Claims of editorial blackout are 'nonsense' says Carmarthen County Council
'No business has an automatic right to have their customers' money spent with them – including newspapers'
Paper says it's in David v Goliath battle against authority
A Welsh council accused of subjecting one of its local newspapers to an “advertising blackout” has issued a withering rebuttal against the title – suggesting the paper should spend more time trying to increase circulation and less time demanding money from the authority.
Yesterday we reported on claims made by the South Wales Guardian that Carmarthenshire County Council had not advertised with the weekly paper since September after it published a comment piece critical of the local authority.
The authority has now issued a strongly-worded response to the paper’s allegations, saying it was “astonished to have read so many incorrect statements on the front page of this week’s South Wales Guardian”.
The paper reported on its front page this week that during the eight weeks between 27 September and 21 November the authority spent £9,551.69 in the county’s three newspapers, with just £224.99 (or 2.3 per cent) going to the Guardian.
The remaining 97.7 per cent went to the Guardian’s two rivals, the South Wales Evening Post and Llanelli Star, but the authority insisted claims of a blackout were “nonsense”
“The Guardian has a far, far smaller circulation than its rival papers the Carmarthen Journal and the Llanelli Star,” it said.
“Surveys that we have carried out over the years show that it is the least widely read of the three local newspapers.
“In the most recent consultation, figures showed that 36% of people gained information from the Carmarthen Journal; 26% from the Llanelli Star; and just 11% in the South Wales Guardian.
“Maybe the Guardian’s energy would be better spent on trying to increase its readership rather than demanding that the county council advertises with the newspaper as if there were some entitlement to be subsidised with public money.”
The latest ABC figures show the Guardian has a weekly circulation of 5,638, the Llanelli Star sells 12,532, and the daily South Wales Evening Post has a daily circulation of 36,623.
The council also said claims made by The Guardian regarding the Carmarthenshire News publication were equally wrong, insisting that it was produced on behalf of a range of public sector organisations – not just the council – and did not cost “even a fraction” of the £148,000 quoted by the paper yesterday.
The authority’s statement continued: “There is no obligation on the county council to advertise in any particular newspaper.
“Decisions on advertising are commercial and are taken based on the most effective and appropriate use of resources.
“When placing advertising we need to find the best value for money.
“We cannot simply spend taxpayers’ money with local newspapers to subsidise them and support their running costs. That would be a misuse of our funds.”
The authority went on to assert that over the last few years “some of the editorial coverage in the Guardian has seemed to us to be biased and unbalanced”.
It was “surprised” the newspaper had singled out a recent article about criticising the response to the Welsh Assembly’s call-in of plans for new Sainsbury’s stores in the region “as if it were an isolated incident”.
“The truth is that this was but the latest in a long line of articles which we would feel did not present a full and honest picture,” it said.
“The county council has, in fact, made numerous complaints and had many discussions with the Editor and senior figures with the paper.
“Unfortunately, despite our best efforts we have not managed to establish any kind of working relationship with the South Wales Guardian under Mr [Mike] Lewis’s editorship.
“We appreciate the value of local papers, and work with them as best we can, including the South Wales Guardian, and we continue to try to provide South Wales Guardian readers with information on services and developments.
“We send Mr Lewis press releases, photographs and information as we do all other media.
“We have even agreed to work with them this Christmas on a free parking initiative which will be promoted via their newspaper.
“A large part of the reason for this is to help local newspapers with their circulation, as well as shoppers and local traders by boosting trade.
“However, no business has an automatic right to have their customers' money spent with them – and this applies to newspapers as much as to any other business.”
In a comment piece in this week’s paper Lewis suggested the Guardian’s “lone stand” against Carmarthenshire county council was a David v Goliath battle.
“Yes, the odds are uneven but, in all honesty, we never wanted a fight,” he wrote.
“Surely, in these times of austerity it is in the interests of everyone to pull together?”
His editorial continued:
But County Hall’s response to our hard-hitting editorial of September 19 criticising their now-notorious Sainsbury’s press release was to pull all advertising – a move which has cost us around £9,000 – despite a full page right-to-reply.
To describe this as a third-rate decision by a third-rate local authority would be an insult to all those hardworking frontline county council employees (many of whom are Guardian readers) who help keep our county up and running.
The Guardian has nothing but respect for them – but we do have a problem with a regime which acts like some Eastern bloc state from the 1960s.
The most depressing aspect of all this is that the council continues to spend thousands of pounds on two local papers from a rival group.
The Guardian, meanwhile, is punished for speaking its mind. I suspect that even people who don’t read or don’t particularly care for us will be alarmed by this sinister turn of events.
We cannot give in to this pressure, because when a local paper gives up its freedom to criticise, a key plank of local democracy has gone.
Should this be allowed to happen? That is the question all county councillors, regardless of their political colours, should be considering today.
Now is the time to stand up and be counted.
I can’t help wondering what that Amman Valley political legend Jim Griffiths – a fearless champion of the underdog and passionate supporter of free speech – would have made of all this.
He must be spinning in his grave.