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

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 200-219)


27 OCTOBER 2009

  Q200  Philip Davies: Exactly. So now we are getting somewhere. Are you happy to concede now that you are not interested really in your local residents knowing everything? Remember, your local paper hardly goes to any local residents. That is why you need to do your stuff. If you are worried that your local media does not go to many households and not many people listen to the radio stations, that is why you need to do your council publication. Surely all the more reason to start putting some of the negative stuff in there, so all of your local residents know what the council is getting wrong?

  Councillor Loveday: Mr Davies, I think the difficulty is that the starting point is that we are not there to set up a newspaper; the purpose of the newspaper is as a vehicle to communicate with residents and, necessarily, we are going to communicate the messages that we need to communicate.

  Q201  Philip Davies: That you want to communicate or need to?

  Councillor Loveday: That we need to communicate, because if we did not communicate with them, then when it comes to changes in library opening times or the decline in a particular tertiary retail frontage which requires some support from residents by advertising it, then that would not get done. It is a communications driven operation rather than us setting out to produce a democratic document. That is the first thing. The second thing is that local newspapers may be an important democratic tool in many parts of the country, but the model in West London is that they have failed to do that. We have now the highest broadband penetration of any local authority area in the country and things have moved on. When people want to hold us to account they do so in other ways, they do not do it these days by buying and writing in to local newspapers. As to the suggestion that we are not held to account when those of you who were at the Labour Party Conference will have seen trenchant criticisms being made of our local authority from the platform, if you do a Google search of our council you will find that there is a very vibrant market out there for criticising our local authority and we welcome the debate, but I am afraid the debate these days does not take place in local newspapers in our part of the country. Maybe in other parts of the country, but not with us.

  Q202  Philip Davies: It certainly does not take place in this newspaper, that is for sure, because this is just positive spin. I am just going to take you all in turn, but we will start off with Hammersmith and Fulham. This is, let us face it, council propaganda masquerading as an independent newspaper. There is nothing here to the casual reader that would indicate that this had anything to do with a council publication. This is masquerading as an independent newspaper. If you are so proud of your publication, let us have it plastered all over it that this is a council publication so that everybody who reads it knows exactly where they stand when they read it. Why are you not upfront about what this is?

  Councillor Loveday: I can bowl for Britain on the subject of propaganda, and Sefton Delmer and the radio stations that were set up in this country during the war, and the distinctions between black propaganda and other propaganda, and so on, but in terms of residents knowing that this is a council newspaper, my simple answer is that we do test this, and the latest survey showed that 80% of residents said it was clearly a council newspaper. People are aware of that. I suspect that 80% is a pretty good score by any means.

  Q203  Philip Davies: I will give you a better score, which is 100%. I guarantee to you that, if you were to put on the front of your paper (and plaster it quite prominently) that this is the newspaper delivered to you by Hammersmith and Fulham Council, you would be able to improve on your 80%, you would probably be able to get to 100%. We would all know where we were and also you would not need to spend any money testing out whether or not people knew; you would be able to know straight away that people knew. I know you are obsessed with saving money at Hammersmith and Fulham Council. I have given you a perfect money saving idea, so can I now expect you to save money on testing it out and plaster over it that this is council propaganda so that your residents know exactly what it is they are reading?

  Councillor Loveday: Can I ask you a question?

  Q204  Philip Davies: No, I am asking you a question.

  Councillor Loveday: Will you give us the £400,000 to put it through our paid-for local media, because that is not going to happen.

  Q205  Philip Davies: I am asking you, on here, to make it abundantly clear to your residents that this is a council publication, right on the front page. You are saying how good it is. Why are you ashamed of it? Surely you should want to be proud of the fact that the local authority is putting out this kind of propaganda. Let everybody know why you are hiding your light under a bushel.

  Councillor Loveday: The majority of copies, I think, certainly did have a strapline reference.

  Q206  Philip Davies: I am just unlucky, am I?

  Councillor Loveday: No, I have not followed the details of the straplines on the various editions. The front cover, of course, is a slip advert, or a wrap-around advert.

  Q207  Philip Davies: Yes, inside is even worse.

  Councillor Loveday: Inside this, obviously, the front page—

  Q208  Philip Davies: Yes, I know exactly what you are doing: you are putting out propaganda and masquerading it as independent news.

  Councillor Loveday: Propaganda is a loaded word.

