The publication of the government’s recommended code of practice on local authority publicity was met with widespread condemnation last week. London Councils chairman and Hackney LBC mayor Jules Pipe wasted no time in denouncing its judgment that councils should not publish anything resembling a magazine or a newspaper more than four times a year as being “worthy of North Korea”.
Well, a read of the explanatory memoranda published alongside the code, reveals the rather Gordian logic the government is relying on to square such a centrally imposed mandate with its professed commitment to localism.
“The Department considers that a key element of localism is giving the public the information that they need to hold their council to account. That requires that information comes not just from the local authority, but also from independent sources.”
This function, the memorandum explains, has traditionally been done by local newspapers. So…
“Ensuring that local newspapers are not the subject of unfair competition by local authority publications is, the Department considers, in accord with localism.”
Well, top marks for effort. I’ve never been convinced that the public have too much trouble seeing through propaganda when its placed in front of them. And in any case, there have only been a handful of cases where council publications have really tried to mimic newspapers stylistically. Where I live in Camden LBC, the only faux-newspaper propaganda sheets I receive come from local politicians.
Anyway, the memorandum goes on to acknowledge that there are many in local government concerned that local newspapers, not exactly flourishing financially at the moment, are restructuring to such an extent that they are “finding it difficult to cover local democratic issues with quality journalism, illustrated by the absence of their reporters from council meetings”.
Now, personally I’m aware of a number of local reporters such as Richard Osley, at the Camden New Journal, Adrian Pearson, at the Journal and Evening Chronicle, and Jennifer Williams at the Manchester Evening Post, who do sterling work covering the local authorities in their patches. Follow them on Twitter and you’ll be left in no doubt of the effort and skill they put into their jobs.
Nevertheless, councils clearly believe that the state of local newspaper journalism means they have little choice but to put out publications to inform their residents of vital – or merely just useful – services. Some have proposed an industry code of conduct drawn up by LGcommunications (the membership body for council PR and communications workers) and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations local public services group to ensure they don’t drift into propaganda.
What does the memorandum have to say about this idea?
“The Department considers a voluntary code an interesting proposal, but is of the view that the issue of local authority publicity remains contentious enough to require central guidance to ensure that publicity remains value for money for the taxpayer.”
So that’s a no then. All good news for local newspapers which would appear to have found an unlikely champion in communities secretary Eric Pickles. Well, not quite. As the memorandum explains, the publicity code is not in any way enforceable.
“The newspaper industry… [stressed] that vigorous and robust enforcement would be required if the new measures were to work. The Department’s view is that there is no power in the [Local Government] 1986 Act to provide for any enforcement mechanism in response to any purported breach of the publicity code.”
So while the edict itself may be worthy of Kim Jong-Il, a six-hour interrogation and expulsion from the Workers Party is unlikely to result from breaching it.
There is one final point in the memorandum that seems pertinent in the wake of housing minister Grant Shapps’ recent denouncement of Manchester City Council for employing a ‘Twitter Tsar’ (later revealed to be website manager).
In this brave new world of the interweb and other newfangled inventions, the department clearly wants councils to show a bit of gumption in how they communicate with residents.
“Councils should not restrict themselves to blanket leafleting to communicate matters to the public but should take an innovative approach to getting information to those that need it, placing information where users of a service have access to it and focusing resource where it will do the most good.”
Just without using Twitter, presumably.