Posts Tagged ‘eric pickles’
Greenwich Council’s propaganda weekly got an unlikely airing in the Midlands at the end of last week as Prime Minister David Cameron took aim at Greenwich Time when he launched the Conservatives’ local election campaign.
London boroughs won’t see an election for another year yet, but seats in English county councils are up for grabs on 2 May.
“And what about all those Labour councils shamelessly spending your money on their propaganda?
Greenwich – whose town-hall newspaper is about as balanced as Pravda. And about as interesting to read as well!
Tee-hee! Dave did a funny!
Lambeth – which scare-mongers about cuts – but funnily enough still has cash for posters all over the borough attacking the Government.
These people: when it comes to spending your money, they just cannot help themselves.”
Interestingly enough, I spend a fair bit of time near Shepherd’s Bush Green, where the lamp posts are covered in posters boasting about council tax cuts in Hammersmith & Fulham – a Conservative borough.
That aside, David Cameron’s speech shows how Greenwich Time has become an exposed target for opponents to kick – despite the fact that his government has failed to kill it off after promising to once already.
A recently-introduced code on council publicity was meant to put an end to the likes of GT – but it doesn’t have the force of law, and Greenwich has blithely continued publishing, and is likely to do so up to the next council election.
Now communities secretary Eric Pickles has launched a consultation on making that code law.
“Some councils are undermining the free press and wasting taxpayers’ money which should be spent carefully on the front line services that make a real difference to quality of life. It should not, under any circumstances, be used to fund political propaganda and town hall Pravdas and yet a hardcore minority of councils continue to ignore the rules despite public concern.”
Greenwich Council has always maintained that Greenwich Time covers its own costs and that scrapping it would divert money away from frontline services. This is because the council would have to place its public notices (planning permission, consultations, that kind of thing) in the News Shopper or the Mercury.
Let’s deal with the value for money question first. The finances of Greenwich Time are difficult to quantify, since they don’t account for the involvement of the council’s seven-strong press office, which is as involved with GT as the freelancers whose names appear in the paper.
With Greenwich Time the central plank of all council communications – unlike other boroughs, Greenwich doesn’t have advertising space on bus shelters, for example – it’s nigh-on impossible to split it out from the schmoozing, scheming, talking and influencing press officers do. Without GT, Greenwich would have to completely reshape its press operation.
Yet most other councils manage without producing their own weekly newspaper – the only other one is Tower Hamlets’ East End Life. Hillingdon Council’s communications manager Charlotte Stamper says by using the law, “Pickles is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut” – adding that local councils effectively subsidise local papers by placing public notices in them.
If Pickles removed the need for councils to place so many public notices, the justification for Greenwich Time would vanish overnight.
“The line in the sand is clear, publicity material straying into propaganda clearly crosses that line, and this legislation will stop this disgraceful misuse of public money, which damages local democracy and threatens an independent, free and vibrant local press.”
Greenwich Time certainly gets in the way of honest reporting. On a financial level, it’s believed to undercut the ad rates demanded by traditional local papers (and making life hard for potential new entrants – remember Games Extra, the Olympics clone of the Greenwich Visitor?); while on a practical level, council news stories tend to be held so GT gets the exclusive and its rivals are left chasing.
But the problem in Greenwich is that there wasn’t an independent, free and vibrant local press to start with. Despite the work of talented reporters, the owners of the Mercury and the News Shopper have squeezed budgets to such an extent that their papers are barely able to cover the basics. Indeed, distribution is so poor that the only paper many residents will see is… Greenwich Time.
A good case study is Greenwich Council’s scheme to give jobs to residents hit by social security cuts. This has been known about since the end of January, and was launched last Monday with a press conference at the Woolwich Centre – as usual, too late for coverage in the print versions of the Mercury or News Shopper, but guaranteeing oodles of uncritical coverage in Greenwich Time.
On the left, Greenwich Time in September 2009, announcing a scheme to employ people in temporary jobs. On the right, Greenwich Time in April 2013, announcing a scheme to… yep, you got it.
But was the initial scheme a success? Did the people given “green jobs” in 2009 get back into work? We don’t know. An “independent, free and vibrant local press” would have scrutinised this and asked difficult questions. But it hasn’t. It’s a worthy-looking scheme, but we’ve no idea if it’s really going to do something to improve people’s lives for the long term.
