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July 29, 2013updated 19 Sep 2013 11:12pm

Councils resist Pickles newspaper ban that ‘flies in the face of localism’

By Gabriel Samuels

Local authorities have  defended their right to continue publishing newspapers in the face of a Government bid to ban such publications.

One in ten councils are still breaching government guidelines introduced by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles in 2011 to limit publication of council newspapers to four times a year.

Last week Under Secretary of State for Communities Brandon Lewis MP reported that more than three quarters of local councils in the UK continue to publish their own newspaper, 10 per cent of which are issued more frequently than quarterly. This goes against amendments to the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity.

The Local Audit and Accountability Bill, proposed by Pickles to enshrine the Code in law, provides further guidance on the regulation of council newspapers and continues to be debated in Parliament.

Several councils – including East Northamptonshire, Hackney, Newham and Waltham Forest – publish newspapers fortnightly, while Tower Hamlets and Greenwich councils publish on a weekly basis.

Geoff Martin, chief editor at Archant North London, said that banning council publications was an important point of principle.

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“They are vanity publications and must be scrapped, more for the sake of journalistic integrity than anything else”, he said. “It’s reassuring to know we’re not alone in this view, and we welcome Mr Pickles’ evident determination to change the status quo”

Council-published newspapers are seen by many in the commercial sector as competing unfairly for readership and advertising revenue.

“Our papers are having a tough enough time as it is without having to contend with these political pamphlets," Martin continued. "They are pointless vehicles for propaganda that are fogging the democratic process with their views. Thankfully some councils are beginning to respond positively by making a change”

East Northamptonshire is currently consulting on proposals to end publication of the fortnightly Nene Valley News in March of next year.

While a council report argues that the Nene Valley News “remains non-political and unbiased” and “is valued by local residents and businesses alike”, it also says that the paper’s closure will save more than £64,000 a year.

Other local authorities Press Gazette contacted struck a more defiant tone.

 In a statement, Tower Hamlets Council objected to “Mr Pickles’ obsession with telling councils, who are best placed to understand the needs of local people, how to communicate”, a stance which it said “flies in the face of localism”

“We echo the NUJ’s view that extra statutory powers to dictate how local councils communicate are completely unnecessary and welcome the union’s calls for this legislation to be resisted”.

Last week the NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet argued there was “no case at all” for the Communities Secretary to be given statutory power over council newspapers.

 Meanwhile mayor of Hackney Jules Pipe cited the ongoing obligation for local authorities to publish statutory notices in print as a reason for retaining his council’s Hackney Today publication.

 “Outdated government legislation has forced us into publishing [Hackney Today]” he said. “This leaves us in a bizarre position as far as this new proposal goes. If they dropped this requirement then we would stop publishing Hackney Today every fortnight”

“It’s cheaper for the taxpayer if the council publishes its own paper containing the statutory notices rather than advertising them elsewhere” he continued. “It would be better for Mr Pickles to focus on changing this outdated rule instead of attacking councils”.

On 12 July Pickles told Conservative councillors that the necessity for councils publish statutory notices in print would come to an end in 2015.

It seems that not all independent newspapers are vehemently opposed to council publications, however. Keith Magnum, editor of the Hackney Citizen, argued that his paper could exist harmoniously with its council's output.

"I understand there’s a lot of animosity for these council newspapers, but  we don’t understand the fuss particularly" he said.

"We have never regarded Hackney Today as a competitor: any advertising revenue that they take from us is minimal, and a survey we conducted showed only 30 per cent of our readers read Hackney Today, so there is no particular concern".

"The council’s communications team has a job to do and a right to do it – we don’t have any desire to oppose them in doing that" he continued. "Our readers know it [Hackney Today] is there to serve a purpose and as journalists we respect that".

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