Local Government secretary Eric Pickles has told the Daily Telegraph that he wants local councils to "spend less time and money on weekly town hall Pravdas that end up in the bin".
Councils currently spend around £400 million a year on newspapers and magazines and the last decade has seen a sharp increase in the amount of money spent on communicating with local residents. Figures from the Local Government Association suggest that nearly all local authorities (94.5%) produce at least one newsletter, magazine or newspaper. On average, it cost authorities £70,000 per year to produce a publication.
In March this year, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee concluded in a report on the future for local and regional media that a growing number of local authority publications are competing with local newspapers. This is a concern because it diverts advertising spend away from independent newspapers and because the standard of journalism in these publications is not sufficiently objective or independent. The Committee quoted the Hammersmith and Fulham News as a prime example:
"Hammersmith and Fulham Borough Council's H&F News looks very much like a local newspaper. It is a tabloid in format and, in the 20 October 2009 edition which we saw, there was nothing on the front cover that indicated it was a local authority publication. H&F News follows the format of a local newspaper, with news, features and sport, as well as carrying a substantial amount of classified advertising, including extensive recruitment and property adverts.
"The edition of H&F News that we saw also contained an article entitled: 'Businesses brace for huge rates rise' which contained extensive quotes from Conservative Councillor Mark Loveday, of Hammersmith and Fulham Council, on Government policy, with no balancing viewpoint."
In its response to the report, published earlier this month, Government said that "it is unacceptable that a local authority can set up a newspaper in direct competition to the local commercial newspaper" and that local authority publications should never be "a vehicle for political propaganda". It announced that it will make it mandatory for all local authority newspapers and magazines to state clearly that they are a local authority publication and that it intends to "impose tougher rules to stop unfair competition by local authority newspapers."
"Town hall Pravdas"
The article in today's Telegraph suggests that Mr Pickles want to go further than this. He told the paper that "Councils should spend less time and money on weekly town hall Pravdas that end up in the bin, and focus more on frontline services like providing regular rubbish collections. The previous Government's weakening of the rules on town hall publicity not only wasted taxpayers' money and added to the wave of junk mail, but has undermined a free press."
His views were echoed by a spokesperson for the Newspaper Society, who told the Telegraph she hopes councils will start advertising its services in local newspapers again, rather than undermining local papers "by setting up rival publications aimed at controlling the media coverage of council activities." The Chief Executive of the Taxpayers' Alliance commented that "too many councils have wilfully misinterpreted their responsibility to tell people about their services and have ended up producing political material. These glossy, full-colour boasting exercises cost tens of millions and must be scrapped."
The Local Government Association, which encourages councils to operate their own newspapers or magazines as a means of communicating with the public, maintained that "most council publications are only distributed a handful of times a year" and that they are "not significant competitors for advertising revenue". A spokesperson for the organisation also emphasised that "local authority newsletters keep residents informed about what the council does and can do for them."
For householders not interested in unsolicited mail it would be good news if the number of local authorities publications would be restricted. The two existing opt-out services for unaddressed mail, Royal Mail's Door-to-Door Opt-Out and the Your Choice Preference Scheme for Unaddressed Mail, both warn householders wanting to reduce unwanted advertisements that they may miss important information if they opt out. The 'important information' referred to are mostly local authority door-drops. A recent 'waste prevention' report published by the Direct Marketing Association and Royal Mail estimates that about half the people who request a Door-to-Door Opt-Out form do not complete it because they are worried about the consequences of opting out. If local authorities would publish information in local newspapers rather than via door-to-door publications householders would no longer have to put up with commercial leaflets such as take-away menus in order to receive a relatively modest amount of 'information'.
Currently, just 0.7 per cent of households is registered with the Door-to-Door Opt-Out. Only 0.006 per cent of households has signed up to the Your Choice scheme.
- Eric Pickles bans councils from producing freesheets (Daily Telegraph)
- Future for local and regional media (House of Commons report)
- Future for local and regional media (Government response)