Tagged: greenwich time

Stop the propaganda press: Greenwich Time’s final edition published

Greenwich Time, 27 June 2016

Greenwich Council’s weekly newspaper – Greenwich Time – has published its final edition, bringing to an end a lengthy battle with the Government over its existence.

The council spent £80,000 fighting a Government order to close it (with the Government spending £23,770), before the two parties reached an out-of-court settlement in December.

This week’s edition brings the title to a close after 32 years, of which its final eight were spent as a weekly. It launched in 1984 as a monthly publication, going fortnightly in 1991.

It was the last weekly council paper in England, following the closure of Tower Hamlets’ East End Life earlier this year.

You’ll have to read carefully to spot it’s the final paper – its closure is mentioned in a letter to residents on page two from council leader Denise Hyland, claiming it was “a reliable source of local information… reflective of the incredible history and characteristics of our area”.

Greenwich Time, 27 June 2016

But the paper, long targeted by a Government which aimed to outlaw “council Pravdas”, had been limping on for years following the sacking of chief reporter Peter Cordwell and assistant editor Rod Kitson.

Indeed, in its final years, the paper looked increasingly like the Soviet propaganda paper its detractors accused it of aping – a long way from the original intention of emulating genuine local newspapers.

The final front page features a bland statement on the council’s reaction to the EU referendum result and one of the council’s regular obsessions – the army, with a photograph of veterans at its Great Get Together event.

Inside, the redevelopment of estates in Woolwich is reannounced, while the Greenwich Heritage Trust’s creation of an exhibition commemorating the history of the Royal Artillery in Woolwich is featured – without mentioning it is a replacement for the failed Firepower museum, which closes next month.

It is not clear what comes next – the council is keeping its cards very close to its chest. We do know that Greenwich has put its statutory notices – planning applications, highway works, etc – out to tender again.

For now, the council leadership has lost a tool it used to paint a portrait of a borough that many simply didn’t recognise. It could have created a genuine community paper, allowing dissenting views and helping fill a vacuum left by the slow demise of the independent local press. But its leadership didn’t trust its residents, and instead used Greenwich Time to attempt to set the agenda – possibly angering as many as it persuaded.

Hyland’s letter continues: “I hope that the enormous legacy left by Greenwich Time will continue online in digital communities.” Well, hello!

Greenwich Time ad team takes on Hackney as council weekly axe looms

Greenwich Time

Thankfully, Greenwich Time was on hand to deal with a domestic accident

Greenwich Council’s weekly newspaper, Greenwich Time, has only weeks left to live – but the council’s communications empire is actually expanding by taking on work for another London borough.

GT will close in its current format next month after an out-of-court settlement with the Government, which has outlawed “town hall Pravdas”.

But, weeks before the end, Greenwich Time’s advertising team has started selling ad space in Hackney Council’s fortnightly paper, Hackney Today.

The names of GT’s highly-regarded ad team, Nicola McGuire and Gaynor Granger, appear as advertising contacts in recent editions of the east London council’s paper.

Independent local paper Hackney Citizen reports that this is a  “temporary arrangement” while Hackney looks for a new ad sales person for its fortnightly paper, with Greenwich receiving a cut of the revenue.

Greenwich’s insistence on publishing Greenwich Time weekly saw it become an early target for former communities secretary Sir Eric Pickles’ war on such papers, which can now only be published four times a year. The only other council weekly in England, Tower Hamlets’ East End Life, closed this week.

Hackney is one of a band of councils who continue to defy the law by publishing  fortnightly, and have been threatened with action by chancellor George Osborne, who recently allowed local newspaper premises to allow for business rate relief in an attempt to boost the sector.

It’s not thought any premises in Greenwich borough will qualify (neither Lewisham nor Bexley have any local newspaper premises either) and with Greenwich Council still active in seeking advertising for council publications – and strongly encouraging partner organisations not to place ads with rivals – any new entrant will still find life difficult.

As for Greenwich Time, it remains stubbornly wedded to the agenda of council reputation management over information, with the current edition even ignoring the sinkhole that appeared in Charlton last week, along with printing an out-of-date “what’s on” guide. With some residents not getting the paper until Friday, five days after publication, much of what’s inside is old news by the time it limps onto doormats.

The council leadership is keeping its cards close to its chest on plans for the future. For all the Tories’ bluster over council papers, it took several years to kill off weekly town hall papers and it will no doubt be looking to push the out of court settlement to the letter.

The settlement says the council can publish “regular and frequent communications to those residents who choose to receive such information by whatever medium they they decide (eg, paper or electronic) providing it does not have the appearance of a newspaper, newsletter or similar publication”.

Neighbouring Lewisham has published a weekly email for some years (you can subscribe here and have a chance of winning a trip to Diggerland, the inspiration for the Lewisham Gateway scheme) supported by quarterly magazine Lewisham Life. A tie-up with Greenwich Leisure Limited, the not-for-profit group that runs leisure centres and libraries, has also long been mooted.

Council information... for the wrong borough

Council information… for the wrong borough

Another option is a tie-up with an existing local paper. The Mercury’s publishers have long been keen on recapturing the council’s advertising budget, lost many years ago.

