But the figures so approvingly quoted in Greenwich Time are for a different time scale – somehow counting “gun crime” Why was this? Of course, any proper journalist would have queried why, for example, “gun crime” between the months of January and April was not counted in the figures. I’d certainly hope that the journalists at the News Shopper and Mercury would. Indeed, it was a proper journalist who pointed out the disparity to me in the first place.

But Greenwich Time is not “proper journalism”. You’re not going to question the handouts you’re given to tart-up into a punter-friendly news story – after all, you’d be denying the leader of the council his regular appearance on the front page if you knocked the story down. Unusually, the crime splash did not even carry a proper byline, just “by GT reporter”. Are they worried about the veracity of the story?

Changes in technology mean that local journalism now comes in different forms – traditional newspapers, local websites, opinion-led polemics, blogs. All of which struggle to make money. But all of which can add something to people’s lives. Greenwich Time does none of that. It uses your money to crowd out the competition and stifle free speech and innovation. It’s deliberately designed to mislead.

In short, it’s a fraud. And like all frauds, the sooner it’s stamped out, the better.

(UPDATE 1.45PM For the defence, I present an insightful post by Nick Baines on the genre in general: “When you feel you are being misrepresented by not-very-good journalists at local level and find yourselves never put in a positive light for public consumption, what do you do? Just sit back and accept it? Or proactively tell your own story?”)

11 comments

  1. Caspar

    I live in Tower Hamlets and really appreciate the council run paper. I’d never buy a commercial local paper (the east end advertiser is the main alternative I believe) but thanks to the council one coming through my door, I do find out about local news & developments. I wonder what residents actually think about the competition, rather than just the publishers of commercial rivals?

  2. Darryl

    I’ve not seen a copy of East End Life, but I understand it has a stronger editorial operation than GT. Tower Hamlets also has a borough-wide paid-for, which Greenwich (unusually for London) hasn’t had for nearly 30 years.

    Caspar, what coverage does East End Life give to those who disagree with Tower Hamlets Council? And what do you think it does better than the East London Advertiser (have you ever bought it?)

  3. Caspar

    I haven’t bought it – but will pick up a copy to compare and let you know! It does have lots of pro-council stuff but never seems too over the top. But like I say, I doubt I’d ever bother with a local paper if one wasn’t delivered to me free and suspect plenty of others feel the same. Scrapping a the council run one doesn’t necessarily mean the commercial alternative would see any increase in sales.

  4. Darryl

    Please do, Caspar. I can’t really comment on the EEL/ELA fight because I don’t see EEL living south of the river, but ELA editor Malcolm Starbrook has been voiciferous in his criticism of EEL for a few years now.

    I don’t think the issue is as black and white as local newspaper publishers would make it out to be – both the News Shopper and Mercury are based well out of the borough and now run more or less combined editions for Greenwich & Lewisham (with bespoke front pages for each borough), and a lot of bread and butter stuff (council meetings, courts) goes unreported. But market failure shouldn’t provide an excuse for publishing propaganda.

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