Greenwich Council refused an approach from the owner of the Mercury and South London Press newspapers to take over its controversial weekly freesheet Greenwich Time, it’s emerged – and is being accused of misleading its own councillors about the offer.
The offer, made three years ago, is at the centre of a row between the publisher and the council over figures used by Greenwich leader Denise Hyland to justify continuing with the newspaper, one of only two in the country that are published weekly.
It comes as Greenwich Council is defending the paper against new laws brought in by the coalition government, with communities secretary Eric Pickles calling it “propaganda on the rates”.
Before GT went weekly, it had a long-standing distribution arrangement with the Mercury, which is London’s oldest local paper and is run as a sister paper to its Tindle Newspapers stablemate, the South London Press.
Greenwich claims it saves money by publishing GT weekly as it can place public notices – for planning, road closures, and the like – there without having to pay a third party for advertising.
But a letter from SLP managing director Peter Edwards to Hyland, sent earlier this month, claims the council presented “inaccurate data” when justifying this in a council debate in June, which saw councillors vote down an anti-GT motion from the Conservatives.
Greenwich claimed advertising in the Mercury would cost it £1.37m per year – but Edwards says he told council officers in a presentation that the council would only pay 55% of that sum, while the Mercury would also increase its distribution to 90% of the borough.
“We would also establish a channel on the Mercury website to carry notices, online videos and interviews, plus video streaming of open council meetings, all of this within the price quoted,” he added.
“In short, we would ensure every Greenwich resident had full and unfettered access to council messages.
“I am certain that if your meeting on 25th June were in full possession of all the facts it may have reached a different conclusion.”
In response, Hyland claims councillors already had “access to the full range of information you have provided”. But this information was only shared with cabinet members at the time, and not with the full council. While the council admitted in July 2011 that talks had been held with publishers, the details were not shared beyond the cabinet.
She added that the SLP/Mercury package would have “cost the council more for less” and would have still resulted “in an increase in expenditure”.
In addition, Hyland said the SLP’s offer would not have matched GT’s distribution, and could leave the council open to “a potential reputational risk as our adverts may appear alongside those for adult service providers and chat lines”.
(The sex trade ads are an Achilles heel for the SLP when it comes to dealing with local councils – some years ago, Lambeth withdrew its ads from the SLP in protest. After a spell running a GT-style fortnightly, Lambeth Life, Lambeth took its ads to an independent, Southwark Newspaper, which now produces a weekly Lambeth Weekender featuring four pages of council news plus public notices.)
After the Mercury/SLP offer was rebuffed in 2011, Tindle Newspapers took on a different strategy to push the Mercury, de-emphasising free deliveries in Greenwich borough in favour of creating paid-for micro-editions on sale in newsagents in west Greenwich, Charlton and Blackheath – the first paid-for papers to serve the areas for three decades.
More recently, Greenwich Council has come out fighting to defend Greenwich Time, which the Government believes it has now outlawed.
“I do not understand on what basis the Secretary of State considers that the council’s publicity is not even-handed or objective,” chief executive Mary Ney, whose job is supposed to be politically-neutral, wrote on 29 April in response to a warning from Pickles that he was considering action.
“This is a serious allegation and I am entitled to understand on what basis it is being made.”
Greenwich Council’s full response, obtained by this website under the Freedom of Information Act, lays into critics of Greenwich Time, essentially implying they do not represent the views of the people of the borough as “half are active in local politics”. “The objectiveness of their submissions has to be questioned,” it adds.
If Greenwich Time is axed, it claims, it will be “on the decision of a single minister, based upon the representations of 8 people out of a borough population of 264,000”.
It also claims that Greenwich Time supports the local newspaper industry as it is printed at Trinity Mirror’s presses in Watford, that Greenwich borough has “a strong local newspaper market”, and that it has “given extensive coverage to the Mayor of London”, and lists the (rare) occasions that opposition councillors are featured in it.
But it misses out the fact that its “rigorous sign-off process” includes the sign-off from the council leader, as admitted by Mary Ney last year, while the council’s sums still don’t take into account the time council staff spend on Greenwich Time.
The council’s response also included a dossier of notes of support from various figures, including a bizarre letter from someone at the Greenwich Islamic Centre in Plumstead which hopes the Government will change its mind so “the residents of the borough can enjoy their favourite weekly newspaper”.
Another respondent claims “it is a very balanced publication which does not demonstrate political bias in any way”, while the council response quotes another individual as claiming it runs “fact-based community editorial”.
One response backing GT comes from Steve Nelson of the South East London Chamber of Commerce, who’s regularly invited to the council’s mayor-making jollies at the Royal Naval College and is a trustee of council charity Greenwich Starting Blocks, which features regularly in the paper.
Looking through the responses, with names redacted, it seems that those who appear in Greenwich Time support it, and those who don’t are against it.
Which, in a nutshell, is the problem with Greenwich Time. Just as the Evening Standard has ceased to be a reliable news source because it contains little criticism of mayor Boris Johnson, Greenwich Time is similarly unreliable because it contains little criticism of Greenwich Council. And only one of those two titles is paid for by council taxpayers.
Whatever the failings of this area’s local media, the fact that we’re paying for a weekly paper which delivers just one side of the story is a big problem. And after six years of it, it’s far from certain that a weekly propaganda rag is even an effective communication strategy for the council anyway – how many go straight in the recycling? Simply barking out instructions on a dead bit of tree simply doesn’t cut it these days.
If Greenwich Time goes, the council’s communications and engagement policy will have to be rethought. And a deal with someone will have to be done, be it with the Mercury/SLP or a competitor, for those public notices.
Like alcoholics contemplating a future off the booze, a future without Greenwich Time is one the council leadership simply doesn’t want to contemplate.
Will Eric Pickles take the bottle off them? We’ll have to wait and see.