The News Media Association is seeking assurances that the government remains committed to “stamping out town hall Pravda’s” after accusing it of backing down from taking legal action against two local authorities.
The group’s deputy chief executive Lynne Anderson has written to Communities Secretary Sajid Javid to express “deep concern” that the government is retreating on its position to close down council-owned publications operating outside the Publicity Code.
It claims that government directions to Waltham Forest Council and Hackney Council to cease publishing their fortnightly papers by 6 February have been withdrawn.
Hackney Council, which produces Hackney Today, and Waltham Forest Council, which produces the Waltham Forest News, were last month issued with “directions” from Communities Secretary Sajid Javid after ignoring repeated government requests to desist.
Councils must not publish their own newspapers more than four times a year under the Publicity Code, a set of regulations approved by parliament in 2011 to try and stop taxpayer money being spent on them.
In her letter to Javid, Anderson wrote: “All local authorities which flout the Publicity Code and use public funds to compete for scarce advertising revenues with independent local newspapers must be stopped or councils across the country which have complied with the Code will take this as a sign that they can re-launch their council newspapers with impunity.”
She added: “Independent local newspapers are the only voices holding local authorities to account but they face tough economic conditions with many fighting for survival.
“We seek assurances that the Government will take swift legal action to stop Hackney, Waltham Forest and other remaining council newspapers to ensure that the undoubted progress which has been made to remove this blight on local democracy is not fatally undermined.”
Former Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, who brought the Publicity Code before parliament, has previously described council-published newsletters as “Town Hall Pravdas”, a reference to Russian political newspapers associated with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
The NMA says council papers “have been exposed as nothing more than pernicious propaganda and a waste of taxpayers’ money”.