The Government is looking into claims that a £75,000 advertising deal between a London newspaper and a local council breaches a publicity code brought in earlier this year to prevent the rise of so-called ‘town hall Pravdas’.
In April, free weekly title the Fulham & Hammersmith Chronicle signed a deal with Hammersmith and Fulham Council in which it agreed to carry statutory notices, display and recruitment advertising, and advertorials.
Labour MP for Hammersmith and Shadow Justice Minister Andy Slaughter believes the arrangement breaches the code of practice on local authority publicity introduced in January – and has taken his case to the Minister for Communities and Local Government.
Slaughter has sent the minister several examples from the newspaper which he claims are ‘clearly not identified as advertising’and ’emulates commercial newspaper in both style and content”.
He also claimed guidelines on the frequency of publication were being breached because council advertorials were appearing every week instead of every quarter.
Slaughter has also cited a regular column that appears in the Chronicle in support of the council’s campaign against the Thames Tunnel, which he claimed was an example of ‘the council’s large advertising and communications contract impacting editorial independence”.
A spokesperson for the Department of Communities and Local Government said: “Councils need to give due diligence to their communications operation and make sure every effort has been made to focus taxpayers’ money to where it should be spent – protecting frontline services.
“The Government has raised strong concerns over the frequency of council papers, politically contentious advertising and use of lobbyists.
The new ‘publicity code’ for English councils tightens up the rules to protect the use of taxpayers’ money being spent inappropriately and ensures that council publicity is “lawful, cost effective, objective, even-handed and appropriate.”
The Department of Communities and Local Government is now investgating whether a breach of the code took place.
The Chronicle has come under fire from Shepherd’s Bush blogger Chris Underwood – who first revealed Slaughter’s complaint on his website shepherds-bush.blogspot.com yesterday.
Underwood said there had been a lack of critical content in its coverage and that it had also ‘given up any pretence of being independent”.
He also accused the newspaper of censoring Slaughter’s regular column in the newspaper.
Responding to those claims, editor Adrian Seal said the newspaper takes ‘very seriously our role as an independent community newspaper. Our reporting team are clear they report without fear or favour in the interests of the community we serve”.
The council said that it had no choice but to place statutory notices and other advertising in the Chronicle as it was the only local newspaper left in the borough, and said that rather than publishing propaganda, it was publishing ‘public information about consultations, road closures, services changes and events that we have a duty to share with residents.
‘The council has no say on what news stories the paper prints and any reasonable person only needs to read a few recent editions to see that they are not always positive about the council.”