The Mercury was recently bought from octogenarian local news baron Ray Tindle by its South London Press management, quietly reversing his eccentric policy of publishing “hyperlocal” editions for certain areas of Greenwich and Lewisham boroughs and more recently giving the ailing paper a much-needed redesign.

Smiling kids on the front page... look familiar to you?

Smiling kids on the front page… look familiar to you?

The Greenwich edition of the Streatham-based paper now carries the words “Royal Borough of Greenwich” above the masthead, while it also recently featured a worthy “get fit and stay healthy with Royal Greenwich” supplement – also inflicted on Lewisham readers – no doubt intended as a demonstration of what it could do. This week’s edition features a similar supplement, “Let’s do business in Royal Greenwich”.

Whether this will lead to a tie-up between the council and the Mercury remains to be seen. Greenwich residents will find out by the end of June. But for now, Greenwich Time’s ad sales department doesn’t seem to be going away.

Greenwich Council meetings to be webcast – here’s what you missed last month

Greenwich Council chamber

What are you doing tonight? There’s a pub quiz at the Crown in east Greenwich; comedy at the White Swan in Charlton; or a talk about researching local history in west Greenwich.

And of course, it’s the Brit Awards tonight up at the Dome.

Or you could make history and watch the first meeting of Greenwich Council to be webcast via www.royalgreenwich.public-i.tv. “Important local decisions can now be viewed online as they are made.” Woo!

This is a good thing, and it’s long, long overdue.

But let’s be honest, you won’t see the important decisions being made. They’re made behind closed doors – usually at the regular meetings of Greenwich’s Labour group of councillors. It’s all decided in advance. You’ll get to see a few things rubber-stamped – like the first council tax rise in years – but don’t dream you’ll see anything meaningful, unless a streaker rushes in and sits on the mayor’s lap.

The big ticket decisions are actually made at cabinet meetings (again, usually decided in advance) and planning board meetings (which aren’t supposed to be decided in advance). These aren’t being filmed.

But what you’ll see at full council meetings is still valuable. The early exchanges – public and councillors’ questions to cabinet members – are an important chance to find things out and get things on the record. I’m not sure how easy it’ll be to follow these online, as written answers only emerge in the hour before the meeting and don’t appear on the council website until the following day.

And you’ll see just what Greenwich councillors are really like. Sadly for them, I don’t think viewers will be too impressed. Think back to the year when Samantha Fox and Mick Fleetwood presented the Brits.

I went to last month’s, which was being filmed as a test. I never got around to putting anything up a the time so here’s some “highlights” as a preview, in case you’re thinking of watching live.

There’s been a few changes to the Woolwich Town Hall chamber over recent months. Councillors have now started using iPads for council meetings, rather than wielding huge bundles of paper. Together with some smart new lighting, the old place looks impressive these days. Just a shame that the proceedings displayed the same old petulance as usual.

Proceedings are now projected onto displays around the chamber, an effect slightly reminiscent of watching football at White Hart Lane, where you can also watch the match on screens above the stands. Sadly, there’s no Dele Alli or Harry Kane to liven things up in Woolwich.

Got a problem? It’s still your fault

That thing you care about? Chances are, they don’t care.

You may have heard about Greenwich Council applying to itself to increase the number of events held on Blackheath’s Circus Field – this would have been independent of what Lewisham does on its side of the heath. The application, which was snuck out before Christmas, has since been pulled after fears of increased noise and hassle.

Greenwich Council written response

But residents had misunderstood the licence application, according to a written response to Conservative councillor Geoff Brighty. Never apologise, never explain. According to cabinet member Denise Scott-McDonald, most people don’t realise it’s split between two boroughs. McDonald should have known better than that, since she used to write for the Westcombe News, the organ of the Westcombe Society, the organisation that led public concern on this.

Sadly, Brighty didn’t pursue the questioning.

Greenwich Council written response

Or what about the current crisis at Charlton Athletic, where an absentee owner’s mismanagement has even prompted local MPs to investigate the off-field goings-on at one of the borough’s biggest employers?

While nobody was asking council leader Denise Hyland (or Matt Pennycook or Clive Efford) to get involved with team selection, the farcical events at The Valley under Roland Duchâtelet and hapless chief executive Katrien Meire threaten the future of a cherished local institution.

But fans were better off doing this, council leader Denise Hyland opined in another written response. This is a genuine shame, as the council could use its influence to bring about openness at the troubled club – there might even be some votes in it. Instead, it seeks to stay cosied up to the richest person in the room, the default position of this administration.

And then there’s the water feature in Cutty Sark Gardens, a frequently-broken embarrassment that’s now being removed, a story – like the Blackheath one – broken in The Greenwich Visitor.

How much was this costing, asked Brighty? Regeneration cabinet member – and Hyland’s de facto deputy – Danny Thorpe wouldn’t say. Instead, he tried to deflect the blame onto Brighty’s question. “‘Cleaning up the mess’ isn’t how I’d describe it,” he said.

