Members of a Welsh Assembly inquiry into the future of the media are split over the issue of council-run newspapers.
Divisions among the assembly members means publication of its report into the Welsh media has been delayed until at least next month.
A task and finish group was set up in October to examine the newspaper, television, radio and online industries in response to widespread cutbacks over the past four years.
A report in yesterday’s Western Mail said the split over so-called ‘town hall Pravdas’ could even see the inquiry reopened and publication of its final report pushed back beyond May.
Ken Skates, the Labour AM and former journalist who chairs the group, is reportedly keen to include concerns over council-run titles in the report and sees them as a threat to the local press.
But another member of the group, Liberal Democrat AM and Swansea councillor Peter Black, supports the right of councils to publish their own newspapers.
Plaid Cymru AM Bethan Jenkins, who also sits on the group, confirmed the split to the Western Mail.
‘The problem is that we don’t have sufficient evidence. Ken only started asking questions on this issue halfway through the process,” she said.
‘That was my concern, because obviously any recommendation we make has to be reflective of what people said.
‘I would tend towards saying we should have taken evidence from the WLGA [Welsh Local Government Association] if we’re going to make a recommendation one way or another.
‘I’m sort of in between, really, in the sense that we could have perhaps taken more evidence before making the firm decision.”
Black believes that because the issue was not included in the task and finish group’s original remit and no evidence was taken on the matter, the inquiry should be reopened and interested parties invited to give evidence.
He said: ‘Councils should be in the business of informing their residents of what’s going on in the local area, providing that a newspaper isn’t abused to promote political viewpoints or promote individuals.
‘It’s a perfectly legitimate activity for a local council to undertake and it can actually save the council taxpayers money by incorporating advertising which otherwise would cost a fortune.
‘And for that reason I think that council newspapers do have a place if they’re done in that way.”
In September 2010 the Government’s Communities Secretary Eric Pickles announced a crackdown on councils publishing free newspapers and magazines, which he said threatened the viability of an independent local press.
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.
The Government later issued a code prohibiting councils from publishing papers more frequently than every quarter, but this has been ignored by several UK councils including Tower Hamlets and Greenwich, which continued to publish weekly newspapers.
Swansea City Council, where Black is a councillor, publishes a bi-monthly title called the Swansea Leader.