Government must not 'turn a blind eye' to council papers

The director of the Newspaper Society, the body that represents local and regional newspapers across the UK, has called on the government not to “turn a blind eye” and take immediate action on council-run publications.

Responding to Audit Commission findings from earlier this week that suggested local authorities were not wasting or misusing public money through the publication of newspapers, David Newell said some form of intervention was needed.

The NS has asked the government for an urgent meeting to “ensure appropriate curbs are placed on those council publications which take private sector advertising in direct competition with independent regional and local newspapers”.

David Newell, director of the NS, said: “It is vital that the government intervenes immediately to prohibit local authorities from setting themselves up as newspaper publishers and competing with local newspapers for advertising revenues.

“Central government must not turn a blind eye to this practice any longer. It undermines local democracy and must be stopped.”

Publication of the Audit Commission’s findings on Monday brought derision from a host of industry figures who see the actions of local councils as damaging to the local newspaper industry.

Trinity Mirror chief executive Sly Bailey called the findings “a complete waste of time”.

London mayor Boris Johnson then added his voice to the debate branding council-run newspapers a “ludicrous waste of money”.

The Audit Commission explained last summer that it was only able to look at part of the picture regarding council publications and that it was not the correct body to examine the issue in full.

The heads of the Office of Fair Trading and Ofcom then told a select committee hearing late last year that their organisations were not the correct bodies to investigate the matter.

The seeming reluctance to deal fully with the issue at agency or government level led to accusations of buck-passing and further calls for the government to look more closely at the issue.

The NS said today that despite its limitations the Audit Commission had highlighted the industry’s “fundamental point of concern” in that over 90 per cent of English councils publish a periodical with 47 per cent of them encouraging private sector advertising.

Urging a closer look at the issue, the NS said: “[They] are therefore in direct and damaging competition with independent local papers in their areas.”

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