Brighty had another go. Thorpe tried to burble on about the council “investing” money instead.

Geoff Brighty’s since been in touch with the answer – £90,000. So why the petulance from Danny Thorpe?

I suspect that inside the Wellington Street bubble, these are just flippant concerns compared with the threats to social security and council housing posed by the current Westminster government.

But these issues are broadly-felt concerns too – everyone is affected by the local environment and the issues at The Valley worry many.

Few inside Woolwich Town Hall seem to realise it’s perfectly possible to be repelled by both a hard-right Westminster government and some Labour-branded local tantrum-throwers.

Bizarre intervention: Eileen Glover puts the boot into her former Tory colleagues

Bizarre intervention: Eileen Glover puts the boot into her former Tory colleagues

Greenwich Time – same old, same old

But for now, the delusions continue. On Greenwich Time, Tory leader Matt Hartley made the strategic error of suggesting that Denise Hyland might want to apologise for spending £80,000 on a court battle with the government that doesn’t appear to have won the council very much.

When you’re in the same party as Iain Duncan Smith, that’s not a wise idea. Viewers with an aversion to sanctimony might like to look away.

“Lies, lies and damned statistics, eh? Whatever, you will spin it your way,” Denise Hyland responded.

She plonked a bundle of old Greenwich Times on the unused press bench to sycophantic applause from councillors who happily criticise the paper in private, but are too terrified to come out and say anything in public.

Yet the whole Greenwich Time debate has been based on lies and spin the first place. The true finances of the council paper have always been hard to track down, as council departments subsidise the paper by placing ads there which wouldn’t go elsewhere.

What’s more, organisations that are funded by the council are “encouraged” to place their advertising exclusively in GT – making its finances look better than they actually are.

Not that the Tories are above mischief – GT isn’t necessarily a Labour-biased paper. Indeed, in constantly promoting the demolition of council estates and their replacement with partly-private housing, GT is actually pushing current Conservative policy.

Instead, the continuation of Greenwich Time is all about promoting the clique that runs the council, their allies, and their strategic ambitions – and making it much more difficult for dissenting or even independent views to gain traction.

Here’s how Matt Hartley presented his motion demanding Hyland apologise.

Then, an oddity, as a member of public got to speak in the debate. Heaven knows how this happened, but it reflected poorly on all involved.

Former Tory councillor Eileen Glover, long estranged from her former colleagues, was wheeled out to lambast them from the public gallery. Glover lost in her bid to be elected as an independent in 2014, but still got to speak anyway. At best, this was taking advantage of a tedious personal beef. At worst, this was something more cynical.

Hartley’s attempt to get Hyland to apologise for the £80,000 legal bills was “arrogant and foolish”, she declared.

Glover claimed it was “insulting” to suggest that Greenwich Time influenced voters. Yet that’s exactly what Labour councillors say it does, if you ask them privately.

The charade went on. Denise Hyland and de jure deputy leader John Fahy came out with a counter-motion.

“Don’t you shake your head at me,” Hyland growled at Hartley at one point, claiming the government had no problem with Greenwich Time’s content, just the frequency. “It did seem a bit ridiculous that we were seeking to resolve our differences through courts.” There was no apology for pursuing it through the courts, though.

She also praised the work of Mercury/South London Press reporter Mandy Little, sat in the public gallery, as “a good, independent journalist”.

Perhaps this is an indication of where some of the council’s ad spend will go without a weekly GT – the SLP’s management bought the papers from octogenarian press baron Ray Tindle last month. This may free the way for the papers to drop the massage ads that councillors object to – and for council notices for appear in the Mercury once again.

News Shopper reporter Jess Bell, sat behind Hyland, understandably looked a bit miffed at the lack of recognition.

But you could tell what really mattered to Hyland when a GT front page lauding Labour’s general election wins was raised. “It was factual reporting. You lost, we won.”

Next to her, John Fahy – still being pursued for cooked-up wrongdoings by party bullies who’d like to see him out – burbled on about the laws on council newspapers being “cooked up in the Carlton Club with the press barons”.

That may be so, but it’s hardly a defence for the council’s actions.

Danny Thorpe started demanding apologies for the Tories’ policy on the NHS – nothing to do with Greenwich Labour’s policies on self-promotion – while Eltham West councillor Mick Hayes said “tonight should be a vote of thanks for those who have produced Greenwich Time in an even-handed way” (ie, the council press office).

“When you walk the streets and talk to people, Greenwich Time will be missed by the people of the borough,” Hayes added. Presumably by those with cat-litter trays.

“Don’t think you speak for the people of this borough,” cabinet member Maureen O’Mara – chosen in 2014 by less than 20% of the population of Greenwich West ward – glowered at the Tories. “If you did, you wouldn’t be sat there.”

O’Mara then calmed down and made her usual point about council tenants needing Greenwich Time because housing ads are placed there. The fact that council tenants in every other Labour borough seem to manage without a weekly propaganda paper seemed to escape her, as always. This was just going through the motions.

As for the Tories, Coldharbour & New Eltham councillor Mark Elliott said the council needed to think more creatively about its communications – a silly thing to say in a Greenwich Council meeting, because it was sensible.

