Greenwich Time: Anger and airbrushing
You may have read elsewhere (see greenwich.co.uk and – crikey! – the News Shopper) about Wednesday night’s Greenwich Council meeting, which featured a motion put forward by the opposition proposing the scrapping of its propaganda weekly Greenwich Time. Yes, the News Shopper was represented, its reporter sat at the press bench while around her a direct competitor was debated.
Shame, however, that she wasn’t taking notes during the rest of the meeting. There was some good stuff at that meeting that’d sit happily in any local paper worth its salt.
- The Blackheath councillor accused of “playing to the gallery” for questioning Olympics’ organisers plans for Greenwich Park – see the Olympics post below.
- The residents of Hambledown Road, Sidcup, who mounted a stand-up protest in the public gallery to protest about plans to build on a patch of green space at the end of their road (although to be fair, the paper covered the story a couple of weeks ago). (UPDATE: This was covered on Saturday, two days after the meeting.)
- Labour and Conservative councillors uniting to condemn the closure of Greenwich Community College’s Meridian Music Centre in a debate that actually did both sides credit, up to a point.
- A severely epileptic woman who presented a petition (rightly) complaining about the dire state of pavements in Charlton to the council, summing up a huge amount of courage to speak to the chamber to point out an important issue, and sympathetically supported by local councillor Allan MacCarthy. Hey, there’s a local blogger in Charlton who’s also got a bee in his bonnet about the state of the streets…
- An interesting new policy where Greenwich is to hive off a small number of its council homes to a wholly-owned private company to try to provide more “family” homes for rent. Complicated and to some extent goes against a long-held Greenwich Labour policy of not hiving off council housing. Deserves more investigation, especially since nowhere else in the country seems to be doing this.
Get set to see more of those stories in next week’s News Shopper. Or maybe not.
The Greenwich Time debate wasn’t an encouraging affair. The Conservatives complained it cost too much money, but focused on the paper’s content, when they are two separate issues. Along with local blogs/websites, council newspapers are one of the things which have sprung up as once-respected local newspapers have withered and faded away. Greenwich Time is a product of market failure.
Conservative deputy leader Nigel Fletcher spoke wittily on the subject, acknowledging one Achilles heel when he said he’d make a “substantial donation” to the mayor’s charity if Labour members did not mention the word “Hammersmith” – H&F News is proof both Labour and Tory parties publish propaganda rags if they think they can get away with it. (Labour members didn’t go along with the joke and mentioned it anyway.)
“Is it really a frontline service without which our lives will be materially worse? This week, we’re treated to a centrefold spread of Councillor Fahy… is it really a core function of the council to review Toy Story 3? Do we need to tell people Prince’s new album is his strongest yet?,” he asked.
But the value-for-money argument was easily demolished by council leader Chris Roberts, who said the council was “on the verge of delivering its statutory notices at almost no cost- if there is a no-brainer, this is it”. He claims GT will cost 3.5p a copy to produce and deliver this year, down from 22p/copy in its old fortnightly, less folksy format. You can criticise the content, he added, but it drove advertising revenue. Cllr Roberts even claimed the recent cutback in the number of photos of leading councillors (since the last council election) was to help sell more ads.
So here’s the problem. Councils need to publish its statutory notices – planning applications, that kind of thing – somewhere. We’re not at the stage where they can go online, and the internet’s not really a good format for these things. Greenwich used to do its in the Mercury, stopping around the time the freesheet moved out of Deptford. Local newspapers have been known to charge councils a fortune to do this. So councils have put them in their own papers instead to save money. After all, should it be their job to subsidise local papers through advertising?
What Greenwich has done is tried to make its vehicle for publishing these things stand on its own two feet – with the happy spin-off that its editorial is slanted towards whatever Good Things the council are doing. You can’t argue with this in pure financial terms, but it’s a killer for papers like the News Shopper.
