Future for local and regional media - Culture, Media and Sport Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 180-199)


27 OCTOBER 2009

  Q180  Mr Sanders: If I look through there, will I see the planning notices?

  Councillor Loveday: Yes, you will see there is a page on planning notices.

  Q181  Mr Sanders: It is interesting; you have got letters to the editor. Obviously, you are going to say the reason there are no critical letters at the council is because there are no problems which people have with the services, but if I was to be objective about this, I would suggest that it would be rare for you to want to have criticism of your council in your own letters page.

  Councillor Loveday: The local authority newspapers and publicity as a whole are governed by a strict statutory code which was actually passed by Parliament, I think, early this year or the last part of last year. It is a far more restrictive code than the Press Complaints Commission code. It is written into the contracts of the journalists who work for the paper.

  Q182  Mr Sanders: Yes, but this is the public writing letters. It is about editorial, not about what you write.

  Councillor Loveday: Yes. We do cover critical letters; they do appear in the letters page. One thing I would say, though, I was just glancing through The Chronicle today, and I can hand up a copy. I turn to the letter page, and I think there are six letters, all of which were written by councillors, parliamentary candidates, and so on. I do not think that letter writing in local newspapers is necessarily something that grabs the public imagination in my borough. I can hand that up for you to have a look at.

  Q183  Mr Sanders: So your case is that you are not taking any money. Well, it is not your case, because you must be taking money away from existing publications. Your case is that you should do that in order to subsidise the taxpayer?

  Councillor Loveday: The particular model that we have in our borough for the commercial paid-for sector is that they are essentially wrap-arounds of other newspapers—they are four or five pages wrapped around editions of an Ealing newspaper and a Westminster newspaper—and, as a result, they have always found it very difficult to attract local advertising and, in particular, property advertising, which is the big earner, as I understand it, adverts for house and flat sales. They have never attracted that market and we have been able to grab that, and you will see there are plenty of pages of local property advertising. They were not getting that market anyway, and we have gone after it. It is very difficult to show cause and effect as to whether we do affect them at all. The circulation figures suggest that they were declining well before we came on the scene.

  Q184  Mr Ainsworth: If I understand you rightly, we have been talking about the statutory notices that you have to publish going into paid-for local newspapers.

  Ms Taylor: Yes.

  Q185  Mr Ainsworth: Why do you not use local free sheets? If the problem is distribution, if the problem that you have cited is getting things through people's letter-boxes, then free newspapers are delivered through people's letter-boxes and you could advertise in them, could you not?

  Ms Taylor: Our free sheet is not delivered town-wide. The newspaper I have circulated, which is The Comet, is a free sheet to those properties where it is delivered, but it is only delivered to about 10,000 out of our 38,000 properties in the borough. So they do not deliver town-wide, but we do publish our statutory notices in there because we feel it is right. We cannot do it in our local magazine because we only publish it six times a year; it would not meet the requirements of it. So we cannot publish in The Chronicle: it is not published frequently enough.

  Q186  Mr Ainsworth: Your situation, with respect, if this is the only publication that Stevenage regularly put through people's doors and, therefore,—

  Ms Taylor: No, that is the council magazine that is put through six times a year. The local newspaper, which is around somewhere (it is called The Comet), is a weekly free sheet to those properties where it is delivered, but it is not delivered borough-wide now. About six months ago they took a decision not to deliver it on a borough-wide basis, and the statutory notices are in there.

  Q187  Mr Ainsworth: I am sorry; I had not seen it.

  Councillor Vernon-Jackson: The issue we have got is that in lots of different parts of the country there are very different coverages. Particularly in rural areas it is very difficult to get coverage through free sheets who do not deliver and, particularly in places like London, in lots of places there are really no local newspapers, because you either have The Evening Standard, which covers the whole of London and is actually almost a national paper, and so Mark has a particular problem that he has addressed.

  Councillor Loveday: You will find that both the statutory requirements on licensing and on planning adverts is that they have to be published in a newspaper circulating in the locality, I think is the word. We have a free newspaper which circulates to 14,000 households in the south of Fulham, which will not be the locality for Hammersmith, Shepherds Bush or the northern part of Fulham, and, as has been said by the other witnesses, it is horses for courses, there are different patterns around the different parts of the country. We have responded to our particular need in our particular way.

  Q188  Mr Ainsworth: We have had evidence from Trinity Mirror, who say that some of these newspapers are publishing advertising rate cards which aggressively set out to undermine the market advertising rates as a competitive move on the part of the local council. Is that how you managed, in your words, to grab the property sector for news?

  Councillor Loveday: One of the oddities of all of this is we have a number of statutory limits on what local authorities are able to do, and one of those, for example, is that we cannot make a profit out of a newspaper. The moment you get to break even, that is the end.

  Q189  Mr Ainsworth: No-one else is making a profit. The argument from the industry's point of view is that you will make it even harder for them to make a profit.

  Councillor Loveday: If that is the case, is it the function of local government to provide that subsidy, in our case to the tune of, broadly speaking, £400,000 a year. I doubt that this committee is going to make recommendations to central government to provide that funding to subsidise the local press. I am afraid it is a matter of money from our point of view. We do this in the most cost-effective way possible.