So the only coverage most people will see is what they’ll read in Greenwich Time – not just because the council’s trying to smother the market, but because the traditional local press won’t invest to free reporters up to do any real, in-depth reporting. Greenwich Time undercutting their ad rates won’t help them do that, of course, but it’s the editors and proprietors who ceded the space to the council in the first place.
But there’s one other consideration – has Greenwich Time naturally had its day? Are people now seeing through the propaganda after five long years of weekly papers? Does anyone actually read it any more?
Essentially, GT stories tend to associate the council with community initiatives, good deeds with children, and regeneration schemes – this week’s issue sucks up to the developers of (The Heart of East) Greenwich Square. Its favoured worldview also promotes Chris Roberts’ pet projects and people – this week’s features an embarrassing photo of his deputy (and his preferred successor) Peter Brooks with swimmers and Duncan Goodhew at Charlton Lido. Expect to see a bit more of Brooksy over the next year. It’s all getting a bit samey.
Councillors and council officers might think they’ve got people’s attention when they tick off the box marked “get article in Greenwich Time”, but that’s no good if half your taxpayers are binning the thing, and you’ve no other publicity options. I was intrigued that the council’s Bridge The Gap campaign on river crossings only had 795 online pledges of support out of the 84,000 households Greenwich Time is delivered to, despite seven consecutive weeks of promotion there. I’m waiting to find out how many of those pledges actually came from within Greenwich borough.
Yet sometimes it’s best when other people do your publicity for you. Take a look at new-ish blogs The Only Way Is Woolwich and Seen In Greenwich talking about the council’s Environment Champions scheme. This stuff is far better than anything you’ll read in GT – and far more valuable because it removes the “well, they would say that anyway” factor you’d get from a council publication. Sometimes you just have to do the right thing and trust other people to be your messengers, be they journalists, bloggers or residents (or all three at once) instead of trying to force it down people’s throats.
Or maybe we could just gang together and use another Pickles innovation, the community right to challenge, to bid to run Greenwich Time and take it off the council’s hands altogether. Who’s got a few quid spare?
So, sledgehammer or not, I’ll be responding to the government’s consultation. I’m sorry for the other local councils that don’t break the rules – but this one’s screwed it up for the rest of you. Not out of nostalgia for a golden era of local journalism, but because it’s an abuse of power that’s increasingly looking anachronistic. If you’ve got a strong view on GT either way, you might like to do the same.
Greenwich Council’s cabinet members lined up tonight to lavish praise on its weekly newspaper before giving it the go-ahead to continue – but only after it was revealed discussions had been held about selling Greenwich Time to commercial operators.
Leader Chris Roberts said there was an “overwhelming” financial case to carry on publishing 50 times a year, in defiance of a new government code which restricts councils to just four issues of their newspapers.
The cabinet unanimously agreed to back a report endorsing the paper, some of which has been blocked from public scrutiny because of concerns over commercial confidentiality.
But Conservative councillor Matt Clare asked a series of questions referring to the confidential part of the report – including a request for further details about talks over GT being “acquired as a going concern”, which he said he had been pleased to hear about.
However, most of his questions were ruled as being unable to be heard in public, and the meeting broke up with no discussion of the “confidential” matters. Therefore, it was not revealed what discussions took place, or with whom, or how much the council could make from selling the borough’s most widely-distributed newspaper.
The report says the council saved £1.8m over the year in advertising costs by publishing 50 times a year – although once again, the figures which show this are not being published publicly.
Communities secretary Eric Pickles has threatened authorities who break his code with a judicial review, but council officers say his code does not have the force of law behind it. However, Greenwich has made several changes to GT in recent months, dropping a TV guide and adding the council logo to its masthead.
Critics have called the paper “propaganda”, with editions published before the 2010 election aggressively promoting council initiatives, alongside a now-axed masthead saying the paper was “campaigning for an even greater Greenwich”.
Many of the cabinet members put on record their appreciation for the newspaper, pointing to the role it plays in informing council tenants of available properties.
Community safety and environment member Maureen O’Mara said she had always been “taken aback” by the “screaming and shouting” of those opposed to the paper. “I still don’t understand it,” she said, adding she had watched council tenants “come in every Tuesday to see what properties they could bid for”.
“It’s very mean-spirited to complain,” she added.
