Local newspapers are being "driven out of business" because of the proliferation of council funded publications, the Conservative shadow local government secretary has claimed, writes Dean Carroll.
Looking to the media landscape ahead should the Tories win a general election, Caroline Spelman indicated that town halls would be required to review their own publications to check they were not "going beyond their remit". She revealed that a Conservative government would also evaluate the Local Authority Publicity Code "with a view to tightening it up", adding: "At one time, literature from the town hall was confined to updates about bin collections over Christmas or changes to library opening times – now they have evolved into fully fledged newspapers."
Spelman held up Boris Johnson's scrapping of The Londoner newspaper, which saved £2.9m, as a good example for councils to follow. A Tory policy note revealed that concern had grown over "the rise of town hall propaganda" due to generous budgets at council-run publications like Tower Hamlet's East End Life, which had double the number of staff as the commercial rival the East London Advertiser.
But Local Government Association chief executive John Ransford told Public Servant Daily that councils had developed their own titles because "local newspapers have abandoned reporting of local political situations", adding: "They will report issues like bypasses, housing developments and big planning stuff but the reporting of what the council does and the way it does it has virtually disappeared in regional and local journalism.
"During the 1970s and 1980s, there would always be two or three local papers attending committee meetings. Reporters would cover meetings and challenge councillors and officers afterwards; they would start editorial campaigns and set debates going."
The Office of Fair Trading recently warned that commercial newspapers were facing increasing competitive pressures from public sector titles. Advocating discussions between local authorities and news organisations to establish a way forward, Ransford said: "It's important that there is a vibrant local media and so I think it is important that councils have talks with the local press to see if arrangements can be reached.
"Access to information and criticism is part of our democracy. That is important as getting people out to vote so councils must explore locally how things can be achieved – there will be different answers in different places. I don't think there is a simple answer."
Asked what he thought the biggest threat to paid-for local newspapers was, Ransford said: "The market has changed with the creation of free newspapers, the internet and the economic situation people have been in – our whole way of sourcing information is now different. You can access news online through a phone now. But personally, I still like physically reading a newspaper and I find it difficult to read things on screen."