  Q190  Mr Ainsworth: I must say, I had no idea, Chairman, of the nature of the sort of newspapers that have been circulating here this morning, the way that they look, feel and have every appearance of being commercial publications. Are you satisfied that it is easy enough for people in Hammersmith and Fulham, or, indeed, in Stevenage, to realise that what they are reading is a public sector publication?

  Ms Taylor: I think we are talking about slightly different beasts here. The examples that you have got in front of you are very different. From our perspective, it is very clear, I think, from our magazine, that it is a council publication. When the newspaper which you have just been looking at comes through the door, you will know that is not a council publication. So they are very different beasts. I cannot answer for Hammersmith and Fulham. Theirs is obviously a different approach to ours.

  Councillor Loveday: The Portsmouth one says on the top of it, "From Portsmouth City Council", so we are very clear.

  Q191  Mr Ainsworth: But the Hammersmith and Fulham one does not.

  Councillor Vernon-Jackson: But we choose to give a huge subsidy, almost a million pounds a year, to our local paper out of the taxpayers' pockets. It may be that the Hammersmith and Fulham option is a better case for saving public taxpayers' money by not doing that. Personally, I think I will keep doing what we are doing in Portsmouth at the moment, but it is clearly cheaper for taxpayers to do what Mark is doing in Hammersmith and Fulham and not subsidising the private papers to the huge extent that the public sector is at the moment.

  Q192  Mr Ainsworth: You are absolutely certain that, by placing your job adverts, for example, in your own publications and online, you are reaching more people than you would if you had been putting it through the local newspaper?

  Ms Taylor: We place our job adverts in the local newspaper.

  Councillor Vernon-Jackson: As do we.

  Ms Taylor: That is what we spend money on.

  Councillor Vernon-Jackson: But now, increasingly, head-hunters will say, you just need to have teasers in and you direct everybody to your website, because that is the better place to get people.

  Ms Taylor: We ought to talk about using different forms. We have got a new post which has just been created which we have advertised on Facebook and Twitter. There has been an advert in the local press as well (I think it is actually in that newspaper you have got), but we decided that for this particular role we would like to use some of the new methods of communication as well. I think, as I say, that is complementary to the advert in the local newspaper. Most people in Stevenage, if you are looking for a job, will go to the local newspaper first.

  Q193  Mr Ainsworth: Does it worry you that the commercial sector are saying that publications like the ones we have got in front of us today are putting them out of business, or is that not a problem for you?

  Councillor Loveday: Can I pick up on the point you made before? Our private advertising from external sources is currently running at the rate of £286,000 a year. Internal advertising from the council is running at about half that, £143,000 odd a year. We run an internal market, however. We do not direct our departments and departmental directors to place their adverts with the in-house publication, but the cost-benefits are pretty clear and they do largely place them there. In terms of job adverts, the difficulty, again, is we are not dealing with a frozen market; the reality is across the board job advertising is fleeing to the Internet—when somebody goes to look for a job as a rat catcher in Doncaster, or something, they are not these days looking in a local paper to see that; they are going on the Internet to look for that job—and to place the blame for local authorities withdrawing advertising from national and local newspapers, I think, singles them out for unfair criticism, because everybody is doing it.

  Councillor Vernon-Jackson: W4np is a classic example where we get people to work in politics. You get a much better return rate from w4np on the Internet than you do placing an advert in a local paper.

  Q194  Mr Ainsworth: Can I come back to my previous question? Do you accept there is a conflict of interest between your desire to look after your council tax payers and deliver value for money and the interests of commercial newspapers that are struggling in a very difficult market and having property ads taken away and published by yourselves? Is there a conflict of interest?

  Ms Taylor: I do not think it is the fault of councils that newspapers are struggling.

  Q195  Mr Ainsworth: But is there a conflict of interest about this particular question?

  Councillor Vernon-Jackson: In most council areas there is a huge subsidy in the private paper by the local council. We are keeping them afloat while their advertising for property has gone down because people are not moving house, their advertising from cars has disappeared because people are not buying cars, their advertising for jobs has disappeared because people are not recruiting. We in local authorities in the public sector in many ways are keeping those newspapers afloat, because we keep advertising and we keep pumping money into these papers, hundreds of thousands of pounds every year.

  Ms Taylor: Can I give you a very specific example of that? Our arms' length leisure organisation has recently done a wrap-round, which is quite an expensive thing to do, because we felt that in the recession we wanted to promote the leisure activities we were able to offer, and it might counteract some of the problems that were being experienced with job adverts dropping and housing adverts dropping, but I think there is a big point here about the public sector subsidising the commercial newspapers. Our first priority has to be value for money for our council tax payers. We have got to think about that; it is very important to us. There has got to be a balance here between the relationship with the commercial sector and the amount of money we actually spend on it. As Gerald said, we are a very small authority but we spend a lot of money on advertising and statutory notices, so the relationship is still there.

  Councillor Vernon-Jackson: Just to put it in context, 79% of councils do a magazine up to six times a year. Mark is not typical of the vast majority of councils. Sending a magazine out six times a year can in no way be considered to be a conflict with a daily or a weekly newspaper.

