Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers
27 OCTOBER 2009
Q240 Mr Watson: If you were arrested
for corruption, for money laundering of Mafia cash, would the
editorial team think it a newsworthy event that a local councillor
had found himself in an unfortunate position like that?
Councillor Loveday: I do not know
because it has not arisen yet.
Q241 Mr Watson: I think Mr Davies
probably answered that one, did he not? I want to get on to the
internet point. I do not think it is your job to save the British
newspaper industry and I do not think you are responsible for
its ills. I think Craigslist and Google probably would be ahead
of you in the queue on that. You mentioned that you have broadband
connectivity. Do you see yourselves as moving into other forms
of media, like lifestreaming, radio, Kent TV was an example, or
are you going to email and social networking?
Councillor Loveday: I think we
would like to, simply because it is a cheaper and more effective
way of communicating with residents. We have a very mobile population.
In some wards we have a 30% to 40% turnover in population each
year. Obviously it connects with those people, transient people,
much more than with the settled population. We do put a lot of
work into testing how people interact with the council, whether
face-to-face or internet, and, where possible, we provide that
connectivity through the internet. Paying bills and all of that
sort of thing we are doing as fast as we possibly can but in other
areas it has proved quite difficult. We do twitter, I gatherI
do not personally but we do twitter. I am not a great fan of the
idea of webcasting council meetings. I think in many cases you
would get a very odd person who would consider their time would
be best spent by looking at that.
Q242 Mr Watson: May I remind you
that it was Mrs Thatcher's Private Members' Bill that opened council
meetings up to public scrutiny.
Councillor Loveday: The reality
is that we would spend a vast amount of money and the indication
is, even from those local authorities that do it, that it would
not result in a huge expansion in the number of people watching.
Ms Taylor: Can I answer your question
about young people? Contacting some of our younger residents is
quite difficult through the local news media. My daughter is 20
and I do not think she has ever picked up our local newspaper.
She might look at the front cover but she would never read it.
We have to contact them in the way that they contact each other,
and that is why we were quite early into social networking. It
is all a very strange world to me but I am experimenting with
it and looking at it. Facebook and Twitter are the way that young
people communicate with each other. We have just started a service
where if you sign on for the Stevenage Borough Council Facebook
reports, you will receive notices of what is going on in the town.
It is an information feed; it is certainly not propaganda. It
is about what is going on in the town. If there is something coming
on at our local theatre, you will get it on your Facebook if you
are registered. It is optional; you can choose it. I see this
as about giving as much choice to people as possible in the way
that we communicate with them. That is really important, particularly
for some groups of residents that we could not reach in other
ways. We would not reach the under-20s by putting out another
news sheet or a different news sheet. There are some quite artificial
things done about making it look a bit jazzier or a bit more funky,
some of which work or have some success. The best way to contact
them is the way that they contact each other and that has got
to be through these new mediasocial networking and all
the rest of it. I think most councils now are taking a very hard
look at their websites to make sure that the websites are not
only giving out the information but that they are interactive.
Mr Davies made the point about criticising the council. If you
can get on your council's website and say what you think about
how they have swept your street or picked up your litter, or whatever
other service they are delivering, that is a very good and quick
way of getting that through to both the council, the councillors
and the officers in your council. I am all for that. I think that
is a much more interactive way of communicating with the public.
Q243 Mr Watson: Do you know if any
local authorities on-line services take advertising?
Ms Taylor: Ours does not.
Councillor Vernon-Jackson: Ours
certainly does not.
Q244 Mr Watson: Can I challenge your
business assumptions? This might be for Mark. We may have reached
the nirvana where the kind of soft subsidy to the newspaper industry
through your obligation to buy advertising for statutory notices
stands at probably about £40-£50 million a year nationally.
If we were to release you from that obligation so that you could
put that on a website and therefore do it at next to nothing or
at no cost, and we get to the position where Early Day Motion
2130 [Advertising of Public Sector Jobs] is supported where every
public sector job is available in an on-line, open standards format,
would that affect your business assumptions with your own print
media in that you are no longer essentially saving yourselves
money through subsidising your own paper? Would that enhance your
transition to an on-line platform?
Councillor Loveday: I think it
is inevitable. You mention in terms of statutory notices. I pick
up on what Mr Vernon-Jackson said earlier that he does not actually
believe that many people search planning applications by looking
through local newspapers. What actually happens is that in many
cases many local authorities have the facility for you to be emailed
in the event of a planning application coming up in the vicinity
of your property anyway, so there is an active sense. I think
that is the way forward. Certainly, there is a general migration
of everything to the internet because it is cheaper and more effective.
