|Michelle Stanistreet: 'Council papers should be able to campaign'|
It puts the union at odds with local newspaper publishers who claim the so-called "Town Hall Pravdas" are unfair competition to the established regional press.
The new measures, under the Local Audit and Accountability Bill, would ban local authorities from publishing more than four newsletters a year and seeks to give the government greater powers of intervention by trying to place the local authority publicity code – currently a guidance document for English councils – into legislation.The code, established in 2011, lists a series of recommendations regarding the political content and value for money of council communications.
The NUJ claims the new powers for the Secretary of State in the bill are not necessary. "There is no evidence that extra statutory powers are required to strengthen the code of practice, as any council which fails to meet its obligation to be balanced and uses publications as political platforms already face sanctions. The NUJ disagrees the extra provisions are necessary. However, if they were enacted it is crucial that there should be a route of appeal. It is a principle of natural justice that there should be a right of appeal and this is absent from the proposals."
The new publicity code proposed in the bill “includes specific guidance about the frequency, content and appearance of local authority newspapers, including recommending that principal local authorities limit the publication of any newspaper to once a quarter and parish and town councils limit their newsletters etc. to once a month”.
The bill is now at Report stage in the House of Lords.
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: "The NUJ sees no case at all for Eric Pickles and future secretaries of state to be given extra statutory powers to decide when local authority newspapers are published. We do not believe that this element of guidance reflects the needs of many communities, nor the practicalities of providing prompt, accurate advice and information to them. In areas where there are no, or limited local newspapers, then sharing planning details, service changes and details of consultations on a quarterly basis is insufficient.
"PR officers in local government act on behalf of the authority they represent and not the political party. Their job is to promote the democratically-agreed decisions of the authority and defend its reputation when unjustifiably attacked. Councils which attempt to use these publications as political platforms already face sanctions and all members of our union follow a code of conduct which says: 'Members working in local and national government shall maintain professional political neutrality at work, unless their conditions of employment specifically allow otherwise'."
The NUJ also says council newspapers should be able to campaign on behalf of their residents, for example on closure of a local hospital.
- The NUJ is warning peers against supporting an amendment to scrap the requirement for councils to place public notices in local newspapers. It said: "The current obligation on public bodies to advertise traffic orders in newspapers recognises the public good that the press performs in providing public information. We have no doubt this still holds true, despite the decline in newspaper circulations of recent years. Local newspapers have very strong brands and have a high level of trust within their community."
- Pic of Michelle Stanistreet (Jon Slattery)