Proposed Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity - Communities and Local Government Committee Contents

1  Introduction

Why do local authorities publish periodicals?

1.  Across England and Wales various levels of local government spend more than £113 billion every year providing around 800 different services to more than 50 million people.[1] In 2005 independent research by IPSOS Mori for the Local Government Association found that two thirds of the general public knew nothing or next to nothing about local government, and even less about how money is spent by elected councillors and local authority executives on behalf of council taxpayers.[2]

2.  The results of this survey informed what became the LGA's 'Reputation Campaign', an initiative that encouraged local authorities to improve their communications with local residents. One activity promoted strongly by this campaign was for every principal local authority to publish a regular in-house newspaper or magazine and deliver it to every local household. As the LGA told this inquiry, "if you want to establish a title and an understanding by local people that [your newsletter] is something to read, you do it regularly enough so that they recognise it and want to read it."[3]

3.  Meanwhile, under the provisions of the 'quality parish or town council' arrangements, third tier local authorities seeking to acquire that form of external validation have also been told they must publish a regular newsletter to reach every household at least four times a year.[4]

4.  Local authorities are required to account to local residents for how they take decisions and how they spend council tax revenues. They also have a duty to communicate effectively enough with local residents that they have adequate awareness of how to access and use local services. As several recent surveys have found, local authority publications now vary greatly in format and frequency—from booklets or magazines published twice a year to a regular newspaper published once a month or more.[5] All set out to provide basic information about how to access services and to inform residents about how their council tax is being spent. A typical local authority periodical will include content such as opening times for popular services like libraries, information about activities provided by the council for groups such as the elderly or children, details about consultations with residents on issues such as road closures, a listing of useful contact numbers and, in some cases, a raft of statutory notices concerning issues such as licensing and planning applications. The code would restrict council publications to information for the public about the business, services and amenities of the council or other local service providers.[6]

5.  In recent years there has been an increasing trend towards local authorities publishing and distributing a regular free news publication to every household. In 2010 over four fifths (84%) of respondents told an LGA survey they produce their own newsletter rather than relying solely on other forms of local independent print or web media because an in-house publication will reach many more households than the local papers.[7] An LGA survey of local authority publications in 353 English local authorities conducted in April 2009 confirmed that most (94.5%) of respondents published a periodical. A second LGA survey of 375 authorities in August 2010 produced a comparable figure of (91.7%).[8] In late 2009, the Audit Commission concluded that over 90% of local authorities publish a periodical.[9]

6.  Some local authorities have replaced more common four-page information sheets stitched or inserted into an independent newspaper four or six times a year with more frequent quarterly or monthly publication that is delivered to letterboxes directly and is designed to look and feel like a magazine or newspaper. Certain authorities have gone further, developing more frequent publications that look and feel like a local paper with non-local authority content such as local sports news, TV listings or display and small paid-for advertising. The proposed Code seeks to curtail such developments by preventing the publication of newssheets which "seek to emulate commercial newspapers in style or content."[10]

Concerns about council publications

7.  While the development of local authority publications looking and feeling like independent local newspapers remains limited, they have set precedents sufficient to give rise to persistent vocal criticism from newspaper organisations in the local commercial press. The key arguments made against such publications by the Newspaper Society and others are:

  • Insufficient distinction between council publications and independent newspapers;
  • Diversion of advertising spend away from the commercial press, not least through the inclusion of public notices only in council publications where published fortnightly.
  • Content insufficiently objective or independent (allegations of "council propaganda")[11].

8.  Very few council 'newspapers' are published as frequently as a commercial title. In January 2010 the Audit Commission reported that while 91% of principal authorities published a periodical, only 5% of these were published more than once a month.[12] In its most recent surveys, the LGA found only one local authority producing a weekly newspaper (London Borough of Greenwich), and less than three per cent (13 of the authorities responding to the survey) publishing a title fortnightly. The most popular frequency (for 36% of the survey sample) remains quarterly, with many publishing even less frequently than this.[13] The proposed Code would prevent publication more frequently than quarterly[14].

9.  This relatively limited expansion of council newspapers has, however, taken place in a period when the local newspaper sector has been through what the Newspaper Society described as "a bleak period of unprecedented economic and structural challenge" during the biggest downturn seen in the last 30-odd years. [15] The strongest drivers of this process have been changes in reading and news consumption habits of consumers that have accompanied the development of the internet and the arrival of broadband from 2003. Consumer shopping patterns have also changed. Less frequent visits to a large supermarket replacing many trips to smaller local shops has also cut purchases of local newspapers. Over the past decade the internet has also overtaken the local (and national) papers as the primary market place for display advertising in areas such as recruitment, motoring and property. The loss of newspaper advertising revenue this provoked then accelerated dramatically with the recession of 2008.[16]

10.  Perhaps as a consequence of these changes, by the end of 2008 considerable national and local media attention had begun to focus on the small number of local authorities employing professional journalists to produce either a weekly or a fortnightly publication that closely resembles an independent local newspaper. In most cases these periodicals carry not only the council's own statutory notices but also a variable amount of commercial paid-for advertising (display, small ads and recruitment) and, in some cases, a significant amount of non-council related 'newspaper type' content such as TV listings and local sports coverage.