Councillor Vernon-Jackson: In
terms of money, we spend £40,000 a year doing statutory notice
planning out of a budget of £970,000 that we put into our
local paper, so it is a pretty small amount of money but it is
a useful amount of money.
Q245 Mr Watson: Where does the £940,000
Councillor Vernon-Jackson: It
is mainly advertising for jobs and things like that because we
want to have them on much more prominent pages as opposed to the
statutory notices which the newspaper chooses to hide at the back.
Q246 Mr Watson: You are not statutorily
obliged to spend that money?
Councillor Vernon-Jackson: No,
but we will do because we want to attract really good people from
the local area.
Q247 Mr Watson: If you do not have
a great reach through the local paper, why are you making that
Councillor Vernon-Jackson: Because
it does not just cover our local authority; it covers three others.
It gets us to a wider job pool, and that is a better deal for
us. It covers half a million people but with only 30,000 to 40,000
sales. If people are looking for a job, they may well go and buy
that, or they may go on to the council's website. At the moment
our choice is to do both.
Q248 Mr Watson: Could you see a point
in the future where you just switch to save the £940,000
and put it on your website?
Councillor Vernon-Jackson: I do
not think I could ever expect to do all of it there by any means.
I think there is always a need from our point of view to advertise
in the local paper. I do not know at what level and the size of
advert. We used to do great adverts listing all the personal specifications,
et cetera. Now increasingly people are just putting in adverts
directing people to websites so that they can get the large content
on other website.
Q249 Mr Watson: You can get a broadband
connection for £6 a month now. It would probably be cheaper
for you to give the unemployed a free broadband connection than
take out advertising?
Councillor Vernon-Jackson: Possibly.
Q250 Mr Watson: In the Digital
Britain Report, the Local Government Association was
asked to do a review of council newspapers. Are you involved in
that at all or do you know where the LGA are at with that?
Ms Taylor: None of us have been
particularly involved with it but I know that the LGA has been
looking at what the future is in terms of us communicating through
digital means rather than through the paper means. We are looking
at that. I think we are at a transition stage here. Councils are
still looking at paper communication, but we feel the power of
communicating in digital ways. I think we have to be very careful
about the possibility of exclusion here. Although you rightly
say that broadband connections become cheaper virtually by the
week, and I certainly get a leaflet from Virgin at least once
or twice a month about how much cheaper it is getting, there is
a danger that people will be excluded not only because of cost
but because of their skills. Some people do not have the skills
to use digital media. We always have to be conscious of that and
aware that we do not want to exclude people from our communications.
For the time being, we will always have to use a wide range of
media to communicate with the public. We have not mentioned it
here today but there is also actually talking to people and having
local public forums and things like that where those people who
do not want to read things and do not want to go on the internet
can actually come along and speak to us and that is just as important.
We are very nervous about not excluding anybody. You need a very
good coverage in libraries and places where people can access
the internet free to try to make sure that you are not excluding
anyone from this process.
Councillor Loveday: We have done
similar work trying to assess that. What the consultants, the
in-house people who produce these reports, always describe as
face-to-face facilities and offices have been identified as still
being necessary, particularly in areas of deprivation, of which
we have significant numbers in our part of London.
Ms Taylor: One of the big benefits
it has in areas of deprivation of course is that you can produce
very local information for people. If you can find a point of
access and you are certain that they have access to it, you can
produce very locally based information, which is very helpful
in some cases.
Q251 Rosemary McKenna: I think we
are in a time of great change in information exchange and there
is a big difference between the kind of newspaper or magazine
that you produce and going on-line and this kind of pretend newspaper
because basically that is what it is. That is exactly what Digital
Britain was talking about when it said that we need to examine
carefully if the Government should be able to make any recommendations
based on Digital Britain to look at those authorities that
are over-stepping the mark in terms of what they are producing.
If you look at page 5 of your newspaper, there is a clear attack
on the Government. It is not an impartial article. It is about
business rates. It is about the views of Councillor Loveday. People
looking at that are assuming that that has been written by a local
editor taking an objective stand, but it is anything but. It is
your council newspaper. I think that is what Digital Britain
and the Newspaper Society are concerned about. I do think local
newspapers are going to have to look very carefully at what they
do. I think they should be doing a lot more. I wonder, as someone
who was involved in local government in the Eighties and Nineties,
if this did not all start because local authorities thought they
were getting a raw deal from the local press that they did not
like, the kind of exposé that a newspaper is there to do.