Housing member Steve Offord said he would be “very sorry” if Greenwich Time disappeared, while deputy leader Peter Brooks said council tenants in neighbouring boroughs had to visit libraries to find out about vacant homes. “My neighbours speak very highly of Greenwich Time,” the Thamesmead Moorings councillor added.
Education member Jackie Smith said Greenwich Time reflected the positive contribution the children of the borough made, “while the rest of the media only covers young people when things go wrong”.
“We are able to give a balanced view of what’s going on,” she said.
Regeneration, enterprise and skills member Denise Hyland said the paper was distributed to all homes and “celebrated the lives of people in the borough, is informative and cost-effective” while commercial freesheets (the Mercury and News Shopper) were only interested in targeting more affluent residents.
Chris Roberts said he did not blame commercial publishers for their “tighter distribution”, but claimed they tended to avoid council estates, citing the News Shopper reporting zero deliveries to the estates west of Well Hall Road, Eltham – but over 4,500 to the privately-owned homes to the east.
“For me, finance, cost savings and distribution make the case for Greenwich Time overwhelming,” he said.
Of the two freesheets which cover the borough, only one, the Petts Wood-based News Shopper, sent a reporter to cover the meeting.
As greenwich.co.uk has already reported, Greenwich Council is set to carry on publishing its weekly newspaper Greenwich Time – despite the threat of a judicial review by government minister Eric Pickles.
A report prepared for a cabinet meeting next week recommends the paper stays as it is after an internal review concluded it would cost more money to either reduce its frequency or place its advertising elsewhere. It also cites the “lack of a significant mass circulation alternative” for council advertising.
Pickles had the likes of Greenwich Time in his sights when he introduced a new code for local government publications earlier this year, declaring that they should be published no more than four times a year.
But Greenwich publishes GT 50 times a year – and the report, prepared by the communications team which publishes the newspaper – says this makes printing more cost-effective, and attracts more advertising. In the last financial year, the council claims it only cost 3.6p per copy to publish – bringing in over £575,000 of advertising.
Indeed, the report says the council saved £1.8m over the year in advertising costs – although the figures which show this are not being published publicly.
Also not being revealed to the public are the results of discussions about Greenwich publishing an insert in an existing local newspaper – a route being taken by Lambeth and Hammersmith & Fulham councils.
While the council says Pickles’ code “is not law, it is guidance”, the report does mention some concessions to it – the inclusion of the council’s logo in the paper’s masthead to “clearly and unambiguously identify itself as a product of the local authority”. Until last year, the paper had merely styled itself as “the newspaper campaigning for a greater Greenwich”. The TV guide and crossword have also been dropped, while the leisure guide has been refocused around local events.
Few of the council’s arguments for continuing to publish the paper will come as a surprise – as well as value for money and the lack of any other significant media outlet, the report also says it helps target minority and deprived communities not reached by the poor distribution of other local papers. The report also reveals that council departments have been encouraged to advertise in GT rather than publish leaflets of their own, to save money.
Apparently, though, GT “helps to keep people informed about the Greenwich Strategy” – the existence of which would be news to most of its readers. It contains “a degree of community news, certain lifestyle features and residents’ opinions where they relate to the Greenwich Strategy, Council and other public services or encourage the Council’s tourism economy”. I wonder if that explains the weekly letter from a Charlton fan urging supporters to get behind the team?
It says GT does not target car dealers or estate agents for advertising, and there is also a sideswipe at the Mercury, pointing out that GT does not accept advertising from “escort services, massage parlours and chat lines” – which has seen its sister paper, the South London Press, dubbed the “South London Pimps“.
There’s also some interesting maps of how the Mercury and News Shopper are distributed around the borough. These claim neither newspaper reaches any of the parts of Deptford covered by Greenwich borough (including the big Millennium Quay development), with the News Shopper not being delivered at all in parts of Charlton and Woolwich, with only a handful of east Greenwich homes getting a Mercury. Neither paper is distributed in the Greenwich Millennium Village or Royal Arsenal, the report claims.
GT reaches 84,151 households, the report says, compared with 39,239 for the News Shopper and an unaudited 44,919 for the Mercury.
(From personal experience, I’ve not had a regular delivery of either paper for many years, although I do see NS distributors in parts of SE7 where the council claims it is not delivered. I’ve also not had a Greenwich Time for about a month, funnily enough.)
But there’s little on how the council plans to steer the paper away from being a propaganda sheet. Certainly, while current council services are promoted, those which have fallen victim to cuts have closed without acknowledgement, and there’s been no discussion within its pages about how the council should go about saving money, beyond the odd letter about parking meters.
