Julia Corkey: In defence of council newspapers

They are routinely dubbed 'town hall Pravdas' or publications in which 'the sun always shines.'

Julia Corkey: The government should 'concentrate on the issues that matter.'
Julia Corkey: The government should 'concentrate on the issues that matter.'

Council publications and newsletters are once again on the endangered list following a Queen’s speech Bill which threatens to clamp down on those which, in the Government’s view, put their tanks on the lawn of the local newspaper.

The principal villains of the piece here are, in the views of the regional newspaper industry, weekly council publications which mimic the style of a newspaper.

The industry says they subvert the role of the local press by borrowing the look and feel of independent journalism while packing the pages with sanitised articles designed to show the local authority in a flattering light.

Some also take paid-for advertising – which in the newspaper industry’s view is increasingly undermining the viability of titles with falling sales and faltering revenue.

My fear is this whole debate is in danger of overheating. On the one hand some media owners believe they are being effectively driven out of business by a parallel newspaper business run from the town hall.

On the other hand, I know some local authority colleagues who believe dwindling sales in their local newspaper market, and the increasing rarity of reporters on the ground covering local government mean that they no option but to self-publish.

There is a sense of grievance in some quarters that local authorities are effectively subsidising loss-making local titles through statutory notices and the requirement to still publish in hard copies despite the changing times.

Both views represent the polarities of an argument where, as so often, truth resides somewhere in the middle. Let me tell you where I stand.

As a starting point, I am a supporter of the local newspaper industry.

The relationship between local papers and councils can be productive, equally it can be bruising: but newspapers play a vital role in scrutinising what councils do and holding authority to account.

Do we need new laws to govern council publications? No is the short answer.

The Government should be looking to reduce the legislative burden for local authorities and businesses and concentrate on the issues that matter.

There is no need to impose new laws that would simply increase bureaucracy.

Councils have a duty to keep people informed about what they are doing and the services available to local people.

If that doesn’t constitute "news" to a local newspaper – and I appreciate on occasions it doesn’t – I think it is entirely legitimate for us to inform residents through some other channel.

Like many other councils, in Westminster we use a quarterly publication to do this.

It is clearly badged as a council publication, and it insults the intelligence of our residents to suggest they cannot separate what is clearly news from the council to news about the council in an independent newspaper.

Julia Corkey is assistant director of comms and strategy, Westminster City Council.

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