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.
THE BIRDS! 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!
THE BOOBS! 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.
THE BLONDE! 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.