Read all about it!

My local council’s free newspaper dropped
onto my doormat this morning, the front page boasts that the publication –
Hackney Today – is “circulated to 108,000 homes and businesses in Hackney”. A little bit of research reveals that the
fortnightly rag was “re-launched with a brand new look at the end of 2007…
increasing in size to 36 pages” and that they “try and ensure delivery to every
home and business in the borough”. 
Hackney Today


Now, if something has to be re-launched
with a new look, it’s normally because it wasn’t doing that well in the first
place. Call me ungrateful but the last
thing I want is a newspaper written by my local council, I definitely don’t
want a bad newspaper written by my local council, and I doubt any taxpayer
wants their council tax cash to be spent on said paper being re-vamped, made
LONGER and still persistently thrust through their door!


Having trained and worked as a journalist
I’ve read more press releases than I’ve had hot dinners, so I instantly
recognised the spin that’s normally reserved for council press releases, only
this time it was staring at me from the front page. It was like the press officers had decided to
cut out the middle man (the journalist who is sometimes in a position to turn
their nose up at a bit of council PR story) and go straight to print. It is part of a wider trend of increased
spending on publicity by town halls, our own research into that is here.


In 2008 the cost of staffing, printing and
distributing Hackney Today was about £551,000. Despite advertising revenue and reducing spend on advertising (the
council saves some cash by placing statutory notices in Hackney Today rather
than alternative local publications) local taxpayers are still ultimately the
picking up the bill for the shortfall; meaning it’s not really a free paper at


The cheeky part is that lots of the cost is
met through ‘internal advertising revenue from directorate service areas’ – to
you and me that’s Hackney Council’s left hand paying the right hand to
advertise for it.  Nice. 


Council newspapers are unfair competition
for other local papers; these aren’t really newspapers, they are promoting and
advertising local services and on top of all this they’re using taxpayers’ cash
to pay for someone to distribute this claptrap. Last month the Fulham & Hammersmith Chronicle launched a
"Proper Papers Not Propaganda" campaign, as a demonstration against
the council-owned h&f news. Of course the h&f is competition
for the Fulham & Chronicle, so they have an added reason to attack it, but
they raise some interesting questions in the process. They claim that h&f news costs taxpayers
£174,292 per annum - £6,971.68 per edition. H&F Council counter this by pointing out that it costs them nothing
after advertising revenue (read a response to a request under the Freedom of
Information act here
).  Whichever way you look at it, whether
or not h&f news is making money, plenty of other council newspapers aren’t.
This spending is put into sharp focus
when you remember that council tax has doubled in the last decade, and think of
how often local authorities complain that they are short of money and need to
increase council tax still further, or reduce frontline services. All the while they are, like Japanese
knotweed, spreading across the country and throttling the life out of competitors
by undercutting advertising rates, because they can, because they don’t have to
turn a profit (Hackney Today boasts of “very competitive rates”). The consistent message about these council
newspapers is that they not only cost taxpayers money in almost every case, but
they also take away advertising from legitimate newspapers, which they are
effectively in competition with. This
isn’t just local papers throwing their toys out of the pram as the UK’s media
in both print and broadcast face a frightening decline, more is at stake. If the only newspaper in town is one that is
written by the council then who will be there to speak out against the
council? There is a risk that free
speech and democracy will be compromised if independent local papers disappear. There are no controls over these free council
newspapers, there is no one to call them to account if they are politically


Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle is owned
by Trinity Mirror, interesting then that they chose to attack council
freesheets. According to,
Hackney Borough Council awarded a £4m contract to Trinity Mirror for the
production of Hackney Today. This is
described by printweek as one of the positives of council publications, but I
don’t think spending £4m on printing is a positive for Hackney taxpayers, who’d
probably rather just pay less council tax. That’s right £4m for a newspaper that I don’t want, that tells me a load
of biased information. The council has
no evidence for a case that a free paper is essential to get important
information to residents; that’s why we pay for libraries and for IT consultants
to build council expensive websites.


Momentum is gathering behind the movement against
these newspapers. Freedom of Information
campaigner and journalist Heather Brooke has spoken out, calling them
Pravda-style rags”. She notes that: “across London, official
council newspapers now employ around 120 people. When council Press officers,
who write most of the articles, are included, the figure rises to 360. The
total number of editorial staff on all independent local newspapers in London
in 2009 was 350.” It must sicken editors of local papers, who’ve faced seeing their
reporters made redundant, to see council newspapers thriving, despite the crisis in
the print journalism industry.


Earlier this month MPs from all parties who
make up the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee called for
the Office of Fair Trading to look into council funded newspapers
, and the
effect they have on local democracy (Dave Hill also wrote about that here).


The fear is that local democracy and free speech
are being stifled; residents are being choked by the shameless propaganda that
is being rammed into their letterboxes. ‘Real’ newspapers are not allowed to blur the line between advertising
and news, why should local authorities get away with it?

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