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Nick Pickles: Local councils should stop putting local papers out of business

Pickles Nick 2013Nick Pickles is Director of civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, and was the Conservative Parliamentary candidate for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford in 2010. Follow Nick on Twitter.

As you may have read on the internet, these are tough times for print journalists, not least local papers.  However, a vibrant local press is an essential part of our democracy. With localism comes greater power for councils, but equally it reaffirms the importance for local accountability and scrutiny.

I am not calling for a subsidy, or a new state-backed lending scheme for newspapers. But I do think that it’s time that the state, in the form of local authorities, stop using taxpayers money to produce their own rival papers, undercutting genuine reporting of local issues with town hall propaganda. In my own patch, the pages of the Wakefield Citizen somehow managed to miss a major childcare scandal, the fact the leader of Wakefield Council had a chauffeur-driven Audi A8, and that a multi-million pound water feature on a busy junction might not be a brilliant use of public money.  All is brilliant in Wakefield, nothing to worry about. Having lived there for most of my life, it would be generous to describe this as a rosy view.

Particularly for labour intensive and often quite dry beats like politics and court reporting, editors face very real challenges about cost-cutting and we are all worse off if local newspapers decide it is simply no longer viable to continue publishing. At a time when the local press is one of the most trusted sources of news, we need to protect our local press – and not allow councils to hijack this important medium.

Rightly, Eric Pickles has recognised that council produced newspapers (in the broadest possible sense of the word) are directly competing with local papers. A substantive local paper will never be able to sustain itself as a freesheet, yet councils are able to hand deliver thousands of copies of their own rag, free of the burden of needing to report actual news.

This practice should have stopped when new guidelines on local authority publicity came into force but some authorities have simply ignored them, pressing ahead to undermine accountability, scrutiny and more importantly, try keep themselves in power.

Today, Baroness Hanham will present the Local Audit and Accountability Bill for its second reading. It may not have a glitzy title, or the financial bang of a major infrastructure project, but it deserves a much greater hearing – and our support.

A free and vibrant press one of the best guardians against the excesses of the state. We don’t need more council propaganda; we need more local journalists fearlessly taking on corruption, waste and hypocrisy. This bill does more to strengthen the local press than any word of the Leveson enquiry.

Restricting council publicity is not just good value for taxpayers, but very good value for our democracy. 


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