  Ms Taylor: Also, there are a number of authorities who improve the revenue stream of their local newspapers by, for example, having them print their in-house newspaper, so they are supporting the sector in that way as well, and they also sponsor environmental initiatives in their newspapers and things like that. So there is a lot of joint working between the commercial sector. I do not think it is as black and white as wicked council newspapers taking all the revenue from the commercial sector.

  Q196  Mr Ainsworth: On the other hand, it is interesting that Councillor Vernon-Jackson says we are pumping money into the commercial sector on the one hand, as if you are some kind of hero that is keeping the whole commercial sector going single-handed, and on the other hand you are arguing for an end to the statutory obligation which requires you to put public notices into those newspapers. I do not think you can have it both ways.

  Ms Taylor: I think that is a very specific thing. As to those statutory notices, if you wanted to turn to the back pages of that Comet newspaper, I think there are two issues here. There is the amount of money it costs the taxpayer to publish those and the fact that, because they are in the back pages, they are in tiny print, is that really the best way of telling people what you are doing in their local area? Probably not. So I think there are different ways of doing that that would be a more effective way of communicating with the public, and I think we have got to think about that. They do cost thousands of pounds a year to publish, but there is a lot of other advertising. There is the copy that we provide in terms of new releases and there are the campaigns that we run jointly. So there is lots of activity that goes on between newspapers and the councils.

  Councillor Loveday: Can I just, finally, say on that point, if we were to go down that route, we would be subsidising 1,500 copies of the two newspapers in the borough, but we would still then have to go out and spend a lot of money communicating with the other 170, whatever it is, eight and a half thousand odd residents in the borough, because we would not be achieving the objective by placing advertising in our local paper; we would have to do it again.

  Ms Taylor: There is another example of a council newspaper that is actually distributed by the local newspaper; so in distribution as well there is a revenue opportunity for the commercial sector.

  Q197  Philip Davies: I do not know what your motivation is for wanting to expand these council publications. It may well be that you want to save your council tax payers' money (although when I see many of the jobs advertised in local papers, politically correct jobs, I wonder how serious some councils are about saving taxpayers' money, but that is a different issue), but I do not know whether it is because you want to get your own propaganda out. The bigger picture here, surely, is about democracy. Surely it is essential in a successful democracy for people in authority to be held to account. Who would you think is best placed to hold the local council to account: an independent local newspaper or the local council publication?

  Councillor Vernon-Jackson: I am sorry, it is not a question that arises. We very strongly support working with our local paper and work extremely closely with them and all our local radio stations, and we are lucky in comparison with Mark. We are a defined city and so we have got a strong local paper, we have got two city radio stations and we work very closely with them to try to make sure that they have information and that they are able to challenge us, as they regularly do, but there are things that they will not carry. One of the things that was circulated was a "credit crunch special" to tell people places where they can go for advice if they are having problems with their mortgage, how they can get advice about jobs, 20 things they can do with their families for free in Portsmouth so they do not have to spend a lot of money. Those are the sort of things that the local paper will not carry and do not carry. So I think we are complementary between what we do and what the local paper does and what the local radio station does, and we are not in way fettering their ability to criticise us, as they regularly do, even when we spend large amounts of money with them.

  Q198  Philip Davies: What they will not carry is your propaganda. That is what you find so nauseating. You have got your positive spin on everything that you do that you want to get out there and the council do not always want to do it. So rather than accept that, you have decided to trump them with your own publication.

  Councillor Vernon-Jackson: I think that is different. MPs have a communications allowance, which many MPs use, to report back on what you do to your local constituents, and you will carry photographs of yourselves and things. Our rules say that councillors will not appear in any of our publications. There are no quotes from me in any of it, no quotes from any other councillor, our leader of the council, and in some ways I think that is something we should maybe change, because by refusing to have the publicity that was available, we are not maybe allowing ourselves to be as accountable as we could be, but we take a political decision that we choose not to have councillors' photographs, not to have us quoted in our publications.

  Ms Taylor: We do not have councillors' photos either. We have a readers' column in our newspaper which is in there every time. Our local newspaper has no problem in challenging what the council is doing, but there are areas where there are no local newspapers and I do not know how you square the circle if you need to inform your residents. If you have not got a local newspaper, I do not see how you would do that. We are fortunate enough to have a very good local newspaper.

  Q199  Philip Davies: Is it not amazing how you only communicate with your residents all the good things that the council is doing. Surely, if you were so bothered about making sure that your local residents were so aware of everything that was going on in the local area, you would think, would you not, that a fair proportion, therefore, of that space would be taken up with all the things the council has got wrong over the last few months or where the council has been criticised by people, where there is a scandal in the local authority? Is it not amazing how you are so keen to communicate to all of your residents about what the council is doing, but only when it is good? If you are so bothered that everybody knows what is going on in your local area, why do you not put in there all the things that your council is getting wrong?

  Ms Taylor: I am very happy to go on the radio and be interviewed by our local paper when people think we have got things wrong. We do that very frequently.

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