A new council freesheet has appeared in residents’ letterboxes which the Town Hall insists contains “information, not news”, as it awaits confirmation on whether its planned appeal to continue publishing its controversial newspaper has merit.
Hackney Life is to be sent to residents in place of Hackney Today, which the Town Hall remains determined to attempt to continue putting out on a fortnightly basis despite a judge ruling in favour of the government’s direction for it to follow the law and publish quarterly.
Mrs Justice Andrews in her ruling made clear that she agreed with communities secretary James Brokenshire that frequent publication of Hackney Today represented a competitive threat to local media, but the council has so far refused to reveal on what basis they plan to appeal her decision.
Ramzy Alwakeel, editor of the Hackney Gazette, said: “I believe the existence of a fortnightly council freesheet in 2019 is a significant obstruction to genuine local newspapers – not just by taking away advertising but perhaps more significantly by fooling time-pressed readers into thinking they’ve already had their local news and therefore don’t need to pick up the Gazette or the Citizen.
“I welcome the decision by Hackney Council to suspend publication of Hackney Today while it considers its position, but I’m disappointed that this turn of events needed the intervention of the government, which is obviously not an ally we would ever choose.
“Despite the existence of Hackney Today, the Mayor of Hackney has been a vocal champion of the Gazette and Citizen. I share, and am encouraged by, his oft-stated belief that a thriving local press is essential to a healthy democracy.
“I am confident that both Hackney’s local papers will now prove more than adequate for the council to get its own messages to the public, while continuing to fulfil the vital function that Hackney Today could not: that of holding the Town Hall to account.”
The first issue of Hackney Life includes ‘information’ on artist Kevin Gill’s Brexit-themed painting, as featured in both the Citizen and the Gazette as well as blocks of text informing residents about a new consultation on the future of Hackney Central and an essay on the expansion of a residents’ group.
When pressed the Town Hall was unwilling to confirm how frequently Hackney Life will be published, or whether Hackney Today is temporarily on hold or gone forever.
Keith Magnum, editor-in-chief of the Hackney Citizen, said: “It would be remarkable if central government decided to publish and deliver door-to-door a fortnightly newspaper full of positive stories to all UK residents.
“It is also remarkable that a local council should continue its efforts to do the equivalent – at taxpayers’ expense and, as Mrs Justice Andrews pointed out, to do this to the detriment of the local press.
“Regardless of the outcome of the forthcoming appeal in defence of the council’s freesheet, the Hackney Citizen will continue to report as thoroughly as possible on council matters in the interests of local democracy.”
Mrs Justice Andrews said in her judgement at the time: “What matters here is whether it was rationally open to a decision maker to conclude that if an advertiser who was going to use a print medium had the choice between placing his advert in a free newssheet delivered to all households every fortnight, or in a paid-for newspaper that appeared weekly, he would be likely to opt for the former. Plainly it could.”
The judge also demolished the argument that the government needed to show “empirical evidence” of Hackney Today‘s frequent publication representing unfair competition.
Her argument was that the local government secretary’s powers to enforce the Publicity Code were not restricted to situations where it was possible to prove that local papers had been prejudiced.
The secretary of state for local government, James Brokenshire, states in the judgment that he felt that the very frequent publication of a local newssheet delivered to every household in the borough was likely to “hinder the market for independent local newspapers”.
It is understood that the council has so far incurred £33,281 in legal costs fighting for its abillity to publish its newspaper fortnightly.An editorial in Hackney Life reads: “To try to ensure that as many people as possible continue to be aware of the events, opportunities and services available to them in Hackney, we are publishing Hackney Life.
“In accordance with the government’s direction, it will focus on providing information, not news, and statutory notices are now being published in the local press.”
A Hackney Council spokesperson added: “We can confirm that the council has lodged an appeal and a stay application to the Court of Appeal.
“We will consider our options after the Court of Appeal has heard our applications and provided us with an outcome.”