'Council adverts change could harm local democracy'

Moving local authority notices away from regional newspapers towards council-owned titles risks seriously “undermining” the regional press, the Newspaper Society has warned Cabinet Office minister Liam Byrne.

In a letter sent to Byrne last week, seen by Press Gazette, the regional newspaper trade body argues that proposed changes to planning law that would allow local councils to pull statutory notices from their local paper would undermine public trust and damage the industry’s revenue model.

The Cabinet Office produced a report in 2007 which found that the mandatory requirement for statutory notices to be published in the local press was not necessarily the best way to ensure “community involvement”.

An independent review of planning applications, published late last year, also recommended that local authorities should be free to choose where to place the notices – opening up the possibility of them only being published on councils’ own websites or newsletters.

Newspaper Society director David Newall said in his letter to Byrne: “We would question whether the Government would want to see the role of local newspapers, currently facing real challenges in the face of the severe economic and advertising downturn, further undermined by the very bodies which are charged with helping to support local businesses.

“Not only would councils be encouraged to rely on cheaper but less effective information channels, undermining the public’s right to know, such a move would further damage the local media industry, cutting off an important revenue stream at a critical time when it is tackling some of the worst commercial conditions in memory.”

The Newspaper Society, which represents 1,300 newspapers, has also warned that removing the mandatory requirement for local authorities to publish notices in newspapers could lead to a “more secretive, less open government”.

It said it was possible that a council might deliberately decide not to post certain controversial notices in the local newspaper, preferring instead to hide them on the council’s own website, away from the public gaze.

‘Biased perspective’

The group said it was deeply concerned by the growth of local authority newspaper and TV channels offering “independent” local news and competing with established regional newspapers.

It said these outlets posed as big a threat to the regional press as the BBC’s proposed expansion into local online video, which was blocked by the BBC Trust last year after a fierce campaign.

“We are pointing out that all those in government who voiced concern about the BBC Local plans should bear in mind that local authorities are in danger of inflicting very similar damage to the industry with their publicly-funded competition for third party advertising revenues on council publications and websites and the removal of public sector advertising,” Newall said.

“We question whether such platforms, funded by costly council PR operations, designed to set the news agenda and inevitably offering a biased perspective on local news, are an appropriate use of public funds,’Newall said in his letter to the minister.

“Our concern centres on the more frequent publications – fortnightly or weekly council newspapers or magazines – as well as those websites and broadcast services which compete for readers and advertisers with independent local media.”

In its letter to Byrne, the Newspaper Society included examples of some of the local authority publications that had produced media packs encouraging local advertisers to use them.

The Hammersmith and Fulham News in London claimed “more than DOUBLE the readers [of] our nearest competitor”. The East Riding News said it was “highly competitive on advertising rates and unbeatable on coverage”.

And East End Life, funded by Tower Hamlets Council in London, said it was distributed “to more than 75,000 homes and businesses across the borough every week”.

Copies of the Newspaper Society letter have also been sent to culture secretary Andy Burnham and communications minister Stephen Carter, who has launched an industry-wide consultation on his interim Digital Britain report.

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