Court of Appeal rules London council must stop publishing fortnightly newsletter

A row between Hackney council and two local papers has sparked debate around whether council-owned media puts unfair competition on newspapers that rely on advertising.

The council ignored government advice to stop publishing Hackney Today (pictured), an eight-year-old publication that has delivered more than 100,000 copies to every home and business in the east London borough.

In 2011, the Government brought in a code of recommended practice that advised councils should publish newsletters or newspapers no more than four times a year.

But Hackney continued to publish its paper fortnightly paper, claiming it was the "most cost-effective way of getting information out to residents".

The council was ordered to cease publication in April 2018 after new powers were brought in by the secretary of state for communities and local government.

It fought the directive but lost a judicial review in May and requested the right to appeal but this was rejected by Court of Appeal judges last week.

The area is covered by the weekly Hackney Gazette, owned by regional publisher Archant, and independent monthly the Hackney Citizen. Both editors welcomed the decision.

Hackney Citizen editor-in-chief Keith Magnum said: "We’ve always been totally free in print and online, but advertising revenues are falling. Our high-quality journalism is produced by a very small team on a shoestring budget."

"The fact that we are no longer forced to compete for advertising with a taxpayer-subsidised, so-called fortnightly freesheet is welcome news."

Hackney Gazette editor Ramzy Alwakeel described the council freesheet as a "significant obstruction to genuine local newspapers – not just by taking away advertising, but perhaps more significantly by fooling time-pressed readers into thinking they’ve already had their local news".

However, chair of the CIPR Local Public Services Group Mandy Pearse said the Government should listen and learn more from the innovative PR practice in local government, instead of telling councils how to communicate with their citizens.

"No credible evidence was ever produced by the newspaper industry to show that council publications hit their advertising revenue," she added. "Each community is unique and local government PR professionals know best how to reach their citizens."

Mayor of Hackney Philip Glanville described the decision as disappointing and said the council was considering how it can continue to keep the borough’s communities informed of services and opportunities available to them in a cost-effective way that complies with the Government’s legal direction.

He added: "As well as saving the Council tens of thousands of pounds by not having to pay to advertise statutory notices in the local press, it contains different editorial content to local newspapers, and has been invaluable to the council in supporting people during austerity."

Glanville said the council will now have to divert tens of thousands of pounds away from local services and towards paying for notices in a local newspaper where they will be seen by far fewer people.

A Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesperson simply said: "The Court of Appeal’s decision will ensure independent, local newspapers are not subject to unfair competition from councils."

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