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Sledgehammer approach to council newspapers

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As the voice for journalists and quality journalism in the UK and Ireland, the National Union of Journalists represents over 38,000 members who work across the industry – from press officers, reporters and photographers to illustrators, bloggers and sub-editors.

This week I appeared before the communities and local government parliamentary select committee evidence session to raise the union’s concerns about the government’s new ‘code of recommended practice on local authority publicity’. The consultation document – which if passed will supplant the existing code issued in 1988 - is the brainchild of community secretary Eric Pickles, who has vociferously campaigned against council newspapers.

Quality, independent journalism is a vital part of any democracy – journalists play a crucial role in holding power to account, putting politicians and business under scrutiny, informing citizens and giving local communities a voice.

Much has been made of the existence of ‘council pravdas’ but little in the way of evidence was offered to back up this view

Jeremy Dear

The ability of journalists to do their job well has increasingly been put under ever more pressure:

  • Over the last two years local and regional newspapers have faced unprecedented cuts, in budgets and in jobs
  • More than 100 titles have closed for good – leaving some communities without a local newspaper.
  • Bread and butter functions of a local newspaper have fallen to the wayside – 20% of local papers regularly fail to cover local council meetings – and specialist and investigative reporters are becoming something of a dying breed.
  • Many newspaper groups have centralised services, with the effect that journalists and newspapers are becoming more remote from the communities they serve.

Key to the new code is a restriction on the frequency of council publications – to no more than quarterly. The NUJ is clear in its view that whilst council publications should not compete in style, content and format with local newspapers, they are also a valuable asset to local communities. The plan for a new code also flies in the face of the government’s own plans on localism.

Much has been made of the existence of ‘council pravdas’ but little in the way of evidence was offered to back up this view – the reality is that only two local councils produce publications on a weekly basis.

Drawing up new rules for the entire sector in order to clamp down on a small minority is a sledgehammer approach to regulation. The printing contracts for local council publications are also valuable sources of revenue at a time of declining advertising sales for local newspaper groups.

At a time when local journalism is under pressure, it should be government policy to find ways of supporting quality journalism across our local communities, not implementing policy that will be a further blow to journalists and their ability to keep local citizens informed.

Jeremy Dear, NUJ General Secretary

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