The independent press is quickly disappearing across London boroughs as town hall propaganda sheets take over journalism’s turf.
In April 2014, Secretary of State for Communities, Eric Pickles, issued letters to five London borough councils which triggered the first steps towards legal action for abolishing the “faux” newspapers.
Four of the borough councils that received the letter ignored the recommendations to stop publishing and continue to fund the papers masquerading as traditional journalism, using taxpayers money.
Mr Pickles proposed a four-per year limitation on the newspapers along with a statement alluding to their waste of taxpayers money. Add to the wave of junk mail and threats to the free press – only a handful of councils have complied and none have ceased printing.
Artefact spoke to the executive director of the Society of Editors, Bob Satchwell, to find out what kinds of threats council newspapers pose to democracy.
“They often purport to be independent newspapers which challenge and question authority. If they are financed by local council and the writers are all employees, they cannot be independent and provide a democratic service to the community.”
“I don’t see anything wrong with newsletters as long as it’s made clear that they are not newspapers. They are clearly a threat to local democracy and other newspapers. What is happening is local councils are using public money to send out their propaganda,” said Satchwell.
Mr Satchwell added that local councils need to stop using public money to finance their newspapers and putting themselves at an advantage over and in competition with the independent press – who are supported by the advertising revenue that councils are now taking away.
It’s important that people find things out for themselves and challenge authority
Nick-named “town hall pravdas”, East End Life and Greenwich Time have been singled out in the latest Government crack down on council corruption on the basis they are lacking in the objectivity and even-handedness that characterises the independent press.
The effect of council newspapers to block public scrutiny and the self-glorifying tone of the writing has aggravated Greenwich activist Darryl Chamberlain, who runs a popular blog on sensitive information concerning the council usually not reported in the Greenwich Time.
His blog 853 is used by national reporters and local people as a trusted source of news on stories at Greenwich Borough Council and politics around south east London. Chamberlain’s reporting style is aggressive, prying and holds power to account.
“When I saw the nonsense coming through my letter box by Greenwich council, my blog 853 seemed increasingly necessary as way of countering it. I think it’s important that people find things out for themselves and challenge authority; and when it comes to the Greenwich Time, it’s always about what it doesn’t publish that matters.” said Chamberlain.
Artefact used freedom of information requests to find out how much of the taxpayers’ money the councils are spending each year on “faux” newspapers.
Greenwich borough council last year printed and distributed 5,250,000 copies of Greenwich Time. It spent £228,000 on editorial content on top of £261,588 PR bills.
It gained over £700,000 on advertising revenue, around £100,000 higher compared to local commercial papers.
Tower Hamlets council newspaper, East End Life employs four reporters for the starting salary of £31,152 while the editor receives a salary of £59,982.
The average salary for a reporter on a independent newspaper ranges from as low as £12,000 – £22,000, depending on whether the employment is with a local, regional or national newspaper.
Image by Mustafa Khayat via Flickr