Should local councils still have to run long, wordy adverts in local newspapers?

It’s very common to see local councils advertising in local newspapers, and they are often one of the main sources of advertising revenue for the local press. That can cause conflicts over whether there is improper influence at work and also over whether councils should shift money elsewhere, risking plunging the local press into enforced cutbacks in its news coverage as income shrinks.

But there is another question, which is whether many of the adverts are any good – especially those which are text heavy and laden with legal terms required by law. That’s the case that Bristol Council’s Peter Holt has made to PR Week:

We still have to pay for full page adverts on page 40 or 50 of the local paper, lodged between the premium line adverts (Flirt now – fun live chat – choose from ‘domination’, ‘mature’ or ‘fetish’ lines – only 60p per minute from a BT landline).

Not just full page statutory notices, but made up of endless paragraphs of impenetrable legalese.  Not a single map or artist’s impression in sight, and plain English ruled out by statute too.

Seriously Mr Pickles, seriously?  Previous Governments haven’t grasped this nettle before you, but will you? Wouldn’t it make the oft-quoted Mrs Pickles ever-so proud?

A hefty six figures sum in my Council area alone.  Repeated across the whole country, this is many, many millions of pounds of tax-payers’ money wasted.

I don’t want a single local paper to go out of business – least of all in my city.

But if the Government is going to be serious about us all living in the modern age and cutting out waste, especially in frothy areas like council advertising, can we either have some action, or at least a little more up-front plain speaking about this scarcely-hidden, legally-enforced subsidy to newspaper barons?

You can read the full PR Week column from Peter Holt here.

And here’s some question for readers of The Voice, who I suspect are more likely to read those adverts at the back of local newspaper than the typical member of the public. Do you read the adverts? Have you changed your views or plans because of one? Do you think they are well done?

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9 Comments

  • Worse than the obligation to publish statutory notices, in my view, is the cover it gives authorities to produce their own newspapers and magazines. Our own “Hackney Today” features 48 fortnightly pages of puff about the wonderful things the council is doing, political propaganda on behalf of the Labour Party and a couple of pages of notices at the back. It employs five staff but deliberately has no written editorial policy ( it’s been FOI’d) It is not even the worst example I’ve seen.

    I for one would rather subsidise independent local press (in Hackney SNs could go in for about 130k a year) rather than spend half a million pounds on taxpayer-funded propaganda which is slowly killing free local media.

  • Benjamin – One of the reasons that I dislike FoI is that it provides an active disincentive to put things into writing. It doesn’t help much that the Information Commissioner’s decisions are of such a poor quality either.

    On the ads, my problem is not so much that they are published, but rather the legalese that they are usually written in. Either they are open communication channels or they are not – at the moment, they just look like tick-box exercises. By all means give notice, but if money is to be spent it shoud be on notices that people will be able to readily understand.

    The tacit question is how far can councils get away with moving to web only – for the momet I’m not convinced. It also has to be said that, quite bluntly, if the local press were to vanish it would be no great loss in many places.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 17th Mar '11 - 2:57pm

    Surely in this day and age all statutory notices required from local authorities and others could be placed on a single database accessible and searchable from the web. It would be easier for those searching and filing such information.

    If it is considered that local newspapers/post offices or other local facilities need to be kept open for the benefits of communities then they should be subsidised our of general taxation according to an assessment of the benefits derived and with conditions attached to make sure that they deliver what is subsidised. Back door subsidies filling the papers with information that most are not interested in are really just stupid – but of course I suspect the Tories may not want to upset some of their backers (e.g. the Daily Mail group) who just milk the system.

    It is worth noting that EU agricultural subsidies work in a similar fashion with most of the subsidies going to large agricultural producers who do not need the subsidies – but justified on the basis of supporting the smaller artisan farmer who performs a useful social function.

  • I asked Westminster City Council how much they spent on statutory notices of this kind, and they replied that in the last three financial years (2007/08, 2008/09 and 2009/10) it was £65,115, £82,336 & £69,334 respectively, with about half that figure spent on newspaper adverts.

    Part of me thinks that we could just do away with this – as Mark suggests, who really reads them? If they appeared on the council website instead, would the number fall? But a bigger part of me thinks that this money probably helps keep some local papers afloat, and that is of greater importance.

  • Putting these things online in detail seems to be the obvious answer – along with a printed copy on file at local libraries and council offices.

    Many local councils make good use (or at least use) of email and social media to alert local residents of planning and other matters.

    Certainly there is no reason to force councils to pay for newspaper ad space, certainly not in the form and language currently in use and least of all when it gives them an excuse to produce taxpayer-funded propaganda sheets to put them in.

  • Stuart Mitchell 17th Mar '11 - 6:56pm

    Benjamin: “Worse than the obligation to publish statutory notices, in my view, is the cover it gives authorities to produce their own newspapers and magazines.”

    Funny you should say that. Just got home to find the latest “newspaper” from my local (Lib Dem) council on the doormat. Page after page of blatant propaganda about how fabulous the council is; they even boast about how great the new waste collection service is, though it is universally hated in the borough judging by the letters page of our real local newspaper every week for the past six months. Most annoying of all, the paper is twice as thick as usual – a blatant pre-election special if ever there was one.

    While the council fritters money away promoting itself, my sister, who is a teacher in a local school, was telling me yesterday about the latest redundancies in the council education department, and the dreadful effect this will have on her school.

    It’s absolutely outrageous that any council is allowed to publish propaganda at council tax payer’s expense. It should be the parties paying for it.

  • Totally agree. These things are a waste of money whoever runs the council. There are council administrations who cry “Oh but we don’t get a fair hearing from the local press! They’re all Labour/Tory!”

    I don’t doubt that is true – it is widely believed our local paper sacked their editor (or rather the parent company sacked him) because he wanted to be more critical of the Labour council – but it is no excuse for wasting taxpayers’ money.

    Having said which, at least if you have a Lib Dem council they won’t be closing any libraries or SureStart centres and won’t be laying off more staff than they have to to make a political point like Labour councils are!

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