Wednesday 29 September 2010

Council papers could be cut to four issues a year

It looks like all that campaigning by the regional press against local council-funded newspapers has paid off.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has announced proposals to tighten up the publicity rules for councils - including limiting municipal newspapers to no more than four issues a year.

Regional publishers have claimed that the so-called 'Town Hall Pravdas' have been muscling in on their territory by looking more like newspapers and grabbing local ad revenues.

Pickles, said today: "An independent local press is an essential part of our open democracy helping local people scrutinise and hold elected councillors to account."

A consultation document on the proposals and a new code of practice states: "To give effect to the Government’s commitment to stop unfair competition by local authority newspapers, the proposed Code will contain specific guidance on the frequency, content and appearance of local authority newspapers or magazines.

"They must not appear more frequently than once a quarter, must only include material that is directly related to the business, services or amenities of the authority or other local service providers and should be clearly marked as being published by the local authority. These provisions also extend to web-based editions of publications."

He added: "The rules around council publicity have been too weak for too long allowing public money to be spent on frivolous town hall propaganda papers that have left many local newspapers looking over the abyss - weakening our free press - or to use 'hired-gun' lobbyists that operate in the shadows to bulldoze special interests through.

"The proposals I am publishing today will close off these inappropriate practices and make sure that councils focus taxpayers' money on where it should be spent - protecting frontline services."

In April, I commissioned a guest-blog from the editor of a council newspaper who, for obvious reasons, wants to remain anonymous. In it he admits his job is "not journalism" and involves producing "anti-news" but he also points an accusing finger at the local press for low salaries, poor circulation and negative reporting: You can read it here: Confessions of a council newspaper editor.

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