But what about the News Shopper? It got some stick from the aforementioned Cllr John Fahy, who said it and the Mercury carried “10 pages of stories in Lewisham and beyond, and perhaps 2 or 3 stories about the community in Greenwich” (Greenwich’s NS and Mercury editions are, front pages aside, shared with Lewisham) – but more tellingly, said the paper had been “an extension of Conservative News” during the election, a reference to a number of council-knocking stories which ran during April (which I should point out featured me in my then-role as a Green Party candidate). That said, the News Shopper complains bitterly that it is denied access to Labour councillors.
Indeed, the rare appearance of a News Shopper reporter at a council meeting was commented upon by Labour’s David Grant – “it’s lovely to see the local papers here… showing up for the really important matters”.
However correct the News Shopper may be in pursuing the Greenwich Time issue, it isn’t helping itself with its poor coverage of news in the borough. Its ongoing feud with the council just makes this worse. Obviously, that’s a criticism of its management rather than the reporter who had to sit in the middle of the chamber with 60 councillors looking at her.
So if we take Chris Roberts at his word, and accept that scrapping Greenwich Time would cost a fortune, what to do about its content?
Senior Labour councillor Maureen O’Mara pointed to its role in advertising council house tenancies, but then said the paper was “designed to be supportive and encouraging”, as if the population of the borough was comprised solely of five-year-olds. She then gave the game away by criticising Conservative bias in the national press, including the Daily Star in her round-up of Tory titles. Can’t say I’ve ever seen the Star run an in-depth expose of the shenanigans around Charlton Lido, but I’m happy to be corrected.
John Fahy was more revealing, claiming: “The Conservatives fought the election on the argument about Greenwich Time and lost,” adding GT was about “celebrating” the borough. Of course, there’s a thin line between celebrating the borough – an artificial entity – and celebrating the council created to serve that entity.
Conservative veteran Dermot Poston recalled being attacked “as a Tory” by the long-defunct Kentish Independent, which closed in the early 1980s after, he said, Greenwich Council pulled its advertising from it. Greenwich Time, he said, was “a Pravda, a political newspaper that is supposed to represent this council and I bitterly resent it”.
Another long-serving Tory, Eileen Glover, revealed she had been airbrushed out of a photo from an event in her ward, and joked how she won a bet by changing her hairstyle, enabling her to sneak into an issue. Labour’s David Grant was, refreshingly, less defensive than his colleagues, adding that he had also been airbrushed out of a shot. (I later heard a story about another councillor who’d been airbrushed out of another photo, replaced by a balloon.)
For his part, Chris Roberts said the paper could not legally be political, revealing it was reviewed “line by line” by lawyers before publication. I wonder if those legal costs are included in the 3.5p/copy costs? Indeed, he said, that was why Greenwich Time did not feature the government’s cuts to the school building programme.
But this hits right to the problem with Greenwich Time – what you leave out of a newspaper is as important as what you leave in. Nobody criticises Rupert Murdoch in the Sun, and nobody has a pop at the council in Greenwich Time. Those campaigners facing the loss of their patch of green in Sidcup won’t get a look-in, because that doesn’t “celebrate” a borough they live right on the edge of. Bad news is less likely to feature than good news. With local papers failing or fading, people who find themselves at the centre of bad news are going to find it harder to get their voices heard. And even if Greenwich Time disappeared tomorrow, the local papers are unlikely to celebrate by increasing the coverage they give the borough.
So what to do? I’ve always thought abolishing GT was a red herring. But if it costs so little to produce, why doesn’t the council spin it off into being a genuine community newspaper, run independently of the council, or at least overseen independently? What would the council – and its Labour leadership – have to be scared of by giving GT a little independence?
Ultimately, though, with Greenwich Labour digging in – most of its councillors obediently lining up behind an amended motion praising GT to the skies (a couple of wiser ones made themselves scarce before the vote) – the future of Greenwich Time is going to lie with the government. It may well be that legislation may be needed to allow for solutions like the one I suggest.
Councils can’t keep on pumping out weekly propaganda rags, even if they do make business sense – but local media barons shouldn’t be rewarded for neglecting their newspapers either. There has to be a middle way – or otherwise everyone will lose out.