A glance at the paper’s archive does show a shift in GT’s priorities, though. Before the May 2010 election most front pages claimed success for many council services (see above) – as close to overt propaganda as it could get away with, quickly ceasing as the “purdah” period before the poll arrived. Once the election was won, the men in high-vis tabards departed the front pages, which are now mostly taken up with beaming kids or grinning grannies.
Even then, though, that can get the council into trouble, as it found with the Hornfair Park BMX track, whose virtues were trumpeted as councillors were preparing to decide whether or not it should be built.
“The paper is reviewed by the council’s chief executive before publication,” the report says. Does the council leader check it, too? Funnily enough, there’s no word on that…
Greenwich isn’t the only council still flouting the code, but it’s certainly a high profile offender. Much of the situation is down to Eric Pickles’ insistence that councils continue to publish public notices in a local newspaper – rather than allowing them to go online.
The current situation is a product of some unique circumstances, though – a council which has successfully found a lucrative way to control and promote its news agenda, helped by local press barons who have bled their titles dry (let’s not pretend that an extra £1m to the News Shopper or Mercury would be spent on employing journalists) but threatened by a cabinet minister who so far has been all talk and little action.
Will Eric Pickles get off his backside and challenge Greenwich? If he does, it looks like Chris Roberts and his Labour colleagues are more than ready for the fight.
Greenwich Council’s controversial weekly newspaper, Greenwich Time, has begun to break even, it was suggested at last night’s full council meeting.
The news comes as government minister Eric Pickles threatened councils who are continuing to publish regular newspapers with a judicial review of their activities.
Pickles attempted to ban papers like Greenwich Time by introducing a new code on publicity for local councils, restricting publication to just four times a year.
But Greenwich has defied the code, claiming Greenwich Time saves it £1m a year in advertising costs.
In a written response to a question from Conservative councillor Matt Clare, deputy leader Peter Brooks said that in the first three months of this financial year, Greenwich Time had an income of £39,071.63 from external advertising, against a net cost of £38,729.74.
This would indicate the council had made a small profit of £341.89 on the newspaper.
Last year, the paper cost the council £189,992 – 3.6p per copy, Cllr Brooks added.
The paper’s future is currently under review and a report will be presented to the council’s cabinet in July. A preliminary report indicated the council saw the code as “guidance” without the force of law.
Responding to a further question from Cllr Clare, Peter Brooks said the council was “in the process of looking at all options for Greenwich Time”.
“All options are being put in front of us and [council communications chief] Katrina Delaney and her team are still working on working out the costs [of those options] versus how much it costs to do Greenwich Time, and just what the legislation really means.”
However, it is clear to sharp-eyed readers that the paper has undergone some subtle changes in response to Pickles’ code. It was relaunched as a weekly in 2008 with the slogan “the newspaper campaigning for an even greater Greenwich”.
It now carries a council logo and the slogan “produced by Greenwich Council for the community for over 25 years”.
Editorial and photography has also been cut back to save money, while the TV guide has also been dropped – despite the paper carrying a letter last year from a reader claiming “I rely on my council to provide such a small service in their paper”.
Cllr Brooks also indicated that Greenwich Time should not have led with a story extolling the virtues of a BMX track in the week its planning board was due to discuss its siting in Hornfair Park, Charlton – as highlighted by this website earlier this month.
In a written response to a question from Conservative councillor Geoff Brighty, he said: “I agree great concern must be taken on the timing of publicity.”
I didn’t get around to this last week – the government’s guidelines on council newspapers which, in theory, should ban the likes of Greenwich Time from being published, got parliamentary approval. Theoretically, it’s bad news for Greenwich Time, the weekly puff sheet which trumpets the council’s good deeds but keeps us in the dark about everything else. At least that’s what the News Shopper thinks.
But this week’s issue will still thump onto doormats across the borough, and I’m sure next week’s will, too. Unfortunately for Greenwich Time’s critics, the guidelines have very little legal force – they’re just guidelines. A lot of other councils have decided they can’t be bothered with the hassle – Lambeth’s has gone, Lewisham has decided to run a monthly e-mail instead.
