The Scoop

Your good news paper: Council rags keep the faith

Darryl Chamberlain | Friday 4 March, 2011 12:42

Imagine a world of happy children, where nothing ever goes wrong. Of efficient bureaucrats and clean streets, all thanks to the hard work of smiling men in suits.

Welcome to the world of the council newspaper, designed to ensure you think highly of your abritarily-defined chunk of the capital. Some are monthly magazines like Wandsworth’s Brightside, Islington Life, Lewisham Life and The Brent Magazine (which last month offered the chance to win a year’s supply of biscuits).

Others are fortnightly, like Hackney Today, Lambeth Life and The Newham Mag, featuring those beaming kids pictured in West Ham kits outside the Olympic Stadium.

But some councils are keener than others to get their message across – to the anger of communities secretary Eric Pickles, who has declared war on what he calls town hall Pravdas.

In his sights are Tower Hamlets’ East End Life and Greenwich Time, which thump onto residents’ doormats every week.

Both look like real newspapers, but both stick rigidly to the party line. When Greenwich Foot Tunnel was forced to close due to a lift breakdown, Greenwich Time crossed its fingers and trumpeted “Foot tunnel reopens”.

I should declare an interest here, as a local blogger who follows what happens at Greenwich Council. For me, each Monday brings a new game of “what can they get away with this time?” as the council leader manages to get himself into yet another photograph of grinning youngsters.

But it’s not the overt propaganda that matters, it’s the stories that are missed out. The Newham Mag gleefully reports on the government being forced to review cutbacks to school building programmes, but there’s not a word about the cuts the council is having to make itself. You can pick up the cheery Lewisham Life in the borough’s libraries – but it doesn’t report on the council’s plans to close five of them.

Shouldn’t there be an active, fearless local press covering this kind of stuff anyway? There was once, but some councils are holding meetings with empty press benches, as local newspaper barons cut back their operations.

In south-east London, both Lewisham and Greenwich share their two “local” freesheets – leading to very patchy coverage of local affairs.

The publishers say their businesses, already battered by the internet, are being hit by councils competing with them for advertising. But the councils claim their newspapers save them money, with ads helping them cut the cost to taxpayers.

With local papers on their knees, there’s an argument for public funds to be made available to help protect genuine, independent reporting, rather than promoting the work of local politicians.

But instead – and to the anger of councils who see East End Life and Greenwich Time as giving their own publications a bad name – Eric Pickles wants to see all the council papers cut back to four a year.

He has demanded councils make local bloggers welcome in their chambers to report on and film meetings, hoping to encourage a new army of tweeting reporters armed with Flip cameras.

Already, the council papers are largely fading away. Lewisham Life is being cut back, Lambeth Life may go altogether. Tower Hamlets is reviewing the future of East End Life.

But what will take their place? Many local papers are fading away too. One big publisher, Newsquest, is looking for volunteers for redundancy at its London papers, while local blogs still have fairly small readerships.

If you want to find out what your council’s up to – you might just have to go down the town hall and find out yourself. Just don’t forget your video camera.

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Darren Atwater

About this writer

Darren Atwater

Darren is the editor and publisher of Snipe.

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