Opinion / 4 November, 2011

Leader: Hackney makeovers and council make-believe

Real life events will always hamper Hackney Council’s efforts to manage the presentation of the borough

potemkin village hackney

Hackney Council: maintaining the facade? Illustration: Caroline Christie and Bethany Lamont

At a recent Prime Minister’s Question Time (2 November), the Labour leader Ed Miliband accused the Prime Minister of being a master of the “fanfare announcement”. The more critical among us might say the same of Hackney’s directly-elected mayor, Jules Pipe.

Indeed, the council continues to do its utmost to keep up appearances to local residents and the wider world: cleaning away much-loved street art, working to get rid of betting shops and strip clubs (without addressing the underlying issues), switching from green to brown energy and failing to inform Hackney residents properly, banning authors it doesn’t like from giving talks at libraries, preventing Ronan Bennett from filming the Channel 4 -commissioned Top Boy on Hackney’s estates, and so on.

As well as saying how “appalled” he was by the riots, the Mayor was keen to emphasise that by the next day, Hackney streets were such that it appeared as if the riots had never happened: “The council’s cleaners were on the streets throughout the night and had cleared away all the debris, apart from a few burnt out cars, by 7.30am and I would like to pay tribute to them for their hard work.

“I would also like to thank the several hundred residents and volunteers who turned up at Hackney Town Hall this morning offering to help clean up the borough … Many were keen to go and help in other parts of London when it was clear the clean up in Hackney was already complete.”

So despite the arguably complex causes of the disturbances (the shooting of Mark Duggan, police ‘misbehaviour’, government cuts, social inequality), the ‘good news’ narrative from the council to residents and the outside world continues, as part of its vigorous efforts in ‘reputation management’, ‘place branding’ and ‘destination marketing’.

Hackney Today is produced by the Town Hall’s communications department which has an annual budget of over £2.3m. Last month, it won an award for ‘newspaper or magazine of the year’ at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Local Public Services Awards. It is perhaps telling that the council did not make the shortlist in other categories including ‘consultation excellence’ and ‘PR on a shoestring’.

You will find no negative stories about the council in Hackney Today. It’s full of pictures of smiling residents and platitudes about the Olympics – harmless enough, but there is something distinctly unreal about it all. Like a Potemkin village, it portrays a rosy view and serves to underline how obsessed this council is with its appearance.

The Mayor insists safeguarding frontline services is his priority. So why has his council been lavishing money for so long on a department whose function is the photoshop retouching of the borough?

Councils across the land have been far too eager to embrace such cosmetic exercises. Which means that scrutiny by local newspapers remains important for the functioning of our democracy.

/ 4 November, 2011
  • pat

    The last Labour government wasnt known for telling the truth,just plenty of spin. This council obviously thinks that that is the right path to go down.

  • Cllr Abraham Jacobson

    In the Hackney Today you will never see or hear any mention of Libdem or Tory Councillors. It is full of spin and very little substance and plenty of half truths and spin. One example is their cover up of drug offences and rapes in Hackney which are up after 13 years of Labour rule. All they were concerned was with overall crime figures being the lowest for 13 years. It is interesting to note that Labour only received 50% of the vote in 2010 Council elections but 93% of the seats.

  • The Great Smell Of Brute

    I guess that the Blairite clique needs to continue its ‘good’ work of attracting Guardian-reading, middle class professionals and FSTE investment to the borough, so any bad news or political dissent needs to be airbrushed out in the name of kitsch.

  • Spirit Leveller

    @Kris – I’d suggest that your copy of Hackney Today sits in the communal hallway because it advertises and publicises the kinds of services and news content that simply doesn’t appeal doesn’t appeal to you.

    I think you’re confusing ‘has no value’ with ‘has no value to you’.

    @GSOB and others – It’s frankly laughable to suggest that our plutocratic press and broadcast media offers a more pluralistic and ‘balanced’ view of current affairs than publications such as Hackney Today. If it wasn’t for the fact that so many of these newspapers have sought to dishonestly attack the hard work of Labour councils up and down the country in support their own low tax/small government agenda, there would be no need for councils to produce community newspapers in the first place.

    Ban ‘Hackney Today’ by all means, but do so alongside legislation that breaks up media monopolies first. Oh, and don’t talk about ‘Pravda’ if you can’t even be bothered to read Manufacturing Consent – all in the name of ‘balance’, of course…

  • The Great Smell Of Brute

    @Spirit Leveller: I’ve read Manufacturing Consent and several of Noam Chomsky’s other works, so I don’t require your patronising, entry-level ‘lesson’ about media bias and ownership, thank you very much.

    Are you seriously trying to suggest that Hackney Today presents more balanced opinions than the Hackney Citizen?! Or that the (largely independent) opinions expressed in its pages require an official right to reply, funded by Hackney taxpayers?

    Calling Hackney Today a ‘community newspaper’ is frankly laughable – it’s a propaganda sheet for the governing clique within Hackney’s Labour group, which doesn’t even allow its own councillors a free vote on many issues.

  • Spirit Leveller

    Given your evident knowledge of the political economy of the mass media, I’m really rather surprised that you’d choose to dedicate quite so much time to what is, in truth, a pretty benign publication. Anybody would think we were talking about the News of the World instead of what amounts to little more than a council newsletter.

    In any case, you will recall that I am, in fact, by no means opposed to Hackney Today being wound up, given the right circumstances.

    Newspapers/newsletters produced by Labour-run councils are merely a function of a model of media ownership that places a massively disproportionate amount of power in the hands of an unrepresentative and unelected economic elite. This power is then used to unjustifiably (and undemocratically) influence and manipulate the political process to suit their right wing agenda. It is simply not possible for an even marginally left wing council or government to receive fair coverage from a Press and broadcast media stacked with the very individuals whom the status quo has served so well.