But Greenwich has invested a lot into GT, which is the focus of the council’s entire communications strategy. If a council department needs publicity, a few column inches in GT and something on the council website are usually deemed sufficient to do the job. The rest of the local media – and even national media like the BBC – is bypassed, unless there’s a big launch on. Without GT, the council would be left very exposed indeed.
But, as discussed here many times before, the idea that there’s a thriving local newspaper scene waiting to take up the slack is laughable. A Greenwich Council press release about housing benefit would have to compete with one from Lewisham or Bexley to appear in the same paper.
So, what happens next? If you think Greenwich Time is a flagrant abuse of council tax payers’ money, you now have the right to complain to the district auditor. Her name is Sue Exton, and she works for the Audit Commission at Millbank. That’s the same Audit Commission that Eric Pickles wants to abolish. And that’s the same Eric Pickles that has brought this code in. Can you see where this is starting to unravel?
The district auditor will decide whether or not a council newspaper is an appropriate use of council funds. Greenwich Council has always argued that it is, claiming the sale of advertising means GT is close to covering its costs. Value for money, plus the lack of suitable alternative media, would be valid grounds for an argument. Were the district auditor to agree with Greenwich Council, it would no doubt be hugely embarrassing for the government.
So, I wonder – is Greenwich waiting for a legal challenge, confident it can win? In the coming weeks, we’ll get our answer.
After a lengthy period of consultation, and criticism from both councils and an all-party group of MPs, the government’s original plans – which also cover advertising and lobbying – have come through largely intact, according to PR Week.
Pickles said the existing rules had been ‘too weak for too long, squandering public funds and pushing local newspapers out into the abyss’, and has banned municipal newspapers from being published more often than four times a year, while preventing councils from hiring lobbyists.
The rules also stipulate that council advertising should not be politicised or commentary on ‘contentious areas of public policy’.
‘Some councils have pushed this to the limits and were effectively lobbying on the rates,’ said Pickles. ‘The changes I have put into force today will bring the town hall pravda printing presses to a grinding halt, stop professional lobbyists being hired and make it crystal clear that any blatant vanity PR or politicised advertising by councils using public funds is a breach of the code.’
What does this mean for Greenwich Time? At the moment, not a lot – these are only guidelines, after all. That said, Lewisham is cutting back its monthly Lewisham Life magazine from April (“to save money”, it claims) and other boroughs are cutting theirs.
Examples of papers like GT are actually pretty rare, especially outside London. You don’t have to look far to find the one other borough in the country which produces a weekly – and even then, Tower Hamlets mayor Lutfur Rahman is reviewing the future of East End Life. If that goes, it’d leave Greenwich Time an isolated case.
At present, there’s no sign of Greenwich changing its stance on Greenwich Time – it’s due to lose two freelance staff in the first round of cuts, but the council leadership has always claimed the paper is very close to paying its way and it’s in their plans for the next financial year. The weakness of the printed local media in SE London strengthen’s the council’s argument – however, much of its content remains shameless propaganda, with difficult issues glossed over or ignored.
The guidelines become rules in April, but what action could the government take to shut GT? And would we even see a “save Greenwich Time” campaign, with hitherto unknown ‘community leaders’ and people who think the council should provide TV listings wheeled out in support? There could be an intriguing row ahead.
One other thought – will the News Shopper, which came out fighting against GT for a short-lived campaign last year – be following all this up so closely this time around? We wait and see…
UPDATE 2:15PM: The new code has been published – see above for the telling paragraph. It will have to be approved by Parliament before becoming law.
The government’s plans to stop councils like Greenwich producing newspapers like Greenwich Time have hit a hitch, with MPs telling Eric Pickles he should think again…
MPs on the communities and local government select committee argue that a revised code drawn up by Pickles to prevent the publication of so-called “town hall Pravdas” should be reconsidered.
In a lengthy report released today on the proposed code of recommended practice on local authority publicity, the committee accuses the minister of failing to provide proof that council-run papers threaten commercial newspapers.
I covered the committee’s meeting on this last month, when the government seemed to have a touching faith in the honesty of local newspaper owners to keep on serving their patch, when in fact many parts of London are effectively news deserts thanks to their proprietors cutting back funds. The continued weekly existence of Greenwich Time – which is showing no signs of stopping – has as much to do with market failure as it does the desire of the council’s Labour leadership to dictate the local news agenda. There remains no dedicated newspaper covering Greenwich borough other than the council’s own paper – our editions of the Streatham-based Mercury and Petts Wood-based News Shopper are shared with Lewisham.
