Tower Hamlets Council has defended itself amid claims it is creating unfair competition for local newspapers by publishing a weekly title that ‘masquerades’as an independent local newspaper. The council has estimated that its paper, East End Life, costs £350,000 a year to run. The title employs seven people and carries hard-news stories and court reports as well as restaurant reviews. Three of the members of staff are trained journalists including editor Laraine Clay. It is the only local authority newspaper in the country to be published weekly and distributes nearly 100,000 copies in the borough.
The Archant-owned East London Advertiser last week launched a campaign against the title with the front-page headline ‘Don’t waste our money”.
Advertiser editor Malcolm Starbrook said: ‘There is no problem with competition, as long as it is on a level playing field, that it is open and above board. The council’s paper is not equal competition – it is heavily subsidised and has hardly any financial constraints. ‘You have a newspaper that doesn’t have a profit and loss statement, no publicly audited liability and is increasingly going after the same advertising market that we do. ‘It exists to promote the cause of the ruling Labour Party in the borough. ‘The cost of the newspaper is diverting the cash that could be spent on taxpayers of Tower Hamlets – one of the most deprived boroughs in London.’In a letter to the Advertiser, deputy council leader Siraj Islam said: ‘East End Life is not ‘an organ of the Labour Party’ or any party. Under the Local Government Act 1986, it is illegal for councils to issue communications which may affect public support for a political party. ‘Tower Hamlets Council has never received any complaint based on a breach of this section of the Act.’ Labour has a one-seat majority on Tower Hamlets Council and it is understood opposition parties are urging for the council paper to be scrapped. Archant is now threatening to report the paper to the Office of Fair Trading with the backing of the Newspaper Society.
East End Life claims it saves £1.5 million a year on publicity and advertising costs which would normally go elsewhere, but Starbrook has rubbished the estimate. He said: ‘If the council split its annual advertising costs between the Advertiser and the Surma newspaper then it would be buying around 40 pages of advertising in our paper alone each week [to reach the £1.5m figure]. I don’t see many councils spending that much on advertising.’The Advertiser claimed the council paper is now looking to expand ‘massively’with the help of extra advertising revenue, although East End Life claims there are no plans for significant expansion – only a redesign ‘at no extra cost to the taxpayer”.