The National Union of Journalists has come under fire after giving its backing to council-run newspapers.
Responding to the Government’s plan to limit the publication of newspapers by local authorities to no more than four times a year, NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet said there was “no case at all” for Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to be given statutory power over them.
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She also denied that council newspapers are used to deliver political messages or that they divert advertising revenue from local papers.
But the decision to oppose legislation flies in the face of the position taken by other trade bodies and has angered many journalists.
Malcolm Starbrook, editor-in-chief of Archant London, said: “I am disappointed that they haven’t listened to the arguments that have been going round about this. You have a body there to promote journalists’ interests that is backing a policy that has led to a lot of journalist job losses.
“The role of the NUJ is to support NUJ members but also to support journalism in the round. They might be fulfilling the first of those but they are not supporting the second.”
Chris Wheal, the chair of the NUJ’s professional training committee, said that one of the problems facing the union was the fact it had members in a range of jobs, including working on local authority communication.
“The NUJ has a very broad church,” he said. “It’s got members everywhere but the reality is that I believe the majority of the members of the NUJ would prefer a free and independent press to a state-run one – and that includes the council.
“It has come across as defending the council ‘Pravdas’ against local journalism. That’s the way it comes across whether they meant it that way or not.”
The proposed clampdown is currently being debated in the House of Lords. It seeks to enshrine existing guidance dictating the frequency and content of council publications.
The Newspaper Society and Chartered Institute of Journalism have both backed the proposal.
Amanda Brodie, chair of the CIoJ’s professional practices board, said: “We are astonished that the NUJ has come out against the proposed legislation, which is aimed at supporting local newspapers, and can only help to safeguard journalists’ jobs. This is not a political issue, as the NUJ seems intent to make it.”
The NUJ’s stance has also sparked a heated debate on the Press Gazette website. One commenter said the union had “put itself on the wrong side of the argument”, while another called its decision “disgraceful”.
Responding to the comments, former NUJ president Donnacha DeLong, claimed that council newspapers had no impact on the local press. He blamed “inept management, constant cuts, heavily indebted parent companies, shareholder obligations” and the internet for “killing” local papers.
During the Lords debate, an amendment was proposed by Liberal Democrat Lord Topesought to end the practice of requiring local authorities to publish public notices in local papers.
Both the NUJ and the NS have urged peers to reject the amendment, although the Local Government Association has said it could save town halls £26m a year.