The Department for Communities and Local Government’s publicity code states that any freesheets produced by councils should be published no more than quarterly to ensure that independent local media does not face unfair competition.
The code also stipulates that Town Hall freesheets should not resemble commercial newspapers.
Hackney Today is published fortnightly and has carried advertisements for local businesses like bike shops, florists, and estate agents, as well as property developers – thereby competing with commercial titles like the Hackney Citizen and contributing to the financial challenges they face. The Hackney Citizen is currently involved in a public row with the council over its decision to compete commercially with the local press.
This situation is not unique to Hackney, and council ‘newspapers’ have been criticised by figures of all political stripes at various times in various places around the country. Below are just a few examples:
Five times when Labour opposition councillors criticised council freesheets on their doorstep…
“I find offensive the idea that you should use council money to provide propaganda on the rates.”
– Labour’s John Biggs, now Mayor of Tower Hamlets, while campaigning on a platform to get rid of ratepayer funded East End Life
“If the administration at Hillingdon does not comply with the Publicity Code, I can envisage a negative impact on our local free press across West London.”
– Cllr Mo Khursheed, Leader of The Labour Group in the London Borough of Hillingdon, on the taxpayer funded title Hillingdon People
“If cuts are to be made then the Westminster Reporter must be first in line. Residents can save £150,000 a year by scrapping this magazine.”
– Cllr Paul Dimoldenberg, longstanding leader of the Westminster Council Labour Group, referring to that Tory-run council’s ‘newspaper’ in 2011
“Imagine the outcry if a national UK government decided to spend taxpayers’ money producing a fortnightly national propaganda paper, which it dressed up as an independent newspaper and delivered to people’s homes for free. It would cause concern about the state of our democracy at an international level. Why, therefore, do those involved think it’s ok for Hammersmith and Fulham’s local government to produce this aberration? H&F News has brought our council into disrepute.”
– Cllr Stephen Cowan, then Labour’s Leader of the Opposition on Hammersmith and Fulham Council, speaking about that council’s publication, H&F News, five years ago. The council has since ceased publishing the title, and Cllr Cowan is now head of the council!
“I welcome any move which may cut taxpayer cost on a publication which undermines ad revenue for local journalism… Questions remain, however, about why senior Conservative councillors deliberately chose to ignore government guidance that has been made clear for months and at what point officers briefed them on the Code of Practice. As the main opposition, we have consistently raised this issue to senior portfolio holders, yet have been ignored.”
– Cllr Tristan Osborne, a Labour councillor in Medway, Kent, on that council’s controversial publication Medway Matters in 2014
…and five times people of other political persuasions raised criticism of council pseudo-papers:
“Greenwich Council has used taxpayers’ money to produce propaganda, reinforcing its rose-tinted view of the borough to all residents, and the fact the government has finally forced them to conform to the standard of behaviour expected in a modern democracy does not mean that there won’t be some other attempt to support the Labour Party through the council.”
– Cllr Spencer Drury, Conservative, Royal Borough of Greenwich, on the demise of Greenwich Time
“Money [used to produce Hackney Today] could be used in the discretionary fund to alleviate benefit cuts in hardship cases. And it seriously damages independent criticism in the local press. The irony is that the Labour Party have made exactly the same complaints about East End Life, another propaganda rag in Tower Hamlets.”
– Hackney Liberal Democrat spokesperson Tony Harms, speaking to the Hackney Citizen in 2014
“UKIP would axe the Hillingdon People magazine and redirect this cash in to front line services such as extra police officers, street cleaning and the NHS, whilst encouraging more interaction by local councillors with their constituents and engagement with local media outlets to get information out.”
– UKIP’s Jack Duffin, when standing as a parliamentary candidate in Hillingdon
“If Greenwich Time purports to be a ‘newspaper’, then it should report a full range of views, not censor them because the council’s Labour leadership disagrees with them.”
– Darryl Chamberlain, a Green party candidate in Greenwich, speaking about his view of the content in that council’s publication prior to the title being cut
“Outlook has just become an organ to promote the council’s successes. We’re all living in difficult times and we’d all rather have the truth. Delivering this to every household comes at a cost. With such a cost, I do not believe it is justified.”
– Jenny MacKenzie, a member of the Edinburgh Association of Community Councils, on Scottish council taxpayer-funded organ Outlook, in 2010