And former opposition leader Spencer Drury rightly pointed out how coverage of the bullying scandal surrounding Chris Roberts wasn’t covered in GT. Ah, hold on a second.

Crawling to a bully

Only an hour previously, Drury was telling the chamber how Roberts was worthy of the freedom of the borough.

“There will be people in this chamber who struggle to get it into their thick skulls how he’ll get this honour,” he quipped.

“Love him or hate him – and I know there are people in both groups in this chamber tonight – Chris had a vision for the borough,” he added. (You can see the rest from two minutes in below.)

In probably one of the most shameful votes in the borough’s recent history, councillors unanimously voted to give Roberts the freedom of the borough. Even John Fahy, recipient of the “get it into your thick skull” voicemail, stuck his hand up to endorse giving his tormentor an award. Party loyalty and dignity never fit together in Greenwich.

And with the possibility of a council advertising contract now hanging in the air, the issue has barely been reported in the local press – instead, it’s featured in the past two issues of Private Eye.

You’d have expected better from Spencer Drury, the man who moved a sarcastic motion about Roberts’ “interpersonal skills” at the height of the bullying row. But the Tories have been bounced into a corner, with long-standing former councillor Dermot Poston – who has been in poor health recently – also on the list to be honoured.

It wasn’t all dismal. There was a decent discussion on the government’s trade union bill – which directly affects the council – which managed to steer away from tedious grandstanding. Labour councillor Don Austen joked that if the rules had been in place in the 1980s, he’d have had “300 Asbos and a spell in Belmarsh”.

But it was really a wake for Greenwich Time. And when the paper finally goes, you’ll be able to see it all online when they do it again in the summer.

So what’s happening tonight?

Tonight’s meeting should be fairly uneventful. The council tax rise will be rubber-stamped and there’ll be some comments on it from either side. (The Tories have alternative ideas, such as diverting money from the council’s PR budget into street cleaning.)

There’ll also be a Labour motion endorsing the UK staying in the EU, which will be a cue for a pointless barney with Tory leader Matt Hartley, who backs leaving.

Hartley’s views aren’t shared by all his fellow councillors, so there’ll be some finger-pointing about how the Tories are all divided. Whether that’s any better than being bullied and cowed into submission is for you to decide.

The really interesting stuff is likely to come in public questions – I’d be surprised if there aren’t any protesting about local schools becoming academies, which the government wants all schools to be by 2020.

Campaigners are unhappy about a letter sent by education cabinet member Miranda Williams – who replaced John Fahy in mysterious circumstances late last year – to school governors which essentially dropped a heavy hint that Greenwich wants them to start forming academies as soon as they can, presumably so the council can still keep some informal influence over them.

This is either a sensible reaction to an imposition from Westminster or a dismal capitulation by a Labour council to Tory demands. The unexplained replacement of Fahy with Williams has already aroused campaigners’ suspicions that it’s the latter, with John Roan already planning to make the switch. This will be an issue to watch over the coming months.

Anyhow, if you tune in tonight, I’d be interested to know what you make of it. I’m sure they’ll be on their best behaviour…

Time’s up: Greenwich Council’s weekly newspaper to cease this summer

Abandoned copies of Greenwich Time left at flats in Charlton last week

Abandoned copies of Greenwich Time left at flats in Charlton last week

853 exclusive: Greenwich Council has agreed to stop publishing its weekly newspaper, Greenwich Time, by June, the government has announced.

Council leader Denise Hyland had planned to go to court to defend the paper, which is distributed to the vast majority of homes in the borough each week.

It is the only council weekly left in England following Tower Hamlets’ decision last week to phase out East End Life.

Greenwich has now agreed to comply with laws restricting local authority publications to four times a year, beginning from June.

A Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) spokesman said: “We have agreed that Royal Borough of Greenwich will be fully compliant with the Publicity Code from the end of June 2016, settling the matter without having to go to court.”

The department did not provide further details of the agreement.

A Greenwich Council spokesperson told this website: “We are pleased that Royal Borough and the Department of Communities and Local Government have settled the matter without having to go to court.

“We are pleased that the Department has accepted the Royal Borough’s need to continue to produce regular and frequent communication for residents, in order to keep them up to date on Council services, job opportunities and other important information.”

Greenwich says it will still be allowed to produce “regular and frequent communication of information” to residents who choose to receive it in whatever format, so long as it does not look like a newspaper, news-sheet or similar.

News Shopper and Greenwich Time front pages

Propaganda? The News Shopper and Greenwich Time compared

Last month, Hyland told a full council meeting that Greenwich had spent £35,350 on preparing for the court action, plus an estimated £12,893 on staff time.

The council has consistently claimed it saves money by publishing a weekly newspaper, as otherwise it would have to pay one of the local newspaper groups to carry its public notices advertising planning application, road works, and other formal announcements. In December, Hyland claimed it would save £21,000 per month.

But critics have dismissed the paper – which features council and community features rather than hard news – as merely a propaganda tool for the authority’s leadership.

