The government has set out its reasons for rejecting Hackney Council’s defence of its fortnightly freesheet in a letter to the Town Hall.
The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) this week threatened the council with legal action if it does not stop publishing Hackney Today “so frequently” by February next year.
The council has ignored previous government orders to cut publication to quarterly.
In a letter to Town Hall chief executive Tim Shields, a senior civil servant said 24 editions of the freesheet every year was “far in excess of the recommended four”.
Alex Powell, DCLG’s deputy director of Local Government Stewardship, said communities secretary Sajid Javid rejected Hackney Council’s argument that its freesheet does not compete unfairly with local papers.
Powell wrote: “He [Javid] is of the view that more or wider circulating local newspapers would be available in the borough if the council did not publish its own newspaper more frequently than quarterly.
“The reason is that if Hackney Today were produced on a quarterly basis, some of the advertising that it currently takes would potentially be available to other local media…and other markets would probably develop for alternative media…”
Powell then quotes from Citizen editor Keith Magnum’s open letter to Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville, published last November, in which he argues the council’s selling of advertising “has an adverse effect on local democracy”.
Responding to the Town Hall’s assertion that Hackney Today is a “cost effective means of communication”, Powell said the local authority has “yet to make a wholly convincing argument as regards value for money”.
Javid also dismissed the council’s argument that quarterly publication would make it more difficult to communicate with hard to reach residents.
Powell said the Secretary of State’s view was that “in addition to the internet, the council could use education centres, community centres and libraries as a means to communicate directly with Hackney’s diverse population”.
A spokesperson for Hackney Council said: “We haven’t yet responded to the letter, and it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment before we have done so.”
DCLG’s notice came a day after the council’s Procurement Committee noted plans to award £1,382,000-worth of four-year contracts to pay for Hackney Today – £800,000 for printing costs and £582,000 for distribution – which are set to be approved in the coming weeks.
Last month, Mayor Philip Glanville defended the council freesheet at his Mayor’s Question Time, saying: “Hackney Today is a rare thing, and it’s a controversial thing for some, but actually having a council newspaper that goes to every door and promotes events like this isn’t available to most councils.”
You can read DCLG’s letter to Hackney Council in full here.