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August 8, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 8:11am

London council loses appeal to keep publishing £500,000-a-year fortnightly freesheet

By Freddy Mayhew

A London council has lost a final appeal to continue publishing its freesheet on a fortnightly basis in rivalry with two local newspapers.

Hackney Council ignored Government advice to stop publishing Hackney Today, which delivers more than 100,000 copies to every home and business in the east London borough, for eight years.

The area is covered by weekly the Hackney Gazette, owned by regional publisher Archant, and independent monthly the Hackney Citizen.

In 2011, the Government brought in a code of recommended practice on local authority publicity recommending councils should publish newsletters or newspapers no more than four times a year.

But Hackney Council continued to publish its fortnightly paper, claiming it was the “most cost-effective way of getting information out to residents and reached the most people”.

In April 2018, after new powers were brought in for the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the council was ordered to cease publication of Hackney Today but fought the directive.

It lost a judicial review in May and requested the right to appeal but this was rejected by Court of Appeal judges this week.

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“There are no more legal options available to the council, so Hackney Today will no longer be published fortnightly,” the council said today.

“The council is now considering how best it can continue to keep the borough’s diverse communities informed of services and opportunities available to them in a cost-effective way which complies with the Government’s legal direction.”

Hackney mayor Philip Glanville said the appeal court’s decision was “extremely disappointing”.

Hackney Today has been in print since 2002 and published its last fortnightly issue, which ran to 32 pages, on 24 June this year.

It cost the council more than £500,000 to produce in 2017/18, falling to £446,000 after £54,000 in advertising revenue is taken into account.

But Glanville claimed publishing the freesheet actually saved the council “tens of thousands of pounds by not having to pay to advertise statutory notices in the local press”.

Statutory notices are official notices informing residents about planning, traffic and other matters that might affect them which the council is legally obliged to publish in a newspaper published more than once a month.

The council has said changing the publishing frequency of Hackney Today to quarterly would in fact cost it more, estimating the cost at nearly £557,000 despite production costs falling to £215,000.

This is because it estimates the cost of placing statutory notices in the Hackney Gazette at £196,500 and “providing other information currently published with Hackney Today eg Summer Guide to Youth Activities, Public Health information, advertising public events” at £55,000.

Glanville said: “We now face a situation where tens of thousands of pounds will have to be diverted away from services and towards paying for notices in a local newspaper where they will be seen by far fewer people, and a heightened risk of people who may benefit from council services and opportunities no longer finding out about them.

“We are now considering our options on how we replace fortnightly publication of Hackney Today, and strike the best balance between cost and keeping as many residents as possible informed about council services…”

Hackney Council launched a new print publication, Hackney Life, last month, along with Hackney News, a weekly email newsletter “containing a range of local news, events, updates and opportunities to get involved in decisions about your borough”, it told residents.

The Hackney Gazette has a weekly circulation of 1,363 copies with a cover price of £1, according to the latest ABC figures. Its circulation has fallen steadily since 2002 when it reached a peak of 13,389 copies.

Gazette editor Alwakeel has said he believed the council freesheet to be a “significant obstruction to genuine local newspapers – not just by taking away advertising but perhaps more significantly by fooling time-pressed readers into thinking they’ve already had their local news…”.

Hackney Citizen editor-in-chief Keith Magnum welcomed the Court of Appeal’s decision against Hackney Council.

He said: “We have always done our best to keep our readers informed about what’s really going on in the borough, and to hold local politicians to account by asking them difficult questions and getting answers.

“We will continue to report as thoroughly as possible on council matters in the interests of local democracy and good governance.

“The fact that we are no longer forced to compete for advertising with a taxpayer-subsidised, so-called fortnightly freesheet is welcome news.”

Picture: Hackney Council

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