Hackney Council remains defiant over “propaganda rag” as legal action looms

Hackney Today

Hackney Today - Credit: Archant

Hackney Council remains defiant it will continue breaching the law to publish its fortnightly “propaganda rag”, despite the Government warning legal action could be just weeks away.

The Local Audit and Accountability Bill introduced in April means any council publishing its own paper more than four times a year could now be held in contempt of court.

Yet every two weeks 108,000 free copies of Hackney Today are still posted through residents’ letterboxes – much to the consternation of Lib Dem and Conservative councillors in the borough, who regard the paper as propaganda for the ruling Labour party.

Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, spearheaded the rules to deal with what he dubbed “a bunch of hardcore local authorities” who persisted in using public funds to publish their “propaganda rags”, which threaten to “snuff out” the local independent press.

Formal notice letters giving detailed explanations of concerns about non-compliance with the Publicity Code have now been sent to 11 councils.

The London Boroughs of Enfield, Greenwich, Hackney, Hillingdon, Lambeth, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest, as well as Luton, Medway and North Somerset councils have been warned about the frequency of their municipal newspapers.

They have two weeks to respond.

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Local Government Minister Kris Hopkins said: “They have all now been given written notice that we are prepared to take further action, should it be necessary, against any council that undermines local democracy – whatever the political colour.

“Any council that does not follow any subsequent legal direction could end up facing a court order requiring compliance.

“Frequent town hall free sheets are not only a waste of taxpayers’ money but they undermine the free press.

“Localism needs robust and independent scrutiny by the press and public.”

But Hackney Council claimed publishing its own newspaper was the most cost-effective way of publishing the required fortnightly statutory advertising.

In a statement, Hackney’s elected mayor Jules Pipe said: “The Secretary of State has now accepted in a letter to the council that older people, disabled people and those without access to the internet will be disadvantaged by this absurd war on council publications, by residents being less able to access information about local services.

“He has refused to address the issue of value for money, and he has still not provided a single shred of evidence that council papers like ours damage local independent media.

“This is a government more interested in forcing taxpayers to subsidise the failing businesses of newspaper barons than in the needs of vulnerable people.”

The estimated cost of producing Hackney Today per year is around £369,709.

The council claims it would need to spend £176,525 placing the equivalent advertising in the Hackney Gazette and would require a part time member of staff costing £20,000 per year to do so, but insists it would also need to spend £80,000 on further leafleting and £185,000 to continue producing a quarterly Hackney Today – bringing the total alternative up to more than £461,000.