Greenwich Time was a target of former communities secretary Eric Pickles, who announced plans to take legal action against the council last March. In response, the council announced it would seek a judicial review of the decision.

But Greenwich’s last line of defence – that government-appointed commissioners at Tower Hamlets were continuing to publish a weekly paper there – started crumbling last autumn, when its paper, East End Life, switched to fortnightly. Last week, Tower Hamlets’ elected Labour mayor John Biggs announced East End Life would cease publication altogether this spring in response to a direction from the commissioners.

Biggs said of East End Life: “In over 20 years of weekly publication the world has changed, particularly with the use of the internet, and it is time we looked again at it.”

Greenwich will now have to rethink its communications strategy, which largely revolves around the paper. For years, rumours have claimed Greenwich would attempt to transfer GT to Greenwich Leisure Limited, although Pickles’ direction to the council would appear to rule that possibility out.

Neighbouring Lewisham switched its Lewisham Life magazine to quarterly some years back, but also sends out weekly emails with information about council and community services.

The paper was first published in 1984 as a campaigning monthly, at a time when Labour councils were openly fighting decisions made by Margaret Thatcher’s government.

It went fortnightly in 1991, softening its tone during Len Duvall’s 1990s reign as council leader. But in 2002 it began to mimic the style of a local paper, going weekly six years later.

Battle for Greenwich Time set to cost £120,000, council admits

Greenwich Council is fighting to keep its weekly newspaper

Greenwich Council is fighting to keep its weekly newspaper

Greenwich Council leader Denise Hyland has admitted its legal fight to save its weekly newspaper Greenwich Time is set to cost £120,000.

Hyland accused the government of wanting to “censor democracy” by trying to force the closure of GT, one of only two weekly council papers in the country.

The admission came during Wednesday’s council meeting, when new Conservative leader Matt Hartley pressed her on the costs in a written question.

Hyland revealed the council has spent £30,000 on the action so far – including £22,320 on outside legal advice, with total costs expected to reach £120,000.

The answer also indicates that the council, which claims publishing GT weekly saves it money, is planning to claim that a government ban on publishing its own paper would be against its freedom of expression, as enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights.

Greenwich is seeking a judicial review of the decision by former communities secretary Eric Pickles to direct it to close GT, following a new law prohibiting councils from publishing newspapers or magazines more than four times a year.

As well as undercutting ad rates in existing local newspapers, Greenwich Time has been accused of bias and misleading information. The only other council to publish a weekly newspaper, Tower Hamlets, recently saw its elected mayor ejected over charges of corruption.

Hyland told the council chamber: “I’m just amazed, actually, that the Conservative group over there are so against the democracy of Greenwich Time to be untrue, that you will actually support the Department of Communities and Local Government in censoring information going out to residents.

“It is beyond belief, frankly.”

She added that the council would be studying the results of its recent tender for advertising, a possible replacement for GT.

Speaking slowly, she said: “We will make our decisions strategically, and be advised by coun-sel – a QC – and we will take each stage as it comes. We have been assured by our QC that we have a strong case and we expect to win.”

The legal process is set to take some months yet, meaning residents will still get GT for the time being. At the last council meeting in March, Hyland mocked those who signed a petition against the newspaper, accusing them of being Conservatives or Liberal Democrats. “I didn’t know they had so many members,” she said.

Also at Wednesday’s council meeting… a motion protesting about the 53 bus being cut short at Lambeth North turned into a political squabble.

Greenwich Time, 26 May 2015

Greenwich Time talks up the mayor’s party

Hyland also defended the £20,000 private mayor-making event held for new mayor Norman Adams, saying any attempt to open it up to the public would increase costs.

In a written answer to Matt Hartley, she called it “a good opportunity for key players and residents to meet”, adding that “a broad range of partners and community groups and residents from across the spectrum of Greenwich life were represented at the event”.

“I would be happy to explore ways that the event could be opened up but, should we wish to retain the current community involvement, it could further increase costs.”

When asked by fellow Tory Matt Clare if representatives from political parties not represented on the council were invited, she replied: “The Mayor’s inauguration is not a political event. It is a civic reception with an invited audience of guests from across the spectrum of Greenwich life. including: Faith Leaders, businesses, community representatives, Civic Award winners, voluntary groups, Borough tenant
representatives, MPs, stakeholders, representatives of the Armed Forces, all members of the Council as well as a broad range of partners and community groups and residents from across the borough.

“All members of the Council are the elected representatives of local people – the public have made their choice of who they want to represent them.”

Could the London Cycle Hire scheme finally reach the Dome?

Could the London Cycle Hire scheme finally reach the Dome?

Regeneration and transport cabinet member Danny Thorpe said he would welcome an extension of the London Cycle Hire scheme to Greenwich town centre, following Boris Johnson’s backing for the proposal last week.

But told Conservative councillor Matt Clare the council would not pay the £2 million other boroughs – such as Tower Hamlets and Hammersmith & Fulham – have paid to see the bikes, now formally known as Santander Cycles, extended to their areas. When the scheme was first implemented in 2010, boroughs did not have to pay.

