Thursday 27 January 2011

Select committee says 'little evidence' council publications compete unfairly with local press

A select committee has called for plans for a tough new code which would restrict the publication of council newspapers to be delayed, claiming there is little evidence they are unfair competition to the local press.

The report by the Communities and Local Government Select Committee on the proposed code of practice on local authority publicity, published today, calls for an independent inquiry on competition in the local media market.

The committee says: "We found that there is little hard evidence to support the view of the commercial newspaper industry that council publications are, to any significant extent, competing unfairly with independent newspapers at present, though there is concern that such competition may escalate in future.

"We endorse the recommendation of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in the last Parliament that the Government commission an independent inquiry to assess competition in the local media market and quantify the impact of council publications on commercial entities operating in their locale.

"The Code contains provisions which are intended to prevent local authorities from publishing newsletters, newssheets or similar communications which seek to emulate commercial newspapers in style or content; restricting them to material that is directly related to the business, service or amenities of the authority concerned or other local service providers; and requiring them to be clearly marked as published by a local authority.

"We believe that, if properly enforced, the provisions in the proposed Code relating to cost effectiveness, content and appearance are sufficient to deal with the excesses of certain council papers, which are in any case confined to only a very few examples.

"We consider that a local authority’s needs to communicate information to residents would usually be satisfied by no more than quarterly publication, in line with the principle of cost effectiveness contained within the Code. We have doubts, however, about the need to specify a maximum frequency of publication within the Code, especially in the context of the Government’s professed commitment to greater ‘localism’."

The Newspaper Society was today quoting Local Government Minister Grant Shapps stating: "We will of course consider the Select Committee's recommendations. However we are clear that few things have done more to undermine local democracy than the explosion in town hall Pravdas bankrolled by hard pressed taxpayers."

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles’ has been outspoken in criticism of some council newspapers. He told the London Councils Summit: "Clearly, if you are funded by the local council you are not the local independent voice . What we need is the voice of independent local newspapers bringing you to account."

NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear said: "We welcome the Committee’s report which makes clear that both Council publications and independent local newspapers have an important role to play. In particular we are pleased that the committee accepted the argument we and others put forward that there is ‘scant evidence to support the assertion that council publications are, to any significant extent, competing unfairly with independent papers published in their locale’.

“We believe the Code contains some useful safeguards for both local newspapers and council communications workers and welcome the fact that MPs have rejected the idea that the Code should restrict local authorities to a maximum of four issues of a newssheet per year.

“Eric Pickles should review his proposals and ensure that he acts to provide a fair outcome for both local authorities and independent local newspapers”.

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