  Q209  Philip Davies: It is indeed. Can I move on quickly. I want to quickly take up Portsmouth and Stevenage as well. You did say that there were no pictures of any local councillors on yours.

  Councillor Vernon-Jackson: Yes.

  Q210  Philip Davies: But I have just seen three.

  Councillor Vernon-Jackson: Absolutely, but there is nothing with any editorial from any of them. We tell people who their councillors are, and so the copy of that was signed off by all three parties and their spokespeople to make sure it was clear it was not in any way party political.

  Q211  Philip Davies: Nobody is saying it is party political. This is, again, Stevenage here. No indication. It says, "The magazine for Stevenage people", not "The magazine for Stevenage Council". It would be more honest if you put it was the magazine for Stevenage Council on the front.

  Ms Taylor: It does have a back page with all the councillors listed in it, so I think it is fairly obvious that it is a council publication.

  Q212  Philip Davies: Do you think then that local newspapers would do more for community cohesion if they printed half the paper in Nigerian, as you seem to have done in your publication? Will that help with community cohesion?

  Ms Taylor: That was a specific project which we did. We did a number of different articles about people that had come into the town, giving their impressions of the town in both their own language and in English, and that was specifically designed to both draw together the Nigerian community, the Filipino community (because we did one in Filipino) and to let some of the people who were not minority ethnic communities know what the impressions are of the town when you come into the town, and it has been very successful in the town. People have really enjoyed those articles.

  Q213  Philip Davies: Is Nigerian the only other language spoken in Stevenage?

  Ms Taylor: No, that was series of articles. There was a Filipino one; there were a number in different languages. There was a French one, an Italian one and a Chinese one.

  Q214  Philip Davies: If it was demonstrated to you that what you were doing was actually putting your local newspapers out of business, if that could be demonstrated to you, would you still carry on with your propaganda or would you ease off and think, "Hold on a minute, keeping a local independent newspaper is actually in the bigger picture important and we do not want to be doing anything that might put them out of business"?

  Ms Taylor: There is no evidence to suggest that we are.

  Q215  Philip Davies: But if it was.

  Ms Taylor: No, we would not stop, because we have a duty to inform our residents of what is going on.

  Q216  Philip Davies: The good news.

  Ms Taylor: No, of what we spend their council tax money on. We have a duty to support our voluntary and community sector in promoting what they are doing in the town and when you go through periods like the recession, Vernon talked about his leaflet, we have a similar one that we produce for our residents, giving them contact details and vital information of agencies that could help them through the recession period. It is mainly focused on information, and I think the dividing line between information and propaganda, obviously there is a PhD thesis in that that you could write, but we do have a duty to provide information, we have a duty to involve our community in what we are doing and we try and use our publication to do that as far as possible.

  Q217  Philip Davies: Your case will be strengthened if you ever put anything that was critical of the council in it, but the fact that you do not, I am afraid, undermines your case.

  Councillor Vernon-Jackson: But we actually in Portsmouth spent £970,000 a year of taxpayers' money supporting the local paper.

  Q218  Philip Davies: Supporting the local community, putting in adverts and things.

  Councillor Vernon-Jackson: Actually some of it, at least, is wasted money, public money, that has little or no effect, but we do it because we are told we have to do it by statute.

  Councillor Loveday: Can I answer the last question simply because ultimately, as I understand it, the main concern of the committee is to deal with the effect of local authorities on the commercial side of local and regional media. Mr Davies asked the question, if it were proved or if it were established that our activities on our newspapers would have an adverse impact on the local papers, would we still do it? That is ultimately a question of political priorities. Local authorities do many things which potentially impact on the commercial sector, and a good example would be providing and supporting business start-up units for small and medium sized businesses. There are people out there in the market who provide those and, potentially, by helping provide and support small and medium sized enterprises by providing those units, we impact on the private sector, and we would have to take a view as to whether it was better to spend large sums of public money in supporting the media locally or spending it on other things, and I am in no doubt that some local authorities would go in one direction and some local authorities would go in the other direction.

  Chairman: Let us move on to slightly calmer waters, maybe different waters.

  Q219  Mr Watson: Can I ask you about your advertising policies. Presumably you have got guidelines about what advertising you would take and you would not take in the newspaper?

  Ms Taylor: We take no advertising in ours, so it is not really a question for us.

  Councillor Loveday: We have not got any formal advertising guidelines, as I understand it, but, again, we are still governed by the Local Government Act in terms of party political matters.

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