Greenwich Council has finally come clean and admitted its weekly newspaper, Greenwich Time, is signed off by leader Chris Roberts… “to ensure political neutrality and to protect the borough’s reputation”.
Last week, this website revealed how the council’s press office intervened to change the tone of a promotion for the council’s employment agency, despite Roberts denying that any council staff conducted editorial work on the newspaper.
Now council chief executive Mary Ney has admitted she and Roberts scrutinise each edition before it goes to press. The weekly is regularly criticised for its promotion of the council leadership, as well as muscling out commercial competitors.
Following Friday’s story, the council’s opposition leader Spencer Drury emailed Ney asking for clarification of whether council staff did actually conduct editorial work on the paper.
She replied: “It is inconceivable that the council would not sign off each edition of a council publication. This is done by officers including myself and Legal officers as needed, as well as by the Leader. This is to ensure compliance with the code of publicity, to ensure political neutrality and to protect the borough’s reputation.”
Ney also describes the council’s head of media, Stuart Godfrey, as “a client side manager” for GT. The paper is nominally staffed by freelances, although is Greenwich is facing an employment tribunal following the dismissal of chief reporter Peter Cordwell earlier this year.
While it’s been well known within the council for years that Roberts has the final say over Greenwich Time, this is the first time it’s been admitted.
Two months ago, ex-GT designer Graham Tuckwell told the News Shopper that Roberts would not allow stories in the paper “without his absolute say so”.
“Peter [Cordwell] and his team found it increasingly impossible to run any stories without the vetting of the communications team with orders from Roberts,” Tuckwell told the paper.
“Our job now was to deliver the council’s key messages and nothing else.
“Comments from ordinary councillors who were doing great work in their own wards were non-existent and of course there was never a word allowed from the opposition.”
Of course, it goes without saying that the bullying accusations against Chris Roberts, who has referred himself to the council’s standards committee over the notorious “get it through your fucking thick skull” voicemail, have not been mentioned in Greenwich Time.
Ney’s admission now throws a fresh light on the finances of Greenwich Time, because Greenwich has never before owned up to the role of council staff in producing the paper.
So let’s have a proper go at nailing these figures…
According to an answer given at a council meeting in July, Greenwich Time took £403,938 in ad revenue from inside the council, and £254,272 from external advertisers in 2012/13.
In a written response, Chris Roberts claimed: “In 2012/13 had the adverts been placed externally and on the basis of normal page rates, it would have cost an estimated £2.7m. Therefore, in 2012/13, the Council saved over £2.3m in advertising costs as a result of placing adverts in Greenwich Time (GT) compared to the costs it would have incurred by advertising in the two other local newspapers.”
Really? Roberts’ figures look like fantasy, to say the least. Would Greenwich really be placing that many ads in the Mercury or the News Shopper? Particularly as this website understands each council department has to place a certain amount of advertising in GT, presumably to keep the paper’s finances looking decent.
Last week’s GT contained 4 council ads, 3 job ads and various public notices. The public notices have to be advertised somewhere, but if GT didn’t exist, would the job ads have been placed in any other paper? And what about the other council ads?
Would the council really place an ad for its own website in the Mercury or News Shopper? Of course not. But it does in GT to keep the books looking good.
Furthermore, some “external” advertisers are council partners. The only place you’d find ads for the Run to the Beat race, for example, was in Greenwich Time – it was policy not to advertise anywhere else. These ads would, presumably, go elsewhere if GT didn’t exist.
As for the outgoings, a scour through the council’s books shows Greenwich is currently paying Trinity Mirror roughly £4,000 to print each issue, and Greatbach Ltd (Letterbox Distribution) £7,633 for delivery – at 51 issues per year, that’s £593,283 per year.
As for editorial staff? Those editorial and sales freelances cost £206,880.90 last financial year, according to the same written answer from July.
|Income from internal ads||+£403,938|
|Income from external ads||+£254,272|
|Costs of printing||-£204,000|
|2012/13 cost of distribution||-£371,928|
|Freelance editorial and sales staff costs||-£206,881|
|COST OF GREENWICH TIME||– £124,799|
These figures don’t include the time Greenwich Council staff spend on the paper. So let’s have some educated guesses, shall we?
Let’s assume the council pays its head of media £60,000 in total, and he spends a third of his time dealing with Greenwich Time. That’s another £20,000. Five staff work underneath him – let’s say they’re on £40k each in total, and they deal with Greenwich Time for 10% of their time at a conservative estimate. That’s another £20,000.
Now let’s do it with Chris Roberts and the senior officers who will also have input into Greenwich Time. Unlike the guesses above, we have the real figures – Chris Roberts (£62,668), Mary Ney (£190,000), head of legal Russell Power (£116,000) and director of culture, media and sport Katrina Delaney (£125,000). These sums won’t include employers’ national insurance or pension payments. If they spend 5% of their working time dealing with Greenwich Time, that works out at roughly £25,000.
So, if we assume an extra £65,000-worth of time from the council payroll is going into GT, that pushes the loss to nearly £190,000. And if you consider how much the paper is propped up by payments for in-house ads which wouldn’t exist if GT didn’t exist – and what we don’t know is exactly what is charged to each department – then that sum leaps.
Of course, what’s not taken into account is the cost of publishing public notices elsewhere. Yet it surely wouldn’t be beyond the council to come to a deal where a publisher accepts a lower rate on public notices in exchange for the council’s Letterbox distribution deal, which sees GT go through doors the Mercury and the News Shopper gave up on long ago.
All councils need to be able to tell people about services. But we now know we’re paying at least £200,000 each year so Roberts and his allies can promote themselves in Greenwich Time, to the exclusion of all other voices (including his own Labour backbenchers, never mind the opposition Tories). And none of this takes into account whether people even read or take notice of Greenwich Time any more – or whether it’s become a weekly reminder of a council that’s badly lost touch with the people it’s meant to serve.
By admitting Chris Roberts has the final say-so over Greenwich Time, the council’s chief executive has inadvertently done what too many of Roberts’ colleagues are scared of doing – she’s blown the whistle.
Legislation going through Parliament now is likely to see Greenwich Time outlawed in the future. Now the game’s up, will anyone put Greenwich Time out of its misery before it causes the council – and, potentially, the wider Labour Party – any more embarrassment?