Hackney Council have been threatened with legal action by the Government after repeated requests to stop the printing of controversial council publication Hackney Today have been ignored.
Under the Government’s 2011 Publicity Code, council publications must not publish their own newspapers more than four times a year. These regulations were strengthened by the 2014 Local Audit and Accountability Act, to try and stop the taxpayer’s money paying for council newspapers.
The council has claimed to produce the fortnightly publication since 2001, but has confirmed that its paper comes out less frequently over the summer and Christmas periods. Ignoring the regulations has led to Communities Secretary Sajid Javid issuing directions to Hackney Council. The local authority have 14 days to agree to comply with the Publicity Code, ignoring this could see the council face court action.
The majority of local authorities have complied with the code. Asked to respond to the Government’s statement, the council press office referred inquiries to the Hackney Today website, which says the Hackney Council “took note of this guidance”, adding “(It) reviewed its practice, and concluded that a fortnightly paper was the most cost-effective way of getting information out to residents, and reached the highest number of people.”
The role of council newspapers has caused controversy amid the decline of local journalism, as independent local newspapers say they undercut their prices on advertising and take all council statutory notice advertising, as well confuse readers who assume the publications are objective, independent newspapers.
Hackney is served by both the Hackney Gazette and the Hackney Citizen. The Citizen launched a campaign last year against the unfair commercial competition by the local authority publication. Keith Magnum, Editor of the Hackney Citizen told ELL at the time: “With ad revenues down year on year, we’re operating in a very challenging financial environment, [Hackney council] are not charging market rates and so commercial publishers can’t compete.”
With residents using Hackney Today as a source of news in the borough, independent newspapers have argued that council publications threaten the plurality of local news by only pressing their own agenda.
Ramzy Alwakeel, Editor of the Hackney Gazette, told ELL: “Council publications impact local news by taking away advertising and campaign opportunities. Because there is such a lot of (public) money behind them, they can achieve distribution models and circulation figures the rest of us can scarcely dream of.”
Also, because of its misleading appearance as a newspaper, readers – most of whom will see Hackney Today first – may end up avoiding actual newspapers, believing they have already had a recent news update. Certainly people ring us having muddled us up with Hackney Today in their minds.”
On the Hackney Today FAQ website, the Council claim: “The Hackney Gazette sells fewer than 5,000 copies per week, so by using Hackney Today to publish statutory advertising and other council information we can ensure we reach almost everyone who lives here.”
One resident gives his views:
The London Assembly Economy Committee recently wrote a report expressing their concerns on the decline of local news, titled: ‘The fate of local news – read all about it’.
Fiona Twycross of the London Assembly Economy Committee said: “It is the responsibility of the council to make sure they don’t squeeze the local newspapers to such an extent that there isn’t any income for them. Council run publications will always focus on the information that the council wants to get across. You need the local media to make sure you get a critical eye on what councils are doing.”
Hackney Council claim to circulate 108,000 copies of Hackney Today fortnightly, supposedly delivering copies free to every home and business in the borough. These figures have been disputed the Hackney Citizen.
The council newspaper had a net cost of £376,778 to the council from 2015/16, Hackney Today also takes paid advertising. The regulations that prohibit local authority printing their publications fortnightly is to reduce these costs, that ultimately come out of the tax-payer’s pocket.
Javid has previously sent written warnings to the authority prior to the issuing of his directions.
A Hackney Council spokesperson said: “We have received the notice from DCLG and we are carefully considering our options.”