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Democracy depends on independent journalism

Paul Canal, Deputy Chairman of Leyton and Wanstead Conservative Association and a Conservative Council Candidate in the 2010 local elections in the London Borough of Redbridge, says Councils should not produce newspapers

As a fan of Harry Phibbs's "modern conservatism" I was surprised at his latent conversion to the benefits of a Council Newspaper.  I was also alarmed at his evidently uncritical support of Hammersmith and Fulham Council becoming a mini Beaverbrook.  As a well known libertarian, I would urge Harry to reconsider his support for a local Government Pravda, much as Boris did with "The Londoner".

The ability of the press to hold to account those in power has been a cornerstone of democracy for 200 years.  Whether it was T Dan Smith and Poulson, in the North East's sclerotic Labour heartland, John Profumo or Jonathan Aitken, it has been the press that has ensured that justice was done and seen to be done.

The rapid demise of an effective local press is a profound threat to local democracy and accountability.  A lack of resources means that local journalists no longer scour the backstreets for the corrupt planning deal, the care home cover up or the simple case of fraud.  We are worse off because of it.  This reduction in scrutiny will allow those in power to abuse the system for personal gain.

A council funded propaganda sheet is not a replacement for an independent local paper. Indeed, the very existence of a free council paper with 100% coverage will drive revenue and readers away from local papers and hasten there downfall.  This approach is not competition, it is predatory and unprincipled. 

I also doubt that the cost of capital nor the full costs of premises and ancillary services had been included in the calculation that said the Hammersmith and Fulham newspaper was "cost neutral".  There is no such thing as a "Free Newspaper."

Councils should not be newspaper publishers.  (Nor in my view should they be transport operators or  caterers).  We should focus on delivering value for money and "fit for purpose" services.  We should not attempt to be mini Murdochs with manufactured photo ops for Councillors who prefer the camera to the strategy paper.

Whilst we probably cannot stem the decline of local papers, we should not accelerate it. We should also recognise that the way people access news and information has changed and spend more time implementing a modern communication strategy.

I would encourage every Conservative Campaign to have a manifesto commitment to scrap the free local paper.  It will save money. It will cut carbon emissions. It will please voters. It may even help to preserve the vestiges of a free press for a little bit longer.


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