Indeed, newspaper readers in the south of the borough who get the Bexley Times – which covers lots of Greenwich stories, inherited from its old Eltham Times title – may be interested to know that its owners are planning to move some of its production from Sidcup to Ilford. Not so local now, eh?
So, for now, Greenwich Time sails on – still trying to avoid detailing the cuts that are coming to Greenwich, as seen in this week’s edition (above). I’ve a funny feeling they might as well start work on those Olympic Games special editions now, it seems like we’re lumbered with the thing for a while yet.
As you may have read elsewhere, communities secretary Eric Pickles has overturned Greenwich Council’s refusal of planning permission for the redevelopment of Greenwich Market, after a planning inspector concluded a revised scheme was fine.
The full verdict is a long and arduous read, but what can’t be disputed is that Greenwich Town Centre will face another lengthy period of major upheaval, presumably after the Olympics, when the current market is turfed out of its home and moved to the Old Royal Naval College while building takes place.
This will be on top of works to redevelop Cutty Sark Gardens for the second time in 13 years, the Cutty Sark restoration, Greenwich Foot Tunnel’s restoration, the planned pedestrianisation of part of the town centre, the Stockwell Street redevelopment (for which we’ve already lost one market) and of course the part-closure of Greenwich Park for the Olympics.
It’s possible, however, to justify all of those works as being immediately beneficial to the area – either in terms of improved infrastructure or international prestige.
But no such claim can be made for the Greenwich Market hotel, which instead of giving Greenwich a lift, will be enriching the Greenwich Hospital charity, which has very little to do with the area other than collecting rent, as well as the hotel’s operators.
None of this is to deny that there’s a shortage of decent hotel space in Greenwich – but bulldozing part of the market is a step too far for most locals.
It’s also very strange for a secretary of state who has banged on endlessly about giving power back to local people – “localism” – to overturn a decision made unanimously by both Conservative and Labour councillors.
As one of the Greenwich Phantom’s commenters has pointed out already, perhaps Greenwich Council will be regretting ever allowing Greenwich Hospital to demolish the market’s outbuildings in Durnsford Street, whose days are now numbered. After all, if they were expendable, why wouldn’t the rest of the market be vulnerable?
From paragraph 337 of the findings…
The loss of the banana warehouse and stable building within Durnford Street is necessary to make way for a re-ordered service yard and is seen as regrettable by some objectors. These buildings have a degree of charm and character and are examples of service buildings that provide an understanding of how the market functioned in times past. Nonetheless, their retention is not possible with the proposed service yard configuration and, in any event, listed building consent for their demolition already exists. The Council does not object to their loss.
For most other locals, though, I think I’m right in saying this feels like a final nail in the coffin of a market which has been in a long, slow decline for many years. The battle for the soul of Greenwich may well have been lost today.
UPDATE 3:50PM - Greenwich planning committee chair Ray Walker said in a statement: “This appeal gives the green light to a scheme totally out of keeping with the history and architecture of Greenwich Town Centre and which simply is not of a sufficiently high standard for a World Heritage Site.
“It is particularly unfortunate that the application will permit the Greenwich Hospital Estate to demolish the heart of Greenwich Town Centre just as we have shown off all its charms to the millions of visitors in 2012 and who, instead of being encouraged to return, will avoid the building site that the Greenwich Hospital Estate will turn the town into.”
(UPDATED WEDNESDAY 11.15AM – The government confirms its plans to crack down on titles such as Greenwich Time and launches a public consultation – see below.)
The government will confirm a crackdown on council-funded newspapers and magazines this week as it seeks to protect media groups which claim they cost them readers and advertising revenue.
Eric Pickles, the communities and local government secretary, will announce new guidelines ahead of the Conservative party conference this weekend that will effectively ban councils from using taxpayers’ money to produce free papers and magazines, MediaGuardian.co.uk can reveal.
Pickles promised at the start of the summer to ban what he called “weekly town hall Pravdas” in an Observer piece, but the details of tougher guidelines have now been agreed following consultation with the newspaper industry.
Under the new rules, it is understood councils will only be allowed to publish free titles four times a year. They will also have to remove any content which appears to praise the council or endorse the quality of its local services, including quotes from local residents.