11.  A Press Association survey in 2009—of how local independent newspapers were faring during the recession unleashed by the banking crisis—found that nearly two-thirds of such titles were using fewer local government resources (from press releases to meeting papers) than ten years previously, and more than one in five were employing fewer council reporters. Redundancy in the commercial newspaper sector left many local journalists looking for new opportunities. This partly explains why, as the National Union of Journalists told us, the union now represents around 800 people working in press and PR roles for local government and why "the vast majority of those are people who worked on local newspapers and now work on council publications".[17] The employment of journalists by some local authorities (especially in London) illustrates the development of council 'newspapers' which go beyond the provision of basic information about council services in a format that could be seen to be in competition with the private sector.

12.  The NUJ argues that over this period the news value of many local papers was also systematically undermined by a rapid push for greater profits within that sector (much of it owned by US media companies, hedge funds or private investment vehicles). The NUJ claims that a process of cost cutting (leading to more than 1500 job losses) eroded both the quantity and quality of local newspaper reporting by forcing the amalgamation of many local titles into sub-regional newspapers (often produced at some distance from the areas they aim to serve).[18] Its response to the Government's consultation on the proposed code of practice on local authority publicity suggests that the worst forecasts predict that by 2013 between one third and one half of all UK local and regional newspapers will have closed compared to those existing in 2006.

13.  The Newspaper Society rebutted both the NUJ's arguments concerning the quality of local newspapers and its predictions for closures of local newspapers, noting that the analyst who made that prediction has now publicly retracted this forecast, claiming it was unduly pessimistic, and confirming that 2010 saw more launches than closures of local papers.[19] Nevertheless, the Society also confirmed that the closure of at least 60 local newspapers—some 5% of the UK total—took place during the period May 2008-9.

14.  Against this backdrop, local authority papers have expanded into gaps left by the closure of a local commercial press. The NUJ claimed that there was a "correlation between that decline and the expansion of a whole number of different council publications". Many of these publications are produced by professional journalists employed on a better salary than they earned before they were made redundant by the closure of an independent local paper.[20]

15.  A 2010 research paper based on evidence from the Newspaper Society and Freedom of Information requests direct to local authorities gathered by James Morrison, Senior Lecturer in Journalism at Kingston University, argued that some commercial newspapers were facing what he described as "a strong commercial threat from the competitive recruitment, advertising, and editorial policies adopted by a new generation of professionally produced, council-funded publications," such as East End Life (Tower Hamlets), Greenwich Time, Hackney Today and H&F News (Hammersmith & Fulham).[21] In his analysis, Morrison argued that cabinet-style decision making introduced by the Local Government Act 2000 has increased the opportunities for councils to take policy decisions in private and as a consequence downgraded the political relevance and therefore newsworthiness of council meetings. This, argued Morrison, has provoked many local newspaper editors (facing ever-tighter budgets and 24-hour deadlines for their web operations) to cut down significantly on council coverage. In James Morrison's not overcautious nor typically academic conclusions, this has increased the likelihood that for an increasing number of local residents "the most prevalent interpretation of many councils' policy decisions and their effectiveness is the inherently one-sided, invariably positive, yet increasingly journalistic output flowing from their own spin machines" on to the pages of a "local authority 'Pravda'".

16.  This analysis is, as might be expected, contested from both sides of the debate over the proper role of council publications. In its evidence to us the Newspaper Society argued that although the arrival of cabinet-style council meetings may have changed the manner in which local government reporting is done, and readers' tastes and attitudes have also changed, "the independent media have not stopped covering town halls and remain the only voices who can hold local authorities to account".[22] Speaking for local authorities, the Mayor of Hackney and Chair of London Councils, Jules Pipe, bluntly told us that local authorities do not set out to pretend that publications like his own Hackney Today are independent. Moreover, a town hall newssheet "is not meant to be reflective of the generality of life in their locale; that is the job of the local newspaper, and the many websites and blog sites that there are," along with lifestyle magazines or commercial papers distributed by independent publishers entitled to be critical of anything a local council does. [23]


17.  By the General Election of May 2010 the debate about council newspapers also began to crystallise around the costs of local authority periodicals. In particular, the Newspaper Society had by then been running a strong campaign for more than a year arguing that 'in-house' council titles funded out of council tax revenues with an advertising reach far in excess of most independent newspapers (because they are delivered to every local household for free) should not be allowed to compete with local newspapers produced on a commercial basis for a paying readership by an independent press reliant on advertising revenues.

