New legislation on the cards to tackle council "propaganda rags" like Hackney Today
PUBLISHED: 13:31 21 May 2013 | UPDATED: 17:05 21 May 2013
The Local Audit and Accountability Bill will clamp down on tax-payer funded council papers and "deliver the Coalition agreement pledge to impose tougher rules to protect the independent free press from unfair competition by town hall newspapers and propaganda."
New legislation is on the cards to tackle “town hall pravdas”, like Hackney Council’s fortnightly rag, Hackney Today.
Hackney Council continues to ignore government guidelines brought in by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles in 2011 which limit publication of such newspapers to four times a year under the Publicity Code.
Every fortnight 108,000 free copies of Hackney Today are 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.
But the Queen’s Speech - which sets out the government’s legislative plans for the forthcoming year - has announced the Local Audit and Accountability Bill will clamp down on tax-payer funded council papers, and “deliver the Coalition agreement pledge to impose tougher rules to protect the independent free press from unfair competition by town hall newspapers and propaganda.”
Mr Pickles said the government was “reining in the quango state, saving taxpayers’ money and giving more power to local people.”
He added: This bill extends the government’s localism agenda - ensuring robust scrutiny of council spending, strengthening the role of direct democracy and protecting an independent free press.”
Cazenove ward Cllr Abraham Jacobson said any clamp-down would come “not a minute too soon”.
“It’s good to have an independent paper rather than a council rag controlling the media in Hackney, people aren’t getting informed, and half the stuff in Hackney Today is of no interest to anybody,” he said.
“They are paying a fortune for distribution and most of that ends up in recycling.”
He added: “A council paper should be non political and inform people and not be a back slapping exercise.
“I’ve been a councillor for just over three years and other than having my picture on the page with all the councillors, there’s been no photo of one opposition councillor or anything about an opposition ward in all that time.
“If you weren’t on the cabinet you wouldn’t think any other councillors existed.”
The council is obliged to publish statutory advertising fortnightly and claims publishing its own newspaper is the most cost-effective way of doing this.
Jules Pipe, Mayor of Hackney, said in a statement: “I have repeatedly told Government ministers that Hackney Council would stop fortnightly publication immediately the Government ended the outdated legal requirement to publish statutory notices such as planning notices in printed form, rather than just on the web.
It is disappointing that the Government is continuing in its attempts to increase the Council’s publishing costs in this way.”
All four Lib Dems and four Tory opposition councillors believe however there could be more cost-effective ways of publishing statutory notices, and that ultimately the paper is a mouthpiece for the ruling Labour party.
A spokesman for the Lib Dems pointed out that in a typical issue – like that of October 8 2012 – there were seven photographs of Labour councillors engaged in local activities, but added: “There have seldom or never been similar photographs involving members of the other parties.”
Cllr Dawood Akhoon for one, does not ever remember ever appearing in the paper. “The last time I did try to submit an article to Hackney Today was in July 2007 when the then Borough Commander was the guest and prize giver at the Tawhid Boys’ School Annual Sports Day at Spring Hill Park.
“I had sent Hackney Today pictures as well as a press release,” he said.
But nothing was published and he got no response from Hackney Today.
“Since then I have not bothered with the rag,” he added.
Conservative Cllr Michael Levy remembers how three years of hard work ensuring a playground was built on Clapton Common last June also passed by unnoticed in the council’s paper.
Although he supplied a comment, the editorial team favoured a comment from a Labour councillor.
“The new play area is an example of how the council is working with local communities to improve parks and open spaces in Hackney,” cabinet member for health, social care and culture, Jonathan McShane was quoted as saying.
Cllr Levy believes the playground might well have been abandoned had he not stepped in to help secure planning permission.
“Once it was completed the council took credit,” he said. “Of course you don’t do it for that, but it does grate.”
Tory Councillor Simche Steinberger believes the paper is overtly political and at times hostile to the Conservative and Lib Dem parties.
He claims when the Labour government lowered the cap on housing benefit from £800 to £500 a week, nothing was mentioned in Hackney Today.
He added: “But when the coalition government cut it from £500 to £400 there was an article in Hackney Today saying Tory and Lib Dem councillors did not support the Labour party in condemning the cuts.”
Hackney Council maintains the paper is not biased towards one political party.
“The District Auditor has supported the findings of the review and confirmed his satisfaction with the publication’s political neutrality,” said a spokeswoman.
And, in a statement, elected Mayor of Hackney, Jules Pipe, said the Conservative and Liberal Democrats had claimed time and again that axing Hackney Today would save the council hundreds of thousands of pounds.
“Each time these claims have been shown to be nothing but empty nonsense and both parties have been provided many times with the true costs of the publication,” he said.