For Greenwich Time, read Lambeth Life, H&F News, East End Life, and all the rest. I’m told some Greenwich Labour councillors attribute their party’s success at May’s election to the glowing coverage of municipal goings-on in the council weekly (as opposed to their hard work, high profile in the community, etc). It’ll be interesting to see how they react if these restrictions on council papers are as strong as Eric Pickles wants us to believe they are.
Meanwhile, the News Shopper – a stern critic of Greenwich Time – has been busy showing the fearless coverage of SE London matters it’s best known for, reporting on a police car parking in a disabled parking bay at, er, 4am. What a brave new world of journalism we are in. (LATER: See also this pub review dubbing Kidbrooke and Lewisham “crime hotspots” – nice.)
UPDATE: The Government has confirmed plans to crack down on council-run newspapers, as the leak to Media Guardian reported above. At present, all councils have to abide by “a code on recommended practice for local authority publicity”. The government plans to substantially change this – and here’s the paragraphs that directly affect Greenwich Time.
However, bearing in mind Greenwich Council leader Chris Roberts has repeatedly defended GT as offering value for money compared with other ways of getting council information to the public, I wonder if this offers them a get-out clause?
And one further way around the proposals – could Greenwich seek a commercial partner to produce GT with? Tory-run Hammersmith and Fulham wants to go down that route.
The full proposals can be found here. They’re now out to consultation – so if it’s an issue you feel strongly about, you can write in as an aggrieved/ delighted council taxpayer between now and 10 November – details below.
If you do respond to the consultation, I’d love to know what you say. In the meantime, it’ll be interesting to find out what Greenwich Council’s next move on this will be, considering it’s only a couple of months after they stuck their head in the sand and ignored any prospect of this happening.
What ho, it’s the Telegraph…
Town halls are to be banned from their own publishing weekly freesheets which are threatening to put local newspapers out of business, The Daily Telegraph can disclose.
Eric Pickles, the Local Government secretary, said he wanted to axe “the weekly town hall Pravdas” to ensure a healthy independent local press can scrutinise councils.
Campaigners said the move would save councils tens of millions of pounds a year, and also help local news organisations by removing a taxpayer-funded local rival.
Oh really? Trouble is, nowhere in the copy is there a quote from Mr Pickles explicitly saying he will actually get rid of them. But what he does say is…
“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.
“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.”
Which isn’t the same as actually taking an axe to them. We’ve been here before – a year ago the old government pondered restrictions on them. And while Labour-run Greenwich Council finds Greenwich Time a useful tool to control the local news agenda, Conservative-run Hammersmith & Fulham finds H&F News just as handy. So it’s actually unclear quite what he means. (And, indeed, an hour after I published this, I heard London Assembly Tory and Barnet councillor Brian Coleman on LBC, referring to Pickles’ comments as “another diktat” from government onto local councils.)
But some kind of action on them is likely. Down at Woolwich Town Hall, a change in the air has already been noted. Greenwich Time readers may have noticed the post-election issues have yet to feature a front page shot of the council leader or any other member of his cabinet, and some of the overt propaganda – on crime, the environment and housing – has been toned down. But stories unflattering to local institutions – like the campaign to save the music college at East Greenwich Library – still won’t feature, and none of this stops the council arranging its media relations to favour Greenwich Time over real local newspapers or other outlets.
Eric Pickles’ attack on “town hall Pravdas” isn’t going to do much to help the likes of the Mercury and News Shopper either. Council newspapers are an easy scapegoat for years of failings caused by cutbacks at those titles which will be very hard to reverse. Dan Sabbagh at Beehive City hits the nail on the head.
The easy part is to agree that council owned newspapers are a bad idea. A council owned title is always going to struggle to fearlessly interrogate what the council is up to. But if the Pickles plan actually bites, it won’t solve most of the problems faced by the local press.
For years local newspapers were run unashamedly for profit, generating margins in some cases of in excess of 30 per cent. Investment in journalism was reduced in the good times (for those who remember the 1990s)… the situation is serious now. Advertising, on which so many local titles now rely, remains subdued. Locality, which was once the principle defining feature of community, is no longer so relevant in the era of Facebook, Twitter and virtual community.
Against such a bleak background, and this bluster from the new government, there’s little incentive for local newspapers to raise their game, as I’ve argued is so desperately needed in this area. The next few months will probably see further developments, but somehow I doubt we’ll be seeing a “Save your Greenwich Time” campaign. Spool forward to a year from now, and I suspect we’ll be in much the same situation as now.