Is the clock really ticking for Greenwich Time?

What ho, it’s the Telegraph

Town halls are to be banned from their own publishing weekly freesheets which are threatening to put local newspapers out of business, The Daily Telegraph can disclose.

Eric Pickles, the Local Government secretary, said he wanted to axe “the weekly town hall Pravdas” to ensure a healthy independent local press can scrutinise councils.

Campaigners said the move would save councils tens of millions of pounds a year, and also help local news organisations by removing a taxpayer-funded local rival.

Oh really? Trouble is, nowhere in the copy is there a quote from Mr Pickles explicitly saying he will actually get rid of them. But what he does say is

“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.”

Which isn’t the same as actually taking an axe to them. We’ve been here before – a year ago the old government pondered restrictions on them. And while Labour-run Greenwich Council finds Greenwich Time a useful tool to control the local news agenda, Conservative-run Hammersmith & Fulham finds H&F News just as handy. So it’s actually unclear quite what he means. (And, indeed, an hour after I published this, I heard London Assembly Tory and Barnet councillor Brian Coleman on LBC, referring to Pickles’ comments as “another diktat” from government onto local councils.)

But some kind of action on them is likely. Down at Woolwich Town Hall, a change in the air has already been noted. Greenwich Time readers may have noticed the post-election issues have yet to feature a front page shot of the council leader or any other member of his cabinet, and some of the overt propaganda – on crime, the environment and housing – has been toned down. But stories unflattering to local institutions – like the campaign to save the music college at East Greenwich Library – still won’t feature, and none of this stops the council arranging its media relations to favour Greenwich Time over real local newspapers or other outlets.

Eric Pickles’ attack on “town hall Pravdas” isn’t going to do much to help the likes of the Mercury and News Shopper either. Council newspapers are an easy scapegoat for years of failings caused by cutbacks at those titles which will be very hard to reverse. Dan Sabbagh at Beehive City hits the nail on the head.

The easy part is to agree that council owned newspapers are a bad idea. A council owned title is always going to struggle to fearlessly interrogate what the council is up to. But if the Pickles plan actually bites, it won’t solve most of the problems faced by the local press.

For years local newspapers were run unashamedly for profit, generating margins in some cases of in excess of 30 per cent. Investment in journalism was reduced in the good times (for those who remember the 1990s)… the situation is serious now. Advertising, on which so many local titles now rely, remains subdued. Locality, which was once the principle defining feature of community, is no longer so relevant in the era of Facebook, Twitter and virtual community.

Against such a bleak background, and this bluster from the new government, there’s little incentive for local newspapers to raise their game, as I’ve argued is so desperately needed in this area. The next few months will probably see further developments, but somehow I doubt we’ll be seeing a “Save your Greenwich Time” campaign. Spool forward to a year from now, and I suspect we’ll be in much the same situation as now.


  1. A difficult to administer, but interesting idea could be to require local councils to scrap their Pravdas’ but then to spend a set figure each year on publicity within their local media.

    (how you define local media to be debated, and how you do this in an area that lacks local media could be problematic)

    In turn, the recipients of the tax payers largess are equally required to devote a minimum amount of independent coverage to council activities.

    That way the council can get its message across via adverts or dedicated advertorial pages, while the democratic accountability is also maintained.

  2. Could be a smart idea. But could lead to accusations of conflict of interest if the ‘independent’ media is practically reliant on local Government ad spend.

    Perhaps central Government could retain a small portion of cash and hand out to big media groups. But then you need costly watchdogs and pricey Quangos…

  3. I’d prefer an independent body handing out sums to anyone who could do it. Handing out cash to big media groups is just going to have the same effect as the current policy of doling out cash to big transport groups to run train services – they’ll put shareholders before the public.

  4. Now, if Eric Pickles teamed up with the BBC sports commentator, Caroline Cheese, à la Abbott and Portillo, you could end up with a really silly name for a TV programme….

  5. Don’t forget that all those “big media groups” you deride started life as the small independent publications you love.

    Being small doesn’t mean they wont want to worry about the money going their owner, it just means they might lack the ability to become big.

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