Local councils are to face a crackdown on the publication of free newspapers and magazines which threaten the viability of independent local press, it was announced last night.
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said he was determined to stop council taxpayers’ money being spent on “frivolous town hall propaganda papers” at a time when many local papers were struggling to survive.
Under proposed new Government rules, councils will be banned from publishing newspapers in direct competition to local press.
Publication will be limited to just four times a year and content will be restricted to factual material relating directly to council services and not comment or commentary.
Councils will also be prevented from using taxpayers’ money to lobby central government through private sector lobbying firms and publicity stalls at party conferences.
“An independent local press is an essential part of our open democracy, helping local people scrutinise and hold elected councillors to account,” Pickles said.
“The rules around council publicity have been too weak for too long allowing public money to be spent on frivolous town hall propaganda papers that have left many local newspapers looking over the abyss – weakening our free press – or to use ‘hired-gun’ lobbyists that operate in the shadows to bulldoze special interests through.
“The proposals I am publishing today will close off these inappropriate practices and make sure that councils focus taxpayers’ money on where it should be spent – protecting frontline services.”
The writing seemed to be on the wall for council-run papers after the General Election in May when Pickles questioned the need for local authority papers to carry certain editorial unrelated to local authority activities and reasserted a commitment made in opposition to address concerns about their commercial impact.
A month later in June, Pickles vowed to clamp down on ‘town hall Pravdas’by tightening the rules governing council-run newspapers that compete with independent local newspapers for revenue and readership.
That move was welcomed by the Newspaper Society as a way to ensure a robust independent local press could continue to scrutinise the activities of local councils.
A spokesman for the Local Government Association said yesterday local authority newsletters were intended to keep residents informed about what their council was doing.
“Most council publications are only distributed a handful of times a year and are not competitors for advertising revenue,” the spokesman said.
“Whether it is by providing a number to report nuisance neighbours, letting them know what time the library is open or when the bins will be collected, only council publications can keep residents fully informed about the services on offer where they live.
“Councils want to see a successful and vibrant local media. It is essential for local democracy that the workings of town halls are scrutinised and elected representatives held to account.”