Hackney Today has been competing with local newspapers for advertising

Hackney Today is published by Hackney Council. Photograph: Hackney Citizen

Hackney Council’s taxpayer-funded freesheet is falsely claiming to be a “fortnightly newspaper” and carries statutory notices, possibly in breach of the law, the Hackney Citizen can reveal.

Hackney Today – delivered to 100,000 homes at an annual cost of over £400,000 – appears less frequently than every 26 days, in possible violation of the legal definition of a “newspaper” and the requirement for carrying statutory notices.

The Newspaper Libel and Registration Act 1881 says: “The word ‘newspaper’ shall mean any paper containing public news, intelligence, or occurrences, or any remarks or observations therein printed for sale, and published in England or Ireland periodically, or in parts or numbers at intervals not exceeding twenty-six days between the publication of any two such papers, parts, or numbers. Also any paper printed in order to be dispersed, and made public weekly or oftener, or at intervals not exceeding twenty-six days, containing only or principally advertisements.”

Other legislation says statutory notices must be published in “a newspaper”.

Hackney Today claims it is “published fortnightly in order to carry statutory advertising… The law does not allow for statutory notices to be published solely online or in a less frequent publication”.

But Hackney Council has confirmed that its paper comes out less frequently over the summer and Christmas periods, with gaps ranging from 21 to 35 days.

Keith Magnum, Editor of the Hackney Citizen, said: “Hackney Today calls itself a fortnightly newspaper, but it is not published every fortnight, and appears not to meet the legal definition of a newspaper.

Hackney Town Hall

Hackney Council said ‘there has been no breach of the law’.

“Hackney Council has always justified Hackney Today as a means to deliver statutory notices, but with gaps between issues longer than 26 days, it appears to be doing so in breach of the law.”

He added: “This raises serious questions about how Hackney Council is using public resources, and whether the council is misleading Hackney residents and advertisers.”

Mr Magnum has made a formal complaint to Hackney Council. He has also raised his concerns with the Advertising Standards Authority about the council’s selling of advertising in its freesheet on the basis that it is both a newspaper and fortnightly.

He said: “If it turns out that Hackney Council is mis-selling advertising space in a taxpayer-funded freesheet, this strengthens the case that the council is using public resources to compete unfairly with local news publishers and starve independent local journalism of the revenue it needs to survive.”

Hackney Council says the law does not specify what “26 days” means, and that having sought legal advice from Hackney’s past and current monitoring officers, the council believes it is acting legally.

A council spokesperson said: “Hackney Today is a fortnightly publication which, for practical reasons, has a longer publication gap twice a year.

“During the summer holidays and the Christmas period the publication gap can, for obvious reasons, be longer but only once a year, at Christmas, is the gap longer than 26 calendar days.

“However, the legislation does not provide a definition of what is meant by ’26 days’ i.e. whether it is a reference to calendar days, working days, or does include or exclude public holidays.

Mayor Philip Glanville

Mayor Philip Glanville has defended running commercial adverts.

“Accordingly, Hackney Council takes the view that there has been no breach of the law. Our publication schedule is published online at the beginning of every year, where it is available to the public, and is shared with our advertisers.”

The spokesperson said the council defines “fortnight” as 14 nights.

When asked to confirm that this meant 14 consecutive nights, they responded: “We have said that Hackney Today is a fortnightly publication, that means it’s published every 14 days i.e. every other Monday.”

Magnum said: “Hackney Council’s quibbling over the definition of a day is the most ludicrous defence since Bill Clinton’s famous hedging over the definition of the word ‘is’.”

In November last year, Magnum called on Mayor Philip Glanville to stop selling commercial advertising in Hackney Today, accusing the council of “unfair competition”. The call was backed up by rival paper Hackney Gazette and was covered by The Guardian, Hold The Front Page and Press Gazette.

At the time, Mayor Glanville defended taking adverts, saying: “The advertising revenue it raises takes pressure off scant public resources, but the paper has always been run in a way that does not aggressively compete with other local titles.”

Hackney Today has been ordered to switch to quarterly publication by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). Neighbouring Tower Hamlets Council complied with this order in June 2016, replacing its fortnightly East End Life with the quarterly Our East End.

A DCLG spokesperson said: “The government expects all councils to comply with local government publicity rules, which are there to protect local taxpayers. This expectation includes the requirement that councils do not publish a newsletter more than quarterly.

“DCLG wrote to Hackney Council in December last year reminding them about the Publicity Code. Ministers are currently considering the council’s response before deciding whether to take further action.”

This article was amended at 18:30 on Tuesday 5 September 2017 to include a larger quote from the Newspaper Libel and Registration Act 1881. The original quote used did not include the words ” therein printed for sale”.

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