Thursday, 3 June 2010

Pravda Publications or vital sources of public information?

In 2005 the Local Government Association (LGA) launched its “Reputation” campaign with a 12 point plan for local authorities to improve their public image and increase the value residents placed on local authority services. One of the key recommendations was that councils should publish a regular council magazine or newspaper.

The reputation plan even identified a council produced magazine as “the most cost effective form of communication for getting a council’s key messages across, giving statutory information, gathering feedback, setting the record straight and counteracting rumour.” (LGA, 2005).

Eleven of the north east of England’s local authorities signed up to the campaign immediately and began to produce magazines of varying standards of professionalism and with varying cost (Association of North East Councils, 2006). By 2009 nearly every local authority in the country was producing such a magazine (LGA, 2009).

The emergence of council run publications has had a serious effect on local newspapers and a House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee highlighted four principle arguments against council publications (HOC, 2009). There was insufficient distinction between local authority publications and independent newspapers; the council publications diverted advertising spend away from the traditional press; the inclusion of public notices in council publications rather than the traditional press; and the content of council publications was not sufficiently objective or independent (including allegations of "council propaganda").

The argument that there is insufficient distinction between local authority publications and newspapers is difficult to sustain in the case of the Hartlepool council Hartbeat magazine as Hartlepool is served by three daily newspapers, two are evening publications, the Hartlepool Mail (Publisher Johnson Press) and the Gazette (Publisher, Trinity Mirror) and one, the Northern Echo (Publisher, Newsquest) is a morning newspaper. There are also free papers such as the Hartlepool and Peterlee Star which is published weekly. All are published in newspaper format. The Hartbeat magazine is published only four times a year and is in A4 magazine Format.

However, the front cover of Hartbeat does not specifically say the magazine is designed, printed and distributed by Hartlepool council. In very small text it does give the website address but it is not very prominent. Anyone not familiar with the publication might be confused about its provenance.

The criticism referring to the inclusion of statutory or public notices is also not totally sustained by the Spring 2010 Issue. Page 48 does give information about ward councillor’s surgeries, although details are published for only eight out of seventeen wards in the town. The criticism of the Commons Select Committee however seemed to be mainly concerned with statutory notices and there were no examples of these in the Spring 2010 Issue.

Many other local authorities are now looking at in-house publication and the use of local newspapers, for statutory notices. Hampshire council chiefs recently identified that by moving only to on-line publication, via the council’s website, they could save a considerable fraction of the £1.5m annual costs they incur by advertising everything in local newspapers or in council publications (Southern Daily Echo, 2010).

The criticisms made by the Select Committee of diversion of advertising revenue and in particular the lack of objectivity, can both be clearly be seen in the Spring Issue of Hartbeat.

Hartbeat is an unremitting diet of good news about Hartlepool council and its “partners”

The use of unsupported statements is illustrated on pages 20 and 21 where a double page header says “Yes, we use our local library for all sorts of things….” This is a blatant political statement and is related to the on-going debate over public library provision in the town. There is no evidence provided for library use in the town.

On page 6 the magazine trumpets the achievements of the council in imposing the lowest ever council tax rise. However, it fails to mention that figures release by the Department for Local Government and Communities show Hartlepool borough council charge the third highest council tax in England. Hartbeat Magazine is correct in saying it is the lowest tax increase ever, but neglects to mention that at 2.5% it is still above the national average increase of only 1.8%

Page 6 also contains a “Thumbs up for new power station” This is based on the council’s own polling data using their Viewpoint Citizen's Panel. This was set up in 1999 and consists of around 1,200 residents who are claimed to be a representative cross section of the Hartlepool community. The headline “Local people have given an overwhelming ‘thumbs up’ to a new power station being built in Hartlepool” is therefore based on a private poll about which no details of the actual membership of the panel are available and which do not comply with any of the standards set by the British Polling Council or the Market Research Society Code of Conduct.

According to the LGA Survey of local council newsletters the average cost in 2009 of publication and distribution for a unitary authority magazine, such as Hartbeat was £82,000. Page 3 of the Hartbeat magazine make the statement “Hartbeat aims to be a self funding publication”. In response to an enquiry about the funding of Hartbeat magazine the Hartlepool council PR Department supplied the information that Hartbeat has a design, printing and distribution budget of just under £1,800 per issue. The PR Department also claimed that in 2009/10 the magazine did not use this budget and actually produced an overall surplus of almost £2,000. It was also noted that Hartbeat was printed by an out of town firm. A great example of Hartlepool Council failing to support local companies.

An enquiry to the advertising agency handling Hartbeat gave prices for a full page advertisement as £500 (plus VAT); a quarter page was £200 (plus VAT). These were provided verbally as the Agency does not have a published rate card for Hartbeat magazine. The Agency is based in Northallerton and also handles the advertising for the Darlington Town Crier (Darlington Borough Council, 2010).

The Spring 2010 issue of Hartbeat is a 64 page magazine and contains 10 pages of clearly identifiable external advertising, (such as Pages 2, 7 and 17), plus 3 pages of what could be counted as advertising but is internal council generated (such as the Maritime Experience Advert on Page 10. The Maritime experience is council owned and operated). There are other pages that could be advertising, pages 9 and 40 refer to NHS Services in the town but it is unclear wether or not these are paid for advertisements. Similarly the full page from the Cleveland Police Authority (Page 35) could be a paid for advertisement.