Proposed code of practice

18.  Responding to these issues, the new Government's Coalition Agreement contained a commitment "to impose tougher rules to stop unfair competition by local authority newspapers". In pursuit of that commitment, Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government, issued a consultation paper in September 2010 proposing a replacement 'code of recommended practice on local authority publicity' for local authorities in England to replace and strengthen provisions first put in place some 25 years ago.[24]

19.  The Government's proposals provoked a strong response; nearly 350 organisations or individuals replied to the consultation and vigorous debate took place in the national media, led partly by the Secretary of State[25] and fed by various other commentators.[26]

Focus of this inquiry

20.  We decided to conduct a short inquiry directed at the following issues:

a)  how far the proposals contained in the proposed code of practice are a response to persuasive evidence that local authority newspapers are having a direct and detrimental 'competitive' impact on the free press;

b)  to what extent these proposals are likely to work with or against the freedoms and flexibilities envisaged under the Government's reinvigoration of localism;

c)  whether the provisions in the code will support or undermine the implementation and promotion of the aspects of the Government's programme which have come to be known as the 'Big Society' agenda;

d)  how far, in the face of financial constraints, the code's provisions will affect the ability of councils in each tier of local government to meet the demands they face from council tax payers for information about community events, public services and local decision making;

e)  whether measures to constrain the use of lobbyists by local authorities belong within a code focused on publicity practices;

f)  whether an adequate enforcement mechanism exists to ensure compliance with the revised code.

21.  In the limited time available for this short inquiry we opted not to call for written evidence. Rather, we took as our starting point the responses made to the consultation about the government's proposed revisions of the code. Within this considerable body of material we opted to focus on submissions made by each of the key representative groups—commercial newspapers, journalists, so-called 'principal' or 'first or second tier' local authorities and 'third tier' town or parish councils. We also invited these stakeholder groups and a leading independent commentator on trends and developments in the UK media industry to attend a single session of oral evidence.

22.  We would like to thank all witnesses for participating at short notice; James Morrison of Kingston University for background information; and the London Borough of Tower Hamlets for providing us with a diverse selection of sample publications along with information about local authority print contracts with the newspaper industry.

1   LGA response to consultation on the proposed Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity, Department for Communities and Local Government, September 2010. Back

2   Ipsos MORI-The Business Case for the Reputation Project 2005, as cited in LGA's consultation response.  Back

3   Q5 Richard Kemp for LGA. Back

4   Q 14 John Findlay for NALC. Back

5   Both the Newspaper Society (in 2009) and the LGA (2009 & 2010) undertook detailed surveys of their membership to gain a better understanding of the scope and nature of local authority periodicals. Findings were similar and keydata gathered by each organisation was echoed also by research completed by the Audit Commission towards the end of 2009.  Back

6   Proposed Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity (hereafter 'Code'), para 28, as detailed in the consultation paper. Back

7   LGA response to consultation. Back

8   From information supplied by the LGA to the committee and in their consultation response.  Back

9   Letter from Stephen Bundred, Chief Executive of the Audit Commission to Rt Hon Stephen Timms, Minister for Digital Britain, 22.1.2010. Back

10   Code, para 28.  Back

11   Fourth Report of the Culture Media and Sport Committee, Session 2009-10 (HC 43), Future for local and regional media, para 60.  Back

12   Appendices to a letter of 22.1.10 from Stephen Bundred, Chief Executive of the Audit Commission, to Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP, then Minister for Digital Britain. Back

13   Cited in the consultation response of the LGA.  Back

14   Code, para 28. Back

15   Q40 Simon Edgley for The Newspaper Society.  Back

16   See Fourth Report of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Session 2009-10 (HC 43), Future for local and regional media, particularly paras 19-41. Back

17   Q74 Back

18   NUJ response to consultation.  Back

19   Q49 Lynne Anderson for the Newspaper Society. Back

20   Q40 Jeremy Dear Back

21 'Spin, smoke-filled rooms, and the decline of council reporting by local newspapers: the slow demise of town hall transparency', James Morrison, a paper presented to the 60th Political Studies Association Annual Conference, April 2010.  Back

22   Q40 Lynne Anderson for The Newspaper Society. Back

23   Q6 Jules Pipe Back

24 - Consultation, September 2010, concerning a Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity (hereafter 'Condoc'). Back

25   E.g. Town hall freesheets are undermining proper journalism, Eric Pickles. Observer/Guardian, Sat 26 June 2010. Back

26  Back

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