'Quotes' written by PR team, faces airbrushed from history - what it was like to edit a townhall Pravda - Press Gazette

'Quotes' written by PR team, faces airbrushed from history - what it was like to edit a townhall Pravda

Newspapers published by councils have been accused of providing unfair competition for independent local newspapers and giving readers propoganda instead of news. Here the former editor of weekly council newspaper Greenwich Time speaks out.

My sacking from Greenwich Time on 21 August this year was done over the phone so that the Royal Borough of Greenwich could demonstrate that someone who had worked for them every week for 12 years was not in fact an employee but a “contractor”.

Colleagues on the newspaper dubbed ‘Pravda’ by its opponents were ordered to remove my bylines from stories already on pages – and the council quote in the story that followed in the local News Shopper referred to me not as a former valued editor but as “this person”.

Anyone who wonders if the ‘Pravda’ tag is accurate will get the point.

It also fits perfectly with the “culture of bullying” that two Labour councillors have cited for not standing in the local elections next May, and subsequent stories that appeared in News Shopper and on the excellent ‘853’ blog.

They include a front page calling for the resignation of council leader Chris Roberts, whose voicemail to cabinet colleague John Fahy, heard all over the borough, included the infamous line: “Get it through your thick fucking skull”. Cllr Fahy, who had had the democratic temerity to stand against Cllr Roberts in the leadership election, had also been airbrushed out of a Greenwich Time picture…with his legs hilariously left in as proof!

And when Greenwich received Royal status, I put forward a front page with excited primary schoolchildren celebrating with flags and two regulars raising their glasses in a local pub – headline: "Now we’re right royal residents!" That was changed on Cllr Roberts’ orders to a bland generic pic of Greenwich with just one small head-and-shoulders picture of…guess who?

So what was it like to edit ‘Pravda’? Well, that was my job title for 10 years but not my job. The real editor from day one was Cllr Roberts with chief executive Mary Ney as his assistant. They signed off the pages every week with head of comms Stuart Godfrey, the officer who dismissed me over the phone, the go-between to ensure the "key messages" were included, ie Roberts' key messages.

Local councillors were never allowed to speak to the local press or to Greenwich Time. Only cabinet members’ quotes, usually drafted by GT staff and vetted on press day by Cllr Roberts and Ms Ney, were allowed to be received by Greenwich residents.

Mr Godfrey, rebuttals his speciality, never did a Ferguson with the hairdryer treatment at team meetings but made it clear that he would get “a good kicking upstairs” if the wrong messages went up there – hence ‘Skullgate’, the removal of Cllr Fahy’s face from P23 on May 1, 2012. Ms Ney enthusiastically got into the act one week when she suddenly banned puns from headlines – in the belief they could have a detrimental effect on Greenwich pupils’ spellings.

Stories and sometimes whole features that didn’t fit the Roberts/Ney line were simply removed on press day. Mr Godfrey, an avid second-guesser on their behalf, would often advise us early in the week to have substitute stories ready to take the place of ones he had his doubts about. My dismissal, for congratulating Lewisham Hospital campaigners in a letter from a Lewisham resident to the News Shopper, was supposedly in the cause of political neutrality…yeah, right.

I moved over to Greenwich Time in 2001 from the SE London Mercury, bringing with me two Mercury reporters and a Fleet Street-standard designer. Our only interest was in the campaigning, community-style of journalism we practised at the Mercury in Deptford High Street and we had great contacts over the years with good people and groups in Greenwich – who had better remain nameless for their own sake. We put up with the soulless, depressing Newspeak churned out week after week but believe it was our community stuff that won three UK awards in six years.

Time and again we said we should make a note of all the Orwellian madness to use in a book one day, and luckily plenty was preserved for my forthcoming employment tribunal for wrongful and unfair dismissal.

Some reckon I should save all this for the tribunal – including the disgraceful “strictly confidential” email to his 38 fellow Labour members from deputy council leader Peter Brooks that was sent to me anonymously by post last week and seen by Press Gazette.

But I believe the best thing is to have it out in the open if the toxic political smog over the Royal Borough of Greenwich is ever to be lifted – mind you, Cllr Brooks has received an email, not the least bit confidential, telling him what I think of him.