Town hall ‘pravda’ debate revisited

I was interested to read the renewed criticism of council newsletters this week, with Grant Shapps saying people should report authorities who they think are wasting public money on needless publications to the district auditor.

In PR Week (which has a firewall, so no point in providing a link), he is reported to have criticised Labour councils for continuing to publish weekly newsletters, despite Government guidelines which suggest a limit of four publications a year.

He said: “It is unacceptable that Labour councils are trying to push independent local newspapers out of the market in a bid to stop scrutiny of their spending.

“This choreographed attack on free speech by Tower Hamlets and Greenwich has no place in a modern democracy. These papers exist to promote personal political agendas and not the interests of the public and I urge local residents to report these publications to the district auditor.”

My own council (Liberal Democrat-controlled Bath and North East Somerset) publishes a monthly Connect magazine, which is informative and well put together. The latest edition, which landed on our doormat last week, contained 13 pages of adverts, highlighting concerns the newspaper industry shares with Mr Shapps that these publications are in direct competition with the struggling local media for ad revenue.

I blogged on this issue earlier in the year. Council newsletters often have a remit to ‘promote’ the authority, which could be seen as one sided. But this needs to be seen in the wider context of how else people get their information about local news and events. Too many local newspapers gave up their role of reporting on council affairs a long time ago. Others can be so anti-council that it is difficult for councillors to have a reasoned debate through the local media on matters of local importance. I agree that weekly is probably too frequent for a council newsletter when resources are tight. But local newspapers need to look at their own track record before blaming council publications for their problems.

It’s worth reading the We Love Local Government blog, which has also made a valid defence of council newsletters.

It looks like the debate is set to run for a bit yet.