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.