    The inevitable response to such unfair and democratically subversive behaviour – in the form of council newspapers – is simply an attempt to redress an imbalance created by media tycoons and their public schoolboy, Oxbridge-educated editors in the first place.

    Only by legislating for the cooperative model as the sole news media ownership structure permitted and by ending the charade of ‘self-regulation’ (to ensure that the responsibilities of the Press correspond to their rights) can we ensure that the circumstances are created whereby councils have no genuine case for producing their own newspaper in the first place. As it is, banning publications such as Hackney Today will result in less plurality, not more; and how could that be a good thing?

    So, go ahead and call for Hackney Today to be banned altogether; just don’t pretend that its because you support balanced or fair coverage of the council’s activities. That’s just bad faith.

    As for your point about the ‘impartiality’ of the Hackney Citizen, it is perhaps worth noting that its editorial team comprises both members of and a former researcher to the Green Party. Maybe the editor ought to caveat every story he writes savaging the Labour-run council with that little bit information and let his readership make its own mind up about whether it represents impartial coverage or not?

    As an aside, I’d bet that the Citizen’s circulation focuses disproportionately on those wards that have a reasonable chance of delivering a Green Party councillor or two. I could be wrong, of course, but I’ve never had one through my door…

  • The Great Smell Of Brute

    @Spirit Leveller: if the existence (or otherwise) of Hackney Today was simply about redressing overwhelming media bias against Labour local authorities and delivering clear-cut information concerning council services, there would hardly be an issue to discuss. But in recent years, Hackney under the leadership of Jules Pipe has become a borough where many of New Labour’s worst mistakes, excesses and attempts to shortcut representative democracy in national government have started to be repeated in minature; the last thing that Hackney residents need is a publication dedicated to spin, propaganda and party-political kitsch, paid for out of their own pockets.

  • HackneyCitizen

    @Spirit Leveller

    We ceased residential door-to-door delivery of the Hackney Citizen at the end of March 2010.

    As you know, one of the recognised roles of the media is to scrutinise state institutions. The Hackney Citizen thus scrutinises the council and other local bodies. The fact that the council is Labour-run is immaterial.

    Like all newspapers, we do on occasion take an editorial line. The Hackney Citizen has no association with any political party and I am not a member of any political party. – Ed.

  • Spirit Leveller

    Well, that’s a matter of opinion; an opinion that Hackney’s residents don’t seem to agree with. They did, after all, vote overwhelmingly to re-elect Jules Pipe as Mayor and return a council comprising almost 90% Labour Councillors only last year.

    Still, perhaps that was all down to ‘Hackney Today’?

  • The Great Smell Of Brute

    @Spirit Leveller: do you not acknowledge a working split between those traditional Labour councillors of the ‘old school’, who dedicate themselves to public service and the regular business of good municipal government, and an ideologically-driven clique led by Jules Pipe? Why do you imagine that so many decisions are made at cabinet level and imposed by the Party whip?

  • Spirit Leveller

    @Hackney Citizen

    So, the Hackney Citizen’s …[personnel]… have no prior membership or professional links to the Green Party?

    You see, if those links do exist, the vehemence and frequency of the Citizen’s attacks cast doubt over whether the council being Labour-run really is “immaterial” at all.

    As for my part, I’m a longstanding member of the Labour Party, which is a great source of pride and (as a socialist) frustration to me. I defend AND criticise the Party accordance with those socialist views so I’m certainly no “troll” but, frankly, the above story, like many others published by the Citizen about Hackney’s Labour Council, intentionally ‘lead’ the reader in the direction of a specific, negative view of the council. Now that’s what I call propaganda.

    (as for my comment regarding circulation of the Citizen etc, I stand corrected and therefore apologise)

  • Spirit Leveller

    @GSOB – The decision-making processes of the Mayor and cabinet are a function of the ‘Executive Mayoralty’ model. Under such systems, decision-making is structurally centralised. This would be no different if the Mayoralty were in the hands of any other political party.

    Personally, I have my doubts about such models but, neverthless, the legacy of political failure in Hackney necessitated it and, if truth be told, it has produced some remarkable benefits for the borough.

    To misquote Marx, the Mayor of Hackney makes his own destiny, but he does not do so under self-selected circumstances…

  • The Great Smell Of Brute

    @Spirit Leveller: it is indeed the centralising, authoritarian structure at the heart of ‘Executive Mayoralty’ (itself the brainchild of the last New Labour government) to which I object principally, although it’s notable that the Blairites in Hackney have been using the mechanism to push through policies for which they lack a clear mandate, and without proper public debate – just like the last New Labour government, in fact.

    For the record, I am sceptical of all of the major parties, whilst having the greatest respect for the diligence and hard work of individual councillors.

    Given some of your own criticisms of the council and its accountability (or lack thereof), I’m surprised to see you defending the current set-up.

  • Cllr Abraham Jacobson

    @Spirit Leveller The Labour Group should appreciate that in May 2010 Election they polled 50% of the votes and 93& of the seats. They do NOT have the majority support of the residents of Hackney, the least they could do is to try to listen to the concerns of the PEOPLE of Hackney NOT the Politicians. The Hackney Today is a whitewash paid for by the Council Tax payers. There is a lot I may not like about the Hackney Citizen but at least it paints a more balanced picture witthout subsidies.

  • del

    on the subject of presenting the borough well, why did hackney go all aggressive on nike’s use of the boroughs logo. Nike was forced to stop marketing, pull the line of clotrhing and shoes, and pay £300k – but honestly to team up with nike to market was a gift spurned.


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