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.