Opinion: MPs should keep out of local rag debate

MPs were debating what are sometimes called ‘council newspapers’ last week. None was supportive.

At first sight it is easy to see why. Administrations exploit the legislation which forbids party political propaganda on the rates. So long as the rag doesn’t actually say ‘Vote Conservative’ it is usually quite within the letter of the law. So a publication featuring mainly the leader of the council and only positive stories may irritate the opposition (and the voter) but will not cause the monitoring officer to stir.

But this isn’t why it is open season on these publications. Trinity Mirror and other regional publishers have started claiming that council magazines and newspapers are undermining the free local press.

Some MPs seem to have bought this: a cynic may be forgiven for thinking that they are merely trying to improve their local press coverage by denouncing (a) the council – usually a sure fire way of currying support – and (b) their dismal magazines.

The debate in Westminster Hall carefully avoided too many facts. Indeed the Audit Commission report on council periodicals was published only a few days later. This concludes firmly that there is no case to answer.

In particular:

  • While over 90 per cent publish a periodical almost all are published once a month or less frequently (in fact the majority are published quarterly or even less often); and
  • 47 per cent contain private sector advertising – including those with very limited or occasional advertising.

It adds, however, that few periodicals are published sufficiently frequently to be viable media for most local advertising.

Local newspaper owners anyway have a tremendous cheek. The downturn in advertising is, of course, due both to temporary economic conditions and to a permanent change in technology. Property pages, for instance, were once a vital resource for a homebuyer. Now we use Google.

And they haven’t helped themselves. The distribution networks are ropey, with large areas, especially flats, left uncovered in any particular footprint. And the content is sometimes laughably poor: often, ironically, a council press release reprinted without challenge or investigation. Increasingly even local politics is left by the wayside as human interest stories predominate. Readers are bored and councils, obliged to get certain messages out by law, prefer to rely upon their own resources.

Opposition parties meanwhile have long realised that the Letters Page is for geeks and that their chances of a getting a message across are random – or, in too many cases, negligible because of the party political bias of the editor or publisher. We learned to rely on Focus because we could not rely on local papers.

That doesn’t mean that all council publications are a good thing. The Audit Commission warns about editorial content. But those of us who do object to what our local council does know that this is best done at local level and not by MPs whiling away the hours in Westminster.

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