Publication today of research by the Audit Commission which found that local authorities were not wasting or misusing public money through the publication of council-run newspapers might have been expected to draw some kind of line under the issue – instead its now in danger of going in circles.
Responding to the Audit Commission findings David Newell, director of the Newspaper Society, called for the OFT to now examine the ‘question of damaging impact’on local media businesses.
The NS said ‘as expected’the Audit Commission’s report did ‘not address the issue of ‘adverse impact on local newspapers in taking paid advertising to support local authority information sheets’ which the Digital Britain report had identified should be investigated.”
David Newell, director of the Newspaper Society, said: ‘The NS has been aware since last summer that the Audit Commission was only able to look at part of the picture regarding council publications.
‘The Commission’s research has however confirmed that 90 per cent of councils publish a periodical and that 47 per cent of them – some 150 publications in England alone – contain private sector advertising.
‘It is quite wrong that local authorities should compete directly with independent regional and local newspapers for advertising revenue in this way.
‘The Commission’s recommendation, that councils review the value of their spending on communication with the public and their editorial policies to ensure these are politically neutral and publicly defensible, must be implemented.
‘The question of damaging impact on local media should now be referred to the Office of Fair Trading, as announced by the Government in the Commons debate on local newspapers on 13 January, as a matter of urgency.”
But haven’t we been here before? The NS asked the OFT to examine the impact of council publications on local papers in September after the Audit Commission declined Lord Carter’s invitation to look at the issue in full.
The Audit Commission chose to limit the scope of its own inquiry to just assess the value local authorities obtain from their advertising spend (those are the results that have been published today).
The commission’s chief executive Steve Bundred said its expertise did not lend itself to examining the ‘health of local newspapers or examining the impact of specific local authority practices on commercial bodies.”
So the Audit Commission said it couldn’t do it.
But then the OFT said it had no power to control council-run papers either.
So why is the Newspaper Society asking again if the OFT will look at the issue?
It seems to be spurred on by a Commons debate from earlier this month during which Sion Simon, the minister for creative industries, said the Audit Commission report would trigger action in one form or another:
Simon said: ‘The next step is to present that information to the Office of Fair Trading, perhaps with Ofcom, and ask them to look for potential competition questions on the impact for the paid-for newspaper market.”
But Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards has also previously said that his organisation did not cover this area and, according to Greenslade, a spokeswoman at the department of culture, media and sport was anxious to point out that Simon’s statement was not a pledge. It was “an option.”
Last week, Trinity Mirror chief executive Sly Bailey re-entered the debate by hitting out at council-run newspapers as “mini Pravdas” and “propaganda dressed up as journalism. They should be stopped,” she said, singling out the controversial paper run by Hammersmith & Fulham council in west London.
It’s a worthy contention but there is nothing particularly new in it.
Bailey got on the front foot again today, calling the Audit Commission’s involvement “a complete waste of time”.
She said: ‘It was obvious they were the wrong body to assess competition in the local media market or the impact of local activities on commercial entities. In some cases council newspapers are using tax-payers’ money to compete directly with the independent free press.
“The government should stop trying to pass the buck to bodies that cannot tackle the core issues and must take direct action and intervene immediately before it is too late for some local newspapers.”
All of which begs the question: How much further have we gone on the issue since Digital Britain suggesting that council-run newspapers were an issue that needed to be investigated?
Between the Government, the OFT, the Audit Commission and Ofcom it doesn’t seem that any headway has yet been made.