Thorpe said it would be “a fantastic opportunity”, adding he had discussed the idea at a scrutiny meeting last year, joking: “I know you call them Santander bikes because they’ve gone red, just like City Hall will next year.”

He added: “We’re open for business, we’re always happy to chat to Andrew Gilligan, the cycling commissioner, but Greenwich will not go above and beyond in terms of paying for what other boroughs have had for free.”

Journalism in SE London is slowly dying: Why you should support the News Shopper strike

News Shopper reporters on strike

Everybody out: News Shopper NUJ members are on strike for two days

Imagine this: the government has decided to close down a vital public service in SE London, moving its remains to Sutton.

Valued workers will be fired, teams will be split up and told to work from home – depriving them of the opportunity to share ideas about providing a better service. An organisation already distant from the clients it depends on will retreat even further into itself, and its service will lose value by the week, growing more and more irrelevant.

There’d be outrage. Even the Labour party might briefly stir itself into complaining. There’d be a big campaign to save it – and the demand that it should be the well-paid heads at the top rolling, rather than the modestly-compensated toilers at the bottom.

Well, it’s happening. Except it’s not the government doing the closing, it’s this bunch of clowns in the video below. And their target is the News Shopper, whose journalists are on strike today and tomorrow.

This is the senior management team at Gannett, led by chief executive Roy Orbison Gracia Matore, performing a children’s song from a children’s film in a video shown to their staff in the US earlier this year.

Gannett’s a highly-profitable media conglomerate best known for owning USA Today. Its UK subsidiary, Newsquest, owns a string of local and regional titles, including the Brighton Argus and the Glasgow-based Herald.

It also owns the News Shopper and the South London Guardian series, which between them cover most of SE and SW London and the northern parts of Kent and Surrey.

Newsquest made £64 million in profit last year, which clearly isn’t enough – so it’s been decided that the Shopper and South London Guardian should effectively combine – they already share an editor – into one team based at the Guardian’s office in Sutton, with many staff either sacked or told to work from home. The current Shopper HQ in Petts Wood would close.

Petts Wood is distant enough as it is, but that’s always been the Shopper’s weak spot. Launched in Orpington 50 years ago as London’s first free newspaper, it’s always been a slightly eccentric title. A 1976 front page lectured readers on how hard work was vital to secure the nation’s future.

It expanded into Lewisham and Greenwich in 1988, but looked out of place for many years – a suburban news agenda doesn’t quite get the nuances of the city. Hardened readers of this website will remember when it gave a pen as a prize to a homophobic letter writer, and dished out inaccurate reporting of the 2011 riots (the latter a symptom of the cutbacks in the local press).

News Shopper strikers at The Valley

Greg Stubley, a freelancer working at Charlton Athletic, joins Shopper staffer Paul Green (right) at The Valley

But in recent years, it’s sharpened up its act in these parts – thanks in no small part to the work of beat reporter and deputy news editor Mark Chandler. Recent stories include revealing a councillors’ jolly to Spain and tracking the continued downfall of former council leader Chris Roberts’ allies – the Shopper played a big part in bringing Roberts’ bullying to a wider audience.

The website still veers wildly between clickbait and serious issues – and it showed a strange glee when reporting on a man having a crap at a bus stop – but on the whole the printed paper’s led with some strong stories of late. It’s even possible to pick one up these days, as branded dispensers have appeared in some shops.

For a paper that’s produced miles away, it’s doing a decent job on the resources it has. Heaven knows what will happen if more staff are cut and the thing moves to Sutton.

Imagine being a young reporter, stuck on crap money living in a houseshare – probably miles away – trying to work from home, without colleagues to share information and tips with.

Maybe you’re lucky enough to have actually got out to report on a story, but you now have to camp out in a library to write it up because you’re miles from home or the office, the deadline’s coming up and the library’s about to close. (Oh, and the story’s about library cuts.)

Or being stuck in Sutton, expected to work on copy about places you know nothing about because you’re expected to now know New Cross as well as New Malden. You’re not going to do your best work, are you?

But still, everything is awesome, isn’t it? If I had a car, I’d drive down to Petts Wood and give the picket line a honk of my horn. Instead, this post will have to do. Good luck to the News Shopper strikers.

mercury_greenwich640

It’s not just the Shopper. Not by a long way. Cuts have been the big story in the local press for years, with reporters stuck in offices rather than getting out and about. By losing a day’s pay to take placards around the Shopper’s enormous editorial area, the paper’s reporters have probably seen more of it than they have done in years.

The loss of the Shopper’s Petts Wood HQ would mean that none of the major news groups would have a presence in south-east London any more. The only weekly newspaper left in the wider area would be the Southwark News, which – guess what? – is independently-owned.

Otherwise, the big news groups have upped sticks and gone – Trinity Mirror moved the Mercury from Deptford to Streatham a decade ago, a decision that current owner Tindle Newspapers has stuck with. Archant moved the Kentish Times from Sidcup to Ilford a few years back.

