Struggling local newspapers will be pushed to the wall by new Government proposals to relax controls on local council publicity spending, Caroline Spelman, shadow secretary for communities and local government has warned.
Her commitment is likely to be welcomed by regional publishing groups campaigning against the expansion of council-run newspapers that can compete directly with local newspapers for advertising.
The Newspaper Society, representing the regional press, wrote to Cabinet Office minister Tessa Jowell last month highlighting concerns over the “Power of Information” – a cross-departmental policy aimed at abolishing statutory requirements for public notices to be advertised in local newspapers.
The Conservatives also today called for a tougher code of conduct governing local government publicity. Culture secretary Ben Bradshaw issued his own scathing condemnation of council-owned “propaganda sheets” over the weekend, when he likened them to Pravda.
Spelman said: “Labour’s weakening of the rules on town hall publicity is not only wasting taxpayers’ money, but is now starting to undermine a free press.
“Our free press should not face state competition from municipal propaganda dressed up as local reporting.
“If councils spent less time and money on a weekly Pravda, they could spend more money on front line services that really matter.
“Councils need to keep their residents informed about the frequency and scope of local services but do not need to tell them what films are on at the local cinema.
“Labour’s weakening of the rules on town hall publicity is not only wasting taxpayers’ money, but is now starting to undermine a free press and could kill off some struggling commercial newspapers.
“Shutting down genuine local newspapers will harm the causes of localism by undermining robust local accountability.”
Bradshaw told the Sunday Mirror local authorities were spending council taxpayers’ money employing “armies of press officers to produce these propaganda sheets masquerading as newspapers.”
He said: “They remind me of (Soviet state newspaper) Pravda and papers I knew from my times in East Germany as a BBC correspondent. If the only information you’re getting is misleading propaganda put out by politicians from one particular party, I think that’s very dangerous.”
He said council bosses should ‘very seriously consider’their spending on these papers.