The row over lucrative advertising deals between councils and local newspapers escalated yesterday when Lambeth Council was accused of ‘cheating the system’in its £1m contract with Southwark News Ltd.
The deal will see the company extend circulation of its Weekender title – in which it will publish statutory notices, advertising and advertorial from the council – beyond Southwark and into neighbouring Lambeth.
Speaking on the BBC’s Politics Show on Sunday, communities and local government minister Bob Neill said it was an example of a council deliberately flouting guidelines and wasting taxpayers’ money – and amounted to ‘party political propaganda on the rates”.
He said: ‘The truth is Lambeth [council] don’t like their local newspaper because it seems to disagree with the council, so they’re trying to set up a rival and that’s what we think is cheating on the system with public money.’
Neill described advertorials as a ‘dubious process’because they were the ‘sort of thing where the council is putting out its own storyline and dressing it up as if this is independent journalism”.
He also warned: ‘If councils were to continue to abuse that fair approach then obviously we will think again about the appropriate level of sanctions.”
Southwark News managing director Kevin Quinn also appeared on the programme and defended the deal.
He said: “They [Lambeth Council] have got certain strategies that they are trying to do as a council to deal with certain issues within the borough, and as a newspaper of course we want to know about those issue and we are going to meet with them.
‘Every newspaper in the country meets with the head of the [council] press office, sits down and talks about what their issues are. There is a relationship there.”
Lambeth Council leader Steve Reed insisted that he would prefer if the authority did not have to spend thousands of pounds publishing statutory notices in newspapers – but claimed it had no choice.
‘What [Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government] Eric Pickles should be bothered about is why he is forcing councils up and down the country to waste millions of pounds putting statutory advertising in print publications when we can do it in online for almost nothing except he won’t let us,’he said.
The show also discussed a similar deal signed between Hammersmith and Fulham Council and local weekly paper the Fulham & Hammersmith Chronicle.
Labour MP for Hammersmith and Shadow Justice Minister Andy Slaughter – who last week filed a formal complaint over the deal with the department for communities and local government – said: ‘What I object to about the latest scheme is that they are effectively corrupting the local press.
‘The local press didn’t come to them and say put your editorial in our paper. That is almost unheard of. They did that to try and get around these rules. They have breached at least four provisions of the code and that’s why I’ve made this complaint.”
He went on: ‘I’m very sympathetic to the Fulham Chronicle, which has got a 100-year history of being a good independent newspaper – this lot [Hammersmith and Fulham Council] tried to close it down by producing their own newspaper undercutting the advertising. When the government stopped them doing that, they’re now trying to buy the Chronicle.’
Conservative council leader Greg Smith said the new arrangement allowed the council to save thousands of pounds in advertising costs each year.
He also produced a copy of the latest edition of the newspaper which carried the front-page headline:’A slap in the face for council”, and dismissed Slaughter’s claims as ‘just flabbergasting”, adding: ‘To try and suggest that we have somehow corrupted the editorial line of the Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle is farcical.”
The Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle has consistently denied claims that its editorial content had been compromised as a result of the deal.
In a statement last week editor Adrian Seal said: ‘We take 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.
‘We always hold public bodies, including the council, to account and report their activities good or bad to the benefit of our readers. Anyone can see that for themselves if they read the Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle on a regular basis.’