There are now only three journalists who cover issues in Greenwich borough full-time – none of them cover the patch exclusively anymore. Mark Chandler and Jaimie Micklethwaite juggle Greenwich and Lewisham for the Shopper, while Mandy Little covers Greenwich for the Mercury as well as putting together seven different versions of the paper. (Its sister paper, the South London Press, now just has one staff reporter covering Lewisham, Southwark, Lambeth and Wandsworth.)

Cuts and clickbait might sum up the Shopper’s difficulties, but the Mercury’s in an even worse state because octogenarian owner Ray Tindle doesn’t believe in the internet. He’s even got a terrible TV ad to extol how great the papers of 1956 were. It pretty much sums up the worldview of a man who set up his newspaper group with his demob money, and hasn’t moved on since.

The Mercury was once the undisputed king of this area’s local papers – a campaigning weekly with reach and clout. It’s where I did my first newspaper work experience in 1991.

But firstly under Trinity Mirror, and latterly under Tindle, it’s shed staff and circulation, and is now locked in a death pact with its one-time rival the South London Press. And because Tindle – a kind of Christina Foyle of the local newspaper industry – doesn’t believe in the internet, it can’t even run a page of kitten photos on its token website to raise any interest.

Two years ago, the journalism trade press lauded Tindle’s decision to split the Greenwich editions of the Mercury and sell them through the news trade. So as well as the (free) Lewisham, Greenwich and Bexley Mercury titles, there would now be paid-for 30p editions for Charlton, Blackheath and “Greenwich Town”. The likes of Press Gazette sat on the great man’s knee as he opined on how important paid-for newspapers were.

Straight outta Streatham: The now-defunct Charlton Mercury

Straight outta Streatham: The now-defunct Charlton Mercury

Of course, this was barmy, as Greenwich hasn’t had a paid-for title since the Kentish Independent closed in 1984. Even more barmy was that Tindle was putting no new resources into these titles, so a skeleton staff had to source stories to fill pages in three extra papers, and they’d be padded out with irrelevant coverage of events in Sydenham or Erith, at the far edges of the Mercury’s patch. Nor did he pay for any promotion of these titles.

The other suicidal thing about this strategy is that neighbouring communities in London aren’t discrete – they blend into one another. I don’t often visit my local newsagent in Charlton, but I’m more likely to visit one in Blackheath as I pass it more often. So I’d have to go out of my way to spend 30p on a title for Charlton that perhaps had three dedicated pages of news for my area.

Splitting titles up also means that you have to justify having a Charlton paper by having a Charlton story on its front page. So a major story could happen two miles away in Woolwich, but the Charlton paper would have something inconsequential as its front page splash. That’s madness.

To nobody’s surprise, a couple of months back, the Charlton Mercury closed along with its two paid-for sisters, unnoticed by Tindle’s fans in the trade press. I’d be stunned if more than 100 Charlton Mercurys were sold each week. I’d be surprised if it did even half that sum.

But was Tindle going to concentrate on making the Greenwich Mercury great again? No. Instead, the Mercury was to be sliced up again, without any investment in staff.

Now there are free editions for Greenwich, Lewisham and Bexley boroughs, plus local editions (free this time) for Abbey Wood & Thamesmead, Woolwich, Plumstead and Catford, all coming from the understaffed SLP office in Streatham (which is also putting out a series of local SLPs for areas such as Deptford, Peckham and Brixton, plus Tindle’s new plaything, a series of tatty-looking titles for central and west London, the London Weekly News). The Catford edition is especially puzzling, as most of the news stories (and advertising) are about Greenwich borough.

A pile of Mercurys abandoned in Sainsbury's Local, Charlton Church Lane

A pile of Mercurys abandoned in Sainsbury’s Local, Charlton Church Lane

As for Charlton, Blackheath and “Greenwich Town”, we’ve got a generic Mercury back again, barely delivered through any doors and occasionally found abandoned in piles in supermarkets. I recently tried to buy one in a newsagent only to find there was no cover price or bar code. Me and the newsagent settled on 30p. With miserly promotion like this, the Mercury’s future has to be looking bleak.

It’s not just greedy, stupid newspaper owners killing the local press – in Greenwich, the council is contributing by placing Greenwich Time up against them, undercutting the Mercury and Shopper’s ad rates.

Of course, Newsquest’s cuts make it easier for Greenwich to justify carrying on with its vanity weekly – the government’s legal action against the council on this is set to drag on for some months yet. And sadly for the Shopper strikers, their own union has undermined them by backing council Pravdas. Greenwich Time is an anomaly that affects just a sixth of the News Shopper’s distribution area, but it’s certainly not helping matters.

I don’t know what the solution is – heck, I can’t even get a decent job in the industry myself at the moment – other than to keep buying Euromillions tickets so I can buy the Mercury off Tindle, move it back to SE London and save the bloody thing from its slow death.

But news is important. Here’s the founder of BuzzFeed, Jonah Peretti, on why it matters to his business.