Councillor Loveday: The answer
to that is "no". The motivation is not to get back at
newspapers. I have cited the figures. Our paid-for local media
does not reach residents.
Q252 Rosemary McKenna: Maybe it is
because you have taken away all the stuff that they would normally
Councillor Loveday: It was declining
well before we accepted advertising in any shape or form. It was
way in decline before that. I can produce copies of the earlier
versions of the magazine H&F News and so on.
Q253 Rosemary McKenna: There is a
difference between what Hammersmith and Fulham are doing and what
Portsmouth and Stevenage are doing. There is quite a distinct
difference there. That is the argument or the debate. It was the
Office of Fair Trading (OFT) that said there were real concerns
about this. I think that is the debate that will be had.
Councillor Loveday: As I understand
it, the OFT and the Audit Commission are both not proceeding with
inquires into this area.
Q254 Rosemary McKenna: That is a
Councillor Loveday: Obviously,
madam, it is a matter for you, but the figures are there. I have
shown the figures. Our local media was in a parlous state well
before we took this initiative in response to not being able to
use them to communicate properly.
Ms Taylor: I think we are in a
transition phase, and you are right to point that out. Maybe some
of the pain that is being felt by newspaper editors is to do with
local councils but I think it is more to do with the digital media
and how that is taking over many of the areas that traditionally
have been their territory. Gerald has already pointed to job vacancies.
As for property advertising, I have a daughter who currently is
in the stages of buying a house. She has looked on-line; she has
not used local newspapers at all for that. That is painful for
local newspapers and they have to address it. Local newspapers
are also taking part in this digital process. Many of them have
very effective websites. Our local newspaper has withdrawn some
of their circulation of paper copy because they have found that
they reach some parts of our community better through their web-based
approach. They send you an email alert when the new web edition
is ready. They are certainly moving in that direction. This transition
phase is painful for them and I think that is more the reason
for the problems than because of things the council is doing.
There may be the odd council that is taking some advertising from
themI do not know about Hammersmith and Fulhambut
for the most part this is to do with the interference of digital
media taking over, not councils taking over.
Councillor Vernon-Jackson: Last
night for instance I met a friend who is the editor of a magazine
and they just publish on-line now. They do not do any physical
copies any more because that is the way in which the media has
Q255 Mr Watson: Rosemary has brought
this article to my attention. There is a quote from you on page
5, Mr Loveday, on business rates.
Councillor Loveday: I am sure
Q256 Mr Watson: It says: "Small
businesses are the lifeblood of the economy and forcing some of
them to pay higher business rates, just as they are struggling
to stay afloat, is madness. There is no doubt in my mind that
this business rates rise will unnecessarily force some small businesses
to close and we are urging the Chancellor to have an urgent rethink."
It goes on a little further. In this article there does not appear
to be a countervailing viewpoint put by your opponents. Do you
think that is a badly written piece? Is that characteristic of
Councillor Loveday: Again, one
of the oddities of all of this is that I would be surprised if
you find a quote from any politician other than a member of the
cabinet of the council. The reason for that is that that is the
advice that has been given historically to political parties of
both persuasions when producing these publications. I have a copy
here of HFM magazine, which was produced under the previous
administration. You will see it has photographs of various individuals
in it. You will not have found, during all of the years that they
controlled the council, a single photograph of one of our side.
That is the advice that we are given, that the quotes come from
members of the cabinet and that is it.
Q257 Mr Watson: So the only quotes
in this newspaper are from Conservative Party councillors?
Councillor Loveday: I have not
been through it but that has always been my understanding that
it is members of the cabinet. Indeed, we have many complaints
from backbenchers on our side who say, "I have been involved
in something. I would like to have my picture in the H&F
News" and we say, "I am very sorry, it has got to
be on our side".
Q258 Mr Watson: What you have is
a very effective business model. It is not losing money. By the
sounds of it, it could make money. You have to jiggle the figures
a bit to make it break even. I am told we are entering the post-bureaucratic
age. Why do you not privatise it?
Councillor Loveday: Interestingly,
I gather we have had an approach to purchase the paper, which
in this current media environment, I would imagine is almost unheard
Q259 Mr Watson: Presumably you would
consider selling it if it would allow you to concentrate on core
Councillor Loveday: It would be
very complicated to do but certainly if somebody is going to pay
our council taxpayers a substantial sum of money to do this, then
we would be silly not to accept it. We will consider offers.
Chairman: A pioneering council like Hammersmith
and Fulham could perhaps blaze a trail in this area. I think we
have spent enough time this morning. Thank you very much for your