Assuming the NHS, Police Authority and Colleges all pay for their advertisements then a total of 19 pages are paid for copy, giving an income of £9,500. This would hardly be a significant sum to Trinity Mirror Group, Newsquest or Johnston Press however; if the same scenario is being repeated across the whole of the UK then significant sums will become involved.

Public Sector accounting practices do make isolating costs very difficult. Page 18 of Hartbeat gives information about the “Milestone year” for Housing Hartlepool. Housing Hartlepool is the major social housing provider in the town. It was set up as a stand alone organisation in 2004 by members of the council’s own housing department to take over the council’s housing stock in the town. It is not clear from the context in Hartbeat if this is editorial or paid advertising.

According to Alex Aiken, Head of communications at Westminster City council. 'Councils should be reviewing very seriously what they produce. Councils claim that it is made viable by its advertising but most of that is council advertising so you are just transferring money between departments..' (Quoted in Harrison.C, 2010)

The House Of Commons Select Committee did identify some good examples of council publications. Stevenage borough council's Chronicle and Portsmouth city council's Flagship were singled out as good examples of council produced publications. Like Heartbeat, both of these are magazine format and distributed on a quarterly basis.

Unlike Hartbeat however they both clearly state they are published by the local authority. Also unlike Heartbeat they carry no classified advertising and are produced only for the purpose of providing public information on local authority services.

The select committee report also criticised council magazines that contain comments only from elected members who were cabinet members. In Hartbeat the only councillors mentioned are the Mayor, Stuart Drummond, The cabinet member for performance, Robbie Payne and the cabinet member for Children’s services, Cath Hill. There are no backbench or opposition councillors mentioned anywhere in the publication.

In this respect Hartbeat does not reach the extremes of some other council publications. One issue, selected at random, of Tower Hamlets’ publication, East End Life, included only references to the council's ruling Labour cabinet. The issue of 16-22 March 2009, mentioned them by name 27 times, including six mentions of the same councillor, and carries 12 pictures of them. (Gilligan.A, 2009)

Hartbeat magazine is undoubtedly a propaganda tool for Hartlepool council giving a positive spin on the council’s performance while presenting information on their services. It is unclear how Hartbeat magazine can claim to comply with the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) guidance to local authority newspapers and magazines. This guidance clearly says that “any publicity describing the council's policies and aims should be as objective as possible, concentrating on facts or explanation or both.”

Council run publications are now being challenged in many areas. The financial considerations increasingly being superseded by the potential loss of local media and the resultant decline in the scrutiny they traditionally bring to bear on local government.

According to the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, “Council produced newspapers are a ludicrous waste of money and a very real threat to the democratic process, which is why I instantly scrapped Ken Livingstone's self-serving propaganda sheet The Londoner saving £2.9 million of council tax payers' money a year to be spent on, amongst other things, 10,000 trees.” (Croydon Guardian, 2010).

Writing in the London Standard, Roy Greenslade describes council run publications as; “no more than ‘Pravda publications’. Even if they do not specifically push council policy - and most do -they certainly do not criticise that policy. They may act as a (heavily censored) forum for critics, but they do not campaign against decisions. Nor, of course, do they investigate councillors or council officers.” (Greenslade.R, 2009).

The problem was summarized in the government report, Digital Britain. This concluded that:

“While local authority information sheets can serve a useful purpose for local residents and businesses, they will inevitably not be as rigorous in holding local institutions to account as independent local media...the Government is therefore inviting the Audit Commission to undertake a specific inquiry into the prevalence of this practice, its impact and to make recommendations on best practice and if restraints should be placed on local authority activity in this field.” (HOC, 2009).

The Audit commission’s report in January 2010 concluded with the recommendation “that councils review the value of their spending on communication with the public and their editorial policies to ensure these are politically neutral and publicly defensible.”

The recommendation was not implemented before the 2010 General election but the incoming coalition government’s legislative programme did include the commitment to “impose tougher rules to stop unfair competition by local authority newspapers” (HMG 2010). It may be therefore that the days of council “Pravda publications” are numbered.


Association of North East Councils, 2006, Dialogue magazine, The Reputation Campaign, [online] (Accessed 3 May 2010)

Croydon Guardian, 2010, Boris Johnson condemns London's council run newspapers as 'waste of money' [online] /4870945 (Accessed 25 May 2010)

Darlington Borough Council, 2010, Town Crier, [online] documents/Generic/towncrier/march08.pdf (Accessed 21 May 2010)

Gilligan.A, 2009, The propaganda newspapers, [online] /standard /article-23724285 (Accessed 1 June 2010)

Greenslade.R, 2009, Council papers are bad for local journalism, and democracy, [online] Accessed 30 May 2010

Harrison.C, 2010, Payback time, Corporate Communications Magazine, [online] (Accessed 23 May 2010)

Hartlepool Borough Council, 2010, Hartbeat, [online] /documents_info.php?document ID=747 (Accessed 3 May 2010)

HMG, 2010, Freedom, Fairness, Responsibility [online] (Accessed 22 May 2010)

House Of Commons, 2009, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, Future for local and regional media [online] (Access 5 May 2010)

House Of Commons, 2009, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, Digital Britain [online] (Accessed 25 May 2010)

Local Government Association, 2005, The Reputation Campaign, [online] (Accessed 3 May 2010)

Local Government Association, 2009, Survey of Local Authority Newsletters, [online] (Accessed 5 May 2010)

Southern Daily Echo, 2010, Councils consider axing newspaper notices, [online]( (Accessed 2

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