I didn’t get around to this last week – the government’s guidelines on council newspapers which, in theory, should ban the likes of Greenwich Time from being published, got parliamentary approval. Theoretically, it’s bad news for Greenwich Time, the weekly puff sheet which trumpets the council’s good deeds but keeps us in the dark about everything else. At least that’s what the News Shopper thinks.
But this week’s issue will still thump onto doormats across the borough, and I’m sure next week’s will, too. Unfortunately for Greenwich Time’s critics, the guidelines have very little legal force – they’re just guidelines. A lot of other councils have decided they can’t be bothered with the hassle – Lambeth’s has gone, Lewisham has decided to run a monthly e-mail instead.
But Greenwich has invested a lot into GT, which is the focus of the council’s entire communications strategy. If a council department needs publicity, a few column inches in GT and something on the council website are usually deemed sufficient to do the job. The rest of the local media – and even national media like the BBC – is bypassed, unless there’s a big launch on. Without GT, the council would be left very exposed indeed.
But, as discussed here many times before, the idea that there’s a thriving local newspaper scene waiting to take up the slack is laughable. A Greenwich Council press release about housing benefit would have to compete with one from Lewisham or Bexley to appear in the same paper.
So, what happens next? If you think Greenwich Time is a flagrant abuse of council tax payers’ money, you now have the right to complain to the district auditor. Her name is Sue Exton, and she works for the Audit Commission at Millbank. That’s the same Audit Commission that Eric Pickles wants to abolish. And that’s the same Eric Pickles that has brought this code in. Can you see where this is starting to unravel?
The district auditor will decide whether or not a council newspaper is an appropriate use of council funds. Greenwich Council has always argued that it is, claiming the sale of advertising means GT is close to covering its costs. Value for money, plus the lack of suitable alternative media, would be valid grounds for an argument. Were the district auditor to agree with Greenwich Council, it would no doubt be hugely embarrassing for the government.
So, I wonder – is Greenwich waiting for a legal challenge, confident it can win? In the coming weeks, we’ll get our answer.