This week’s edition of Greenwich Council’s weekly newspaper Greenwich Time thumped onto my doormat this morning – bearing the urgent news that Tinie Tempah, Plumstead’s finest musical export since Shampoo, won two Brit Awards last week. Marvellous.
But inside there’s the first stirrings of a campaign. Yes, the paper that “campaigns for a greater Greenwich” is now campaigning for its future. Eric Pickles’ new rules could “spell the end of GT features like Charlton Athletic match reports in a move to ensure councils just publicise stories relating to council functions”.
Despite the weakness of the borough’s local media, it’s debatable whether I need the council to tell me how crap the Addicks were on Saturday (I saw it for myself, thanks), and while “local boy done good” stories are true local paper staples, it’s a bit cheeky of the council to jump on the Tinie Tempah bandwagon by using an agency photo of him at the Brits together with a half-arsed review of an event everyone will have already read about in other papers or on the web. No interview with the ex-Abbey Wood School pupil? What’s the point?
Council leader Chris Roberts puts the case for keeping one of Britain’s two council weeklies succinctly – using the argument the council’s always used, that by attracting third party advertising – and competing with the local freesheets – the paper effectively pays for itself.
“Greenwich Time provides the council with a cheap and effective way to communicate with residents and keep them informed about local services.
The cost of Greenwich Time is a moot point – many council staff will deal with the paper as part of their jobs dealing with other matters. For example, GT’s overseen by the council’s communications department. Is the, say, 15 hours a week someone might spend on GT as part of a wider job accounted for? What about the council’s legal department – if an in-house lawyer has to spend two hours a week checking each issue through, is that accounted for? It’s also well known that each issue of Greenwich Time is checked by one Chris Roberts before it gets signed off. How much of his £62,800 allowance goes on him sitting in his office overseeing what’s effectively his own propaganda?
“The council is also required by law to advertise issues like planning applications and changes to traffic schemes. If these were placed in other main local papers it would increase costs by about £1m a year. This is equivalent to a council tax increase of about one per cent yet the other local papers still wouldn’t provide the borough-wide coverage that Greenwich Time does.”
If public notices are such an issue, then why not strike a deal with the Mercury or the News Shopper? Or explore a different model, as is happening in Thurrock or Lambeth? As for coverage, the only “borough-wide coverage” Greenwich Time offers is in distribution, not in editorial, where stories which are inconvenient for the council are missed out altogether.
“Greenwich Council has always supported local newspaper groups, who have been paid to print our paper and at times have delivered it as well.”
This is misleading, since it has nothing to do with the situation now. Greenwich Time’s printing is contracted to Trinity Mirror, which sold the Mercury to Tindle Newspapers in August 2007, nine months before the current weekly incarnation of Greenwich Time was launched. As for deliveries – it is currently delivered by a specialist firm called Letterbox Distribution – which is why it reaches far more homes than other newspapers.
So what’s in this week’s GT which proves it does such a good job in informing the people of the borough of what their council is up to?
Well, on cuts, there’s nothing. Not a word, apart from a passing reference in the “save GT” story.
On the go-ahead for Woolwich Crossrail, it makes the front page, but neglects to mention that while private sector funding for the shell of the station is secure, cash for actually fitting it out is to be confirmed. Berkeley Homes boss Rob Perrins said in the government statement confirming this, which somehow did not make it into Greenwich Time’s story: “There is still much to do to raise funds to ensure it is fully fitted out as an operational station at no net cost to the public purse. I have every hope that this can be achieved.”
And on the closure of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel?
The tunnel did actually reopen at 1pm this afternoon, after a 19-day closure which had gone unreported by the weekly’s two previous editions. The tunnel saga provides a perfect example of how Greenwich Time presents only the news the council wants people to read.
As the only paper with “borough-wide coverage” (thanks to Tindle and Newsquest not delivering the Mercury or the News Shopper properly), it gives the council free reign to promote only its own viewpoint with little in the way for any opposing opinions. That’s a dangerous situation, for despite the success this site and others have had lately (and moves to open up council meetings to the likes of me), our reach is still small compared to the council-backed juggernaut that thunders through the Greenwich news agenda each week.
Still, I imagine the next stage in this will be a page full of grateful GT readers complimenting it on TV listings, match reports, and being cheerier than its rival papers, with maybe a token grumble to make it look balanced. Of course, if the local newspaper owners raised their game, and invested in editorial and distribution, maybe we wouldn’t be in this situation after all. Instead, we’re still lumbered with a propaganda paper and bluster from a government minister. Greenwich Time won’t be going away just yet.