Taking the rap at town halls

LINCOLNSHIRE County Council’s aborted decision to ban staff from advertising in the local paper highlights the delicate relationship existing between local authorities and regional titles.

Most newspaper editors will have experienced a threatened ban on sports staff by their football team in the past few years. But almost as common is an aggravated local authority trying to work out why it keeps giving the local paper many thousands of pounds each month in ad revenue when they keep slagging it off.

The ups and downs in the relationship are as cyclical as the highs and lows in property advertising.

It can depend on the view of the local authority chief exec and pressure from the councillors, who fear it may affect the chances of regaining their seats at election time.

In Lincolnshire, a long-running investigation in the Echo – and by other journalists – resulted in the council leader being jailed for 18 months recently.

Was it a surprise, then, that shortly afterwards staff in the education department were instructed in writing not to advertise in the paper? No. But what was interesting was that they were so cack-handed and blatant about it, leaving them open to a legal challenge.

Most smart authorities know that if they want to punish a paper and remove advertising they should hide behind best value measures and draw up reports showing that they will be saving council tax payers’ money if they advertise in a different format – often their own free publication.

And while this is exasperating for a paper which knows the only reason the decision has been taken is because it has been opposing them on an issue, there’s not much it can do.

If the council can genuinely prove that it can save taxpayers’ money by choosing to advertise in a cheaper medium, that is not only their prerogative – but their duty.

The problem is that even though newspaper sits vac recruitment is extremely expensive – it is often the most effective way of getting any response, which is the whole point.

Day after tomorrow: disaster looms for us all if we were not too careful

Once council chief officers start complaining they’re finding jobs hard to fill because of the lack of candidates replying to an ad, they’re often forced to return, at least in part, with their advertising revenue to the local paper.

In fact, it is not spats between the two which should most worry the ad manager but the councils’ internet sites, which are proving very successful at getting an early response from job candidates – and can be viewed by potentials from well outside a newspaper’s catchment area.

One group of councillors who may well be cursing their local paper are the 24 Labour ones who lost their seats in the recent local elections in Newcastle upon Tyne.

This “Bombshell”, which the Evening Chronicle so succinctly declared, has given the Lib Dems control of the council – in this most red of areas.

The city council, and previous leading Labour group, has had to get used to having a robust paper continually on their case – mainly due to the Chronicle’s political editor Pete Young.

Rather than it being a blatant antiwar vote, it appears the Labour voters switched allegiance after being dismayed by a host of Labour initiatives including education, traffic chaos and a controversial council estate scheme.

Even a disastrously expensive public art display, which managed to drench shoppers with water, has been cited as one of the major irritants.

All these things will have been fairly, but prominently, brought to the voters’ attention over the years by the Chronicle – which is just as well as they won’t have got much coverage in the sort of council-run paper mentioned earlier.

As Chronicle editor Paul Robertson puts it: “We have a constructive relationship with the council but I was not surprised with voters’ reaction, which was based on local issues we’ve been highlighting. “We didn’t tell people how to vote, apart from urging them to use their vote, and not to put a cross by the BNP box.

“Commercially, the council are important, but we would not let that get in the way of the independence of the paper editorially.”

When National Magazine Company boss Duncan Edwards sparked a furore over his Cosmo editor’s departure press release, he defended his position.

It was all sparked by his pointing out that departing editor Lorraine Candy had been “on maternity leave for a significant proportion of the past two years”. The original missive stated that Nina Ahmed (acting editor), had done a wonderful job.

After questioning he added: “Nina Ahmed is a fantastic editor. She has been running that magazine and she has done it twice while Lorraine was away, so we are not concerned about how it’s going to function in the immediate future without her.”

“Immediate” seems to be the operative word here as Edwards took no time at all to appoint Sam Baker to the Cosmo editor job. This must be leaving Ahmed with the feeling that she is clearly not quite fantastic enough.

She is not the first acting editor to be passed over for a top media job and will not be the last.

But both I, and Press Gazette columnist Janice Turner, wondered whether Edwards realised he was in danger of publicly embarrassing her if he chose not to give her the job after describing her in such glowing terms.

It’s tricky dealing with unexpected and unwelcome resignations in our industry, and I suspect this case will be used by HR departments the country over as a useful learning tool.

Disaster film The Day After Tomorrow has been raking it in at the box office, and Private Eye has pointed out that 20th Century Fox, owned by Rupert Murdoch, has used it to plug Fox News and Sky News.

The actor playing UK Sky News correspondent had the poshest voice I have ever heard on a TV broadcast. He made the old Pathé News announcers sound like extras from EastEnders.

Maybe it has escaped US film makers that journalists on the BBC, let alone Sky, are now allowed to sound like The Royle Family and not just their more regal namesakes.

Alison Hastings is a media consultant and trainer and former editor of the Evening Chronicle, Newcastle.

by Alison Hastings

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