The Conservative leader at Tower Hamlets council has branded as ‘disgraceful’the decision to allow an expansion of the council’s newspaper, which is seen as competing against commercial media in the area.
On 9 February the council was given the green light to continue publishing its paper, East End Life, at an estimated cost of £350,000 a year.
Despite opposition parties’ proposals to bring the paper under more scrutiny, East End Life plans to increase pagination and advertising through a new motoring supplement.
Council Conservative group leader Simon Rouse said: ‘The way the meeting was handled by the Labour group and the decision to allow it to expand was disgraceful. The whole issue of the way East End Life is managed and the refusal of the Labour group to understand how unacceptable it is in terms of taxpayers’ money beggars belief.
‘It blends hard news with council stories in an uncritical way and provides an unblemished gloss on what is happening in the council. It wastes council taxpayers’ money on things that are not central to any local authority’s objectives; it covers TV listings and restaurant reviews. Labour sees this as a way of getting an uncritical message out.
‘The sooner the council wakes up to the fact that it shouldn’t be producing newspapers and should be in the business of producing high-quality public services the better. It has stopped us sending our proposals back to cabinet. We are looking at what we can do which would potentially include taking the issue through for full discussion at a council meeting.’Rouse is demanding an open and transparent cost and benefit analysis that looks at the different options, rather than what he believes was a one-sided debate about expansion at the meeting.
East London Advertiser editor Malcolm Starbrook is looking into whether East End Life is breaching the Local Government Act by promoting Labour group policies.
The Act stipulates that a local authority should not publish material that is likely to influence voting patterns in favour of a particular political party.
Starbrook added: ‘We are now going to look critically to determine how far and often they have broken the Local Government Act. They are obviously driving a coach and horses through the understanding of what the role of the local authority is.’A Tower Hamlets Council spokeswoman said of the meeting: ‘There was a broad range of options put forward at the meeting and a lot of discussion surrounding those options, the final outcome of which was to stand by cabinet’s decision – option one, the development of East End Life.
‘East End Life is not unfair competition. In fact, the Competition Commission, when assessing the buy-out of Independent News and Media titles in London by Archant, looked at the local newspaper market in East London and decided to let this purchase go through because it believed that East End Life would provide healthy competition and balance. Without East End Life, Archant would have an effective monopoly.
‘Regarding the allegation of East End Life being one-sided, we are governed by the code of recommended practice on local authority publicity under the Local Government Act. We represent the views and policies of the council, but, like many local authorities, are in the position of having a ruling party in control of the council. ‘Like more than 100 other council magazines and papers across the country, East End Life publishes information about policies and actions of the council, which may reflect the ruling party.’The title employs seven people and three trained journalists, including editor Laraine Clay. It is the only local authority newspaper in the country to be published weekly and distributes nearly 100,000 copies in the borough.