Big debate: Should Town Hall newspapers be outlawed?

East End Life

East End Life - Credit: Archant

This week’s Big Debate asks whether Town Hall newspapers should be outlawed.

Malcolm Starbrook

Malcolm Starbrook - Credit: Archant

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has promised to introduce legislation preventing local authorities from publishing regular newspapers or similar publications. In Tower Hamlets, opposition councillors are calling for funding for the weekly East End Life publication to be scrapped in next year’s budget. Here we ask whether council publications are beneficial to communities.

Lutfur Rahman

Lutfur Rahman - Credit: Archant

Malcolm Starbrook, Archant London Editor-in-Chief

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles threatened to outlaw Tower Hamlets’ East End Life last year.Now he is planning to introduce legislation this year enabling him to keep his promise.

Most authorities accepted the recommendations; Tower Hamlets council has ignored them.

My opposition to council-run newspapers is simple. They do not provide unbiased news and information about the workings of the local authority. Instead they manage an information flow that always seeks a favourable slant on the council while avoiding any hint of controversy or negative reporting.

And the real costs of producing these Pravdas is hidden from council taxpayers: local authorities describe them as self-financing, but print and distribution costs cannot support this analysis.

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Tower Hamlets council states that “Local authorities have a duty to promote community cohesion, race equality and reduce fear of crime and promote a healthy lifestyle”.

Noble sentiments.

But nowhere does it state that they need to set up publishing empires to achieve these goals.

Last month Tower Hamlets announced plans to team up with a number of other local authorities to produce weekly newspapers.

Interestingly it says it wants a print partner that will enable it to get its message across mobile iPhones or iPads.

With the borough’s current economic crisis looming ever larger, the council should be looking at more fundamental budget priorities other than an iPravda.

The new rules outlined last year stated that only parish councils could produce monthly magazines, with other councils limited to quarterly frequency.Tower Hamlets council leaders continue to ignore them. But for how much longer?

Lutfur Rahman, Mayor of Tower Hamlets:

East End Life has been a well-used fixture in our borough since its inception in 1993.

The newspaper industry believes that council publications stifle local newspapers – but East End Life is not a newspaper and it has a different job to do.

As well as carrying community news it also carries statutory listings like housing choice and advertising for local businesses and community organisations.

Councils have a legal duty to promote community safety, cohesion, public health and race equality, and EEL allows us to do that more cheaply than other options.

In fact, the model we follow is so much cheaper than the alternatives that eight other local authorities, including our Labour-run neighbours and a Tory council, are coming on board with a joint printing contract.

Axing East End Life may seem like a quick and easy saving, but the fact is that the numbers just don’t add up. Far from costing taxpayers £1.2m as some of its detractors claim, it is cost-neutral when advertising income is taken into account.

The council has already been forced to find £91m in savings by the Tory-led government and there may be more to come. Getting rid of EEL when the analysis shows that the alternatives could cost £2.1m for the council is a reckless move.