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Councils prepare for paper probe

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The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) is poised to investigate local newspaper publishers’ claims that they endure unfair competition from council publications, many of which now carry private advertising.

Its move follows an Audit Commission study looking at the public value of local authorities’ communications spend, including publication of newspapers.

The commission carried out its study at the request of Lord Carter, who published his landmark Digital Britain report last year. The watchdog said its remit did not extend to assessing competition in the local media market and its study revealed spending had begun to fall and council publications were being published less frequently. It did, however, confirm that about 150 council publications contained private sector advertising.

Council publications do play a key role in informing residents

David Holdstock, chair of LGcommunications

Sion Simon, the minister for creative industries, told the House of Commons in January the commission’s report would be presented to the Office of Fair Trading, and possibly Ofcom, to “consider the question of competition and the potential impact on the paid-for newspaper market”.

In the Commons debate, Paul Burstow MP (Lib Dem) singled out two weeklies - Tower Hamlets LBC’s East End Life and Greenwich LBC’s Greenwich Time - and two fortnightlies - Hammersmith & Fulham LBC’s H&F News and Waltham Forest LBC’s Waltham Forest News - as examples of the practice he wanted investigated.

Investigation

Pressure from the industry for a full investigation is growing. While Sly Bailey, chief executive of the Trinity Mirror group, lambasted the Audit Commission’s findings as a “waste of time”, other commentators have complained the government has been slow to take action.

Lynne Anderson, communications director of the Newspaper Society, told LGC that not all council publications were competitors, particularly those produced quarterly, but in her view many authorities overstepped the mark.

“Our problem is when they start competing with local newspapers for readers, offering local news, TV listings and when they take private sector advertising - they are straying from nominal service information,” she said.

“It’s unfair state competition with commercial media when councils are supposed to be supporting local businesses.”

Reduced coverage

Responding to suggestions local newspapers had reduced their coverage of local government, Ms Anderson cited initiatives such as the Bristol Evening Post’s webcam coverage of city council meetings. However, she conceded that in some areas coverage could have fallen.

David Holdstock, chair of LGcommunications, the national body for council communications, said talks had taken place with the newspaper industry on issues of concern.

He also pointed out that most council papers did not take large amounts of private sector advertising and were mainly used by other public sector partners - police and health services - to get their messages across.

“If you look at a council’s reputation, one thing that contributes to that is how well informed residents feel about services. Council publications do play a key role in informing residents,” he said.

Political bias

Another criticism levelled at council publications in the wake of the commission’s findings has been one of political bias.

Giving ammunition to claims that the periodicals are often used as a source of political propaganda, the commission revealed that the only councillors featured in a third of them were members of the council’s executive.

However, all authorities have a statutory code of practice on publicity, enforceable through judicial review, and the commission said this code had a high profile in communications departments.

Allegations of political bias will be carefully monitored by opposition parties nationwide - especially in the run-up to elections.

Meanwhile, according to the OFT, the exact scope of its inquiry has still to be determined by the government.

Facts & Figures

The Audit Commission’s findings on council periodicals:

  • 91% of councils publish them; only 5% are published more than once a month
  • 47% contain private sector advertising
  • 26% contain no mention of councillors
  • 33% only featured members of the council’s executive
  • One out of 120 studied, was clearly overseen by a cross-party
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