Having a great news organization has a positive effect on BuzzFeed’s entire culture and makes the whole organization better. Even our team members who work on entertainment content or on the business side are proud to work at a company that is breaking big, important stories. It is inspiring to be part of an organization with reporters doing work that helps shut down ISIS oil smuggling across the Turkish border, exposes sex abuse at an elite private high school, or shines a light on battered women who are wrongly imprisoned. That kind of work pushes all of us to do our very best work and aim high, and we plan to keep pushing.

Or, to put it more parochially, the News Shopper can do all the “you’ll be amazed by these 21 arse-cracks we found in the Wetherspoon in Petts Wood” clickbait pieces it likes – but unless you’re balancing it out with the kind of serious reporting that takes time, effort and risk (exposing wrongdoing, not drunks having a dump at a bus stop), you’ll just end up with a hollow product.

Sadly, Newsquest doesn’t seem to be seeing it this way. Maybe – like some commercially-run hyperlocal websites that concentrate on lifestyle above news – it just thinks someone else will do it. But who?

It’s worth noting that the papers that are doing well are independents such as the Southwark News. The Camden New Journal even put out a special issue the day after the general election. And even our own Greenwich Visitor punches well above its weight for a monthly produced by a tiny team.

Perhaps local communities should be empowered to be able to buy local newspapers (like they can bid to buy threatened pubs and other local assets). Perhaps then community-run papers should be able to get charity status. Would this work here in south-east London? I don’t know. But even asking these questions is a start.

The next time something in your community is threatened, you’ll want some support and publicity. And local papers still carry clout. So give the News Shopper strikers your support. Complain to Newsquest. Tell your MP to do the same. Ask your local Labour councillor if they’ll support union members.

The News Shopper may not be the perfect paper we all want to see. But it – and the Mercury – are the best we’ve got. And we’ll miss them when they’re gone.

Tower Hamlets mayoral scandal: Consequences south of the river?

Tower Hamlets Council hoarding
It’s an east London matter, but last week’s news that Tower Hamlets’ elected mayor Lutfur Rahman had been booted out of office by an election court after being found guilty of corrupt and illegal practices during an election could have consequences south of the river too.

The particular circumstances of Tower Hamlets are unusual. Elsewhere, the system of having an elected mayor has worked well, with Sir Steve Bullock a popular and respected figure in Lewisham. But Lutfur Rahman turned his office into a personality cult, even sticking his face on humdrum signs in the borough.

A fresh election will be held next month. Labour’s John Biggs, the current London Assembly member for City & East and a former Tower Hamlets council leader, will be hoping to take charge of the authority once again.

Tower Hamlets returning to Labour would have significant consequences for Greenwich and Lewisham, as Biggs – like Greenwich’s Denise Hyland and Newham’s Robin Wales – is one of that generation of London Labour politicians that still believes building new roads can bring prosperity.

He’s been a fervent advocate for the Silvertown Tunnel – believing it would relieve congestion in the borough (although as it’s aimed at Canary Wharf and the City, it’d do nothing to relieve the southbound snarl-ups on the A12).

By contrast, under Rahman, Tower Hamlets has been inconsistent on the issue – opposing it in 2012, cautiously welcoming it in 2014. Just as yesterday’s Supreme Court verdict on air pollution will make it easier for campaigners to challenge the tunnel, a Biggs victory in Tower Hamlets could increase certain local politicians’ resolve to continue with this dubious venture.

Indeed, it’s possible we’ll see a more united front between the riverside boroughs on the huge redevelopments and other infrastructure projects across the area – relations between Tower Hamlets and Greenwich on planning issues haven’t been healthy in recent years, most recently with Isle of Dogs residents feeling left out on discussions over plans to expand the long-delayed cruise liner terminal (more on this to come). The winner out of all this could well be Newham’s muscular mayor, Sir Robin Wales, who recently hosted a meeting of east London boroughs (and Greenwich) to discuss devolving responsibilities from central government.

Of course, this is speculation – intra-borough jealousies don’t depend on them being run by rival parties, as anyone who’s dealt with Greenwich and Lewisham will know. But heads could well be banged together soon, especially with Labour currently poised to take the London mayoralty next year.

East End Life, 27 April 2015

The other consequence to the Tower Hamlets ruling concerns Greenwich Time. Tower Hamlets is England’s only other council to publish a weekly newspaper – one which the local Labour party has consistently criticised for bias.

The two government commissioners recently sent into Tower Hamlets (yesterday joined by two more) have kept East End Life going – something which hasn’t gone unnoticed by Denise Hyland – using Press Association copy to report on the election court case. I wonder how Greenwich Time would have dealt with a similar case here.

Whether the next government will implement Eric Pickles’ laws banning “town hall Pravdas” is something we’ll find out in weeks to come – the election has thrown Pickles’ fight with Greenwich into the long grass.

But a new administration in Tower Hamlets may well scrap East End Life as a symbol of reform – or it may well try to find some new solution. All of which could impact on Greenwich’s battle to keep its own weekly paper going.

Again, this is all speculation – two elections mean things are very much up in the air, and after all, this is Tower Hamlets politics.

But it’s worth keeping an eye on events across the water in the next few weeks – the excellent Trial By Jeory and Love Wapping will keep you up to date on what’s happening.