Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers
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
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
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 newspapersthey
are four or five pages wrapped around editions of an Ealing newspaper
and a Westminster newspaperand, 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
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
Ms Taylor: That is what we spend
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 Internetwhen 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 joband
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
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
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.