The anti-propaganda propaganda machine keeps crowing

You’ll know that I’m no fan of Greenwich Council’s propaganda rag Greenwich Time. You may also know that local freesheet the News Shopper is also no fan of Greenwich Council propaganda rag Greenwich Time. And yes, once upon a time, wearing my old hat of bigmouth election candidate, I’ve appeared in its hallowed pages calling on the council to sort it out and stop taking the mickey.

However, I’ve also said the News Shopper should be watching its own back here – much of its coverage of Greenwich issues is weak, its distribution poor, and its news priorities often baffle. Across south-east London, there’s plenty of evidence of market failure in the provision of news, and while local blogs/websites are one response to that; the expansion of local council newspapers is another response.

Anyhow, yesterday, the Shopper went charging into battle against Greenwich Time once again. Sound the fanfare!

NEWS Shopper’s parent group struck a blow for local newspapers in Parliament on Monday night. Howard Scott, managing director for Newsquest in south and west London, won a Parliamentary debate after proposing that taxpayer-funded council ‘newspapers’ undermine local democracy.

The debate was the first hosted by the Parliamentary Debating Group since the new coalition government took office.

And Mr Scott – supported in the motion by Brian Doel, managing director of Tindle Newspapers – argued against councils being allowed to spend taxpayers’ money publishing their messages under the guise of genuine, unbiased, newspapers.

You can see a slightly different version of the same story on the Guardian series website – the News Shopper’s south-west London/Surrey sister paper.

There’s little to argue with in what Howard Scott said:

“The cynical attempts by some authorities to control and manipulate public thinking and debate via these official mouthpieces is something which should concern anyone who treasures our democratic processes.

“If they are allowed to continue and spread, then local democracy is damaged and our lives will be the poorer for it.”

But, there’s very little to disagree with from the opposing side. Westminster City Council’s head of press, Alex Aiken, spoke for the other side. Although his claim that council newspapers “illuminate” debate is frankly cobblers in the case of Greenwich Time – where only one point of view ever gets expressed, the rest of it is pretty much on the money.

Alex Aiken, head of press at Westminster City Council, argued council publications ‘illuminate’ debate and were filling a gap created by local newspapers themselves, who no longer covered council meetings and local affairs in the way they once had.

He said ‘arrogant’ newspapers, often not based in the area they purport to cover and with an expectation of high profit margins, had lost touch with their readers and had failed to adapt to changing advertising markets, with more adverts going online.

And with that in mind, it’s worth the quality coverage that the Petts Wood-based News Shopper has given south-east London over the past few weeks.

Over recent weeks, the News Shopper has become obsessed with crows. On 28 May – a crow attacks blonde joggers in Eltham! On 9 June – an “elderly dancer” in Catford reveals her crow horror! And this week – angry crow travels out to Petts Wood to get its revenge on the News Shopper!

Yup, the Shopper’s got its knockers. “A BUXOM beauty is hoping to curve her way to fronting a lingerie brand’s bra range…. Chislehurst stunner Anna Broadley is a busting 32G.” I suspect the News Shopper’s editor is a breast man, myself, considering its coverage of the same contest last year.

Let’s leer over a 19-year-old pop star! PIXIE Lott feels sexier when she’s single as it makes her shine, but it’s difficult for the Mama Do singer to judge as she’s never been in a long-term relationship. The former Chislehurst schoolgirl admits she’s also never been in love.” Well, that’s that cleared up, then, thanks to a puff piece for this month’s Cosmo. This stuff’s the staple of things like Gordon Smart’s Bizarre column in the Sun, but in a local paper?

Of course, it’s a big wide world out there which certainly does feature birds, boobs and blondes – but all this stuff sits oddly in what’s otherwise a very dry newspaper. Heaven knows what’ll happen if a crow attacks a buxom blonde who advertises bras and has had a number one single. The editor will probably explode.

But let’s see how the Shopper holds Greenwich Council to account. We know it doesn’t report council meetings – even when the paper is discussed. So let’s see how it treats a run-of-the-mill council story – that of the mysterious reopening of Charlton Lido – reproduced on the right.

Now, I’m sure a local paper in touch with what happens on its patch might want to get some reaction, considering the Lido was closed last summer for redevelopment works, and there’s little evidence of much work taking place at the Lido, which is due to be converted into a diving centre for 2012. Does this mean the diving centre conversion is in trouble? Will it miss its deadline? Or is all going well? What does the local swimming club think? Or the former local councillor who raised the issue in, er, the News Shopper last year? It’s a good story to hit the phones and find out what the hell is going on with a much-loved, but under-promoted local facility. But no, the News Shopper just published Greenwich Council’s press release faithfully.

