The Real News: Your Council Is Killing Free Speech; Propaganda Threat to Local Newspapers

Article excerpt

Byline: DAN SABBAGH

THEY'VE been around so long, we take them for granted.

Perhaps it's only on holiday or stumbling into a newsagent's far from home you'll suddenly notice the local paper on the bottom shelf.

It may have a lurid headline or a quaint old-world design. But either way it's a reminder that wherever you are there is a rich community life.

It records battles over a new housing estate, results of last week's dog show or the perennial struggles of another non-league team.

And there is only one place where such events are chronicled - by a local title that in many cases is over a hundred years old.

Berrow's Worcester Journal traces its history back to 1690 and local newspapers in Leeds, Belfast, Aberdeen and Hampshire all date back to the eighteenth century.

The local press, in short, has been with us far longer than our national papers - but its survival has never been under more threat.

From Liverpool to Farnham, local newspapers hit by the recession are fighting off a challenge from Google.

And at the same time many titles, incredibly, are under siege by a massive expansion in State publishing. At first it sounds innocent enough. Council after council puts out its own periodical, all paid for with ratepayers' money and pushed without permission through the door.

Some are occasional brochures but 150 across the land take advertising.

In some cases, such as East End Life in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, the council paper is a weekly with professional journalists and its own advert reps, competing with the local press for news and classifieds.

Independently owned commercial titles are battling for survival against a well-funded onslaught.

Last year councils spent pounds 257 million "communicating" with voters.

What's wrong with council owned newspapers - "mini-Pravdas" as the critics call them? Simple. The fundamental task of any newspaper from the Daily Mirror to the smallest parish freesheet is to hold people in power to account while providing a bit of entertainment along the way.

If the people in power own the newspaper, well, you can't expect proper criticism or investigation of their activities.

The result is endless banal "good news" about children's playgrounds when there is a drug problem in the next street. Or nauseating pictures of ugly, pointing councillors while the council paper studiously fails to mention any time one of those elected representative gets into trouble.

When I last looked, Britain was a democracy; countries and politicians that directly control their media are usually amongst the most unsavoury regimes in the world, from China to Zimbabwe. And before any Murdoch or anybody else brings up the BBC, our national broadcaster is different.

We pay for it directly through the licence fee and its constitution and funding are kept separate from meddling ministers who, however hard they try, are only allowed to set the fee about once every seven years.

A council-owned newspaper is quite different. In Barking and Dagenham, the Labour-controlled council, which should be trying to deal with the scourge of the BNP, has to cut pounds 30million in services over the next three years to balance its books. …