A ConDem Government minister’s announcement that will please Croydon Labour councillors? Not possible? It just might be.
According to a report in Wednesday’s national Guardian newspaper, Eric Pickles, the communities and local government secretary, will this weekend announce guidelines that will ban councils from producing free papers and magazines.
The move will be greeted warmly by all commercial publishers of local newspapers, since councils across the country have been reducing their advertising spend with their titles, a once reliable income source for their businesses. Instead, councils have been using their in-house rags to carry regulatory notices and borough news.
Like most things to do with the ConDems, Pickles’s move is dogma-driven: his regular complaints about “town hall Pravdas” have been aimed at Labour, and even some LibDem, councils which have used their own newspapers to pass information about their activities and services to the ratepayers.
In Croydon, it is not so straighforward. Here, it is a Tory-controlled council’s monthly newspaper that has been a target for complaints from local Labour leader Tony Newman, who points to the £80,000 a year cost as a waste of public money at a time when other services and council grants are being slashed.
Today’s report suggests that under the rules proposed, councils will only be allowed to publish free titles four times a year.
Council-published papers, by their very nature, tend to be dull but worthy. But they could become even worse under Pickles’s censorship proposals: “They will also have to remove any content which appears to praise the council or endorse the quality of its local services, including quotes from local residents,” the report says.
Quite rightly, council newspapers and websites are already tightly controlled under Electoral Commission rules. But “under the Pickles measures,” the reports says, “councils would be warned not to issue their publications close to elections, referendums, or major political events such as the Budget.”
Thing is, anything that sees Pickles doing something which Croydon Labour also advocates just feels intrinsically wrong.
Croydon council’s newspaper is pretty anodyne and benign, with a parish pump feel to it, spreading information about local services far more effectively than anything that could be done through the Brothel Advertiser or Croydon Guardian. And it does so far more cost-effectively than ads in the local papers might ever achieve.
In any case, were Labour to regain control of Croydon Town Hall, wouldn’t they want to utilise some medium for informing the ratepayers of their activities? Of course they should.
Meanwhile, Pickles is seeking to disguise his political motivation – gagging Labour local councils around the country – by boasting of how his move is to “protect the viability and voice of independent local newspapers”.
Only a man who has never read the Brothel Advertiser would suggest it is something worth protecting.