Holding the council to account? I don’t think so.

And this is the big problem. The News Shopper’s absolutely right to have a go at Greenwich Council over Greenwich Time – GT flagrantly abuses council taxpayers’ money to promote a small clique of Labour councillors and a series of causes backed by the council leader, and is used by the council to shut out criticism and scrutiny.

But the News Shopper fails at holding the council up to scrutiny. When given the chance, it ducks out. With cuts coming up, proper examination of what the council’s up to will be needed more than ever. The Greenwich and Lewisham editions of the Shopper are largely the same paper – together, both boroughs have a population equivalent to that of a city the size of Liverpool. The journalists who look after that patch have to cover it from an office several miles outside that area. It’s not an easy job for them, and I don’t doubt their abilities.

But somewhere in the paper’s priorities, the boring stuff of chasing the council up on day-to-day issues seems to have been forgotten about in a rush to cover hilarious stories of crows attacking blonde women – handing the council a perfect justification for publishing its own newspaper. Greenwich Time is a big problem for anyone who wants to make sure the council does its job properly – but the News Shopper needs to raise its game if its attacks on the paper are to have any credibility.


  1. As shocking as 2 stories on underwear models in the space of a year and an interview with a pop star on a website’s entertainment section might be, I’m sure most papers refrain from publishing something which is wholly untrue.

    Unfortunately that can’t be said for your own most recent act of churnalism

    Your process for this story seems to have been – a) read someone else’s blog. b)Don’t check any of the things it says (which are untrue). c) Write your own, longer version complete with speculation about the untrue facts. d) Put it on your website.

    The result? A story which is the exact opposite of the truth. Perhaps you should have ‘hit the phones’ on that one. A call to the council planning department would have taken all of 30 seconds.

  2. Hello Plone.

    Interesting you’ve taken my observation about underwear models to heart, but not the News Shopper’s reporting of Greenwich Council. I’m not paid to write this blog, it’s a series of personal observations which may get punctuated with the odd piece of news. The News Shopper is staffed by many more people than this blog is, and they are paid money, too.

    I’m not quite sure where studying a planning application and highlighting some of it on a blog is “churnalism” – especially as much of this very local stuff is collaborative, but never mind. Perhaps if you’re so keen to defend the News Shopper, could you expand how it, with people on the payroll who are meant to be across the Greenwich Park Olympics issue, has covered the same story?

  3. Well of course the point is that you didn’t study the planning application otherwise you wouldn’t have got it so badly wrong. You simply copied another blog’s mistake. That seems to me to be churnalism.

    I’m not interested in defending the News Shopper or its coverage of Greenwich Park, though I’m sure you could write another meticulously researched blog post about that. I suppose my point was really that, before you write one of your journalism lectures, perhaps you should get your own house in order. There are lots of blogs around criticising newspapers. That’s no bad thing. It’s just a pity when they don’t set themselves the same high standards.

  4. If you’re not interested in defending the News Shopper, why are you, er, here?

    I also don’t see where I went badly wrong, or “copied another website’s mistake”. The Greenwich Phantom mentioned something in passing, I picked it up and ran with it, highlighting that a planning application was out there, and people could look at it, and that it wasn’t immediately clear from an initial reading of the documents whether LOCOG were trying to wriggle out of planning conditions or whether or not they’d satisfied them. Could I have given LOCOG a call? Yes. But instead I merely wanted to alert people to the fact that this was out there, and may revisit this at another time.

    Incidentally, “churnalism” is when journalists rely solely on press releases or wire copy, as in the Charlton Lido example I gave. Local blogs do tend to take stories from each other and push them on further – it’s the nature of blogging. It’s a shame that those who are so keen to defend the desperate state of local media in this area (and south London as a whole, considering Onionbagblog’s run-ins with the SLP) don’t learn from that – we could all do a better job if we worked collaboratively. People who write blogs aren’t the enemy, like you seem to think.

  5. @Plone This is the modern interweb, not a top down dinosaur model for publishing. Communities share ideas, collaborate and try and find what is happening around their local patch, rather than being dictated to twice a week in grubby print.

    It’s not journalism, and thank heavens for that. Hyperlocal bloggers are passionate about their patch, and put in the effort to try and improve their community, rather than hack out copy for financial gain.

    It is through this very informal online and offline networks that some of the stories are picked up, having been neglected by journos who are sometimes asleep on their patch.

    It’s a welcoming environment – join the conversation and you may find it enlightening.

  6. Would ‘Plone’ happen to be a journalist by profession, do you think? This would be unfortunate – you see we know Darryl’s name, so why not set yourself the same high standards and tell us whether you are and which news organisation you work for. Then we can give your output a quick check for churnalism and dodgy research, eh?

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