The National Union of Journalists has attacked planned new measures to curb the frequency of council-funded newspapers.
“The NUJ sees no case at all for Eric Pickles and future secretaries of state to be given extra statutory powers to decide when local authority newspapers are published. We do not believe that this element of guidance reflects the needs of many communities, nor the practicalities of providing prompt, accurate advice and information to them. In areas where there are no, or limited local newspapers, then sharing planning details, service changes and details of consultations on a quarterly basis is insufficient,” stated Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary National Union of Journalists.
“PR officers in local government act on behalf of the authority they represent and not the political party. Their job is to promote the democratically-agreed decisions of the authority and defend its reputation when unjustifiably attacked. Councils which attempt to use these publications as political platforms already face sanctions and all members of our union follow a code of conduct which says: ‘Members working in local and national government shall maintain professional political neutrality at work, unless their conditions of employment specifically allow otherwise’.”
The Union stated that a 2010 Audit Commission Report “debunked this view put forward by newspaper proprietors that local authority publications represented unfair competition and were commercially damaging to other local newspapers.”
However, at the time the findings were disputed by publishers and politicians:
“In some cases council newspapers are using taxpayers’ money to compete directly with the independent free press,” said Sly Bailey, the then chief executive of the Trinity Mirror.
“This is damaging to local commercial publishers and is a real threat to local democracy. The abuse of taxpayers’ money to peddle council propaganda dressed up as journalism is an outrage which must be stopped.
Pickles added that by publishing TV listings and sports reviews the council papers were “swallowing much-needed advertising revenue from local papers and providing a vehicle for councils to dress up their literature as “independent” publications. Some are as glossy as Vogue and probably cost nearly as much.” [In 2010, The Salford Star used the Freedom of Information Act to reveal that Life in Salford cost £27,797 per month to produce].
He added: “I acknowledge that not every local paper is a paragon of journalistic brilliance. Some are certainly a lot better than others. But the issue here is choice. If local papers are being squeezed out by state-funded competition that is a real concern for us all.”
The Government’s measures in the Local Audit and Accountability Bill would ban local authorities from publishing more than 4 newsletters a year. There is also a House of Lords amendment to remove the requirement for councils to place public notices in local newspapers:
“The current obligation on public bodies to advertise traffic orders in newspapers recognises the public good that the press performs in providing public information. We have no doubt this still holds true, despite the decline in newspaper circulations of recent years.
“At a time of severe public spending cuts, it is easy to see the temptation for public bodies to want to deny newspapers this important revenue-raiser. But it would disingenuous for local councils to suggest that they can disseminate this essential information as effectively by using social media, public noticeboards and parish newsletters.”
ADD: Since publication the NUJ has defended its position on the cuts with NUJ chapel member, Helen Watson (who writes for Tower Hamlets Council’s weekly paper, East End Life) stating:
“Furthermore, the demise of local and regional newspapers has nothing to do with the rise of council publications or the recession. Most local newspapers have been run down for years – jobs cut to the bone and salaries pitifully low but we haven’t noticed a corresponding cut in shareholders’ dividends at the big newspaper companies which dominate the British media.
“Our position is, and always has been, that we work in the same industry. We must stick together to defend the jobs, pay and conditions of all journalists, regardless of who they work for.
“[…] We should all strive not to play the newspaper owners’ game – it’s classic divide and rule. If we all blame each other for the crisis in British newspapers, we’ll be too busy to see who the real culprits are – those who have profiteered for years off our labours, slashed jobs and driven down wages, only to complain about how editorial quality is plummeting.
“If journalists stick together, we have a fighting chance of stopping the rot.”