£1.2m council free sheet under fire for high pay

Pic: Duncan Harris

A council newspaper criticised by local councillors as a “vanity project”  pays its journalists an average wage twice that of journalists in the private sector, it has been revealed.

Freedom of Information requests by rival paper the Docklands and East London Advertiser showed the average yearly salary for editorial staff at the council-funded East End Life was £47,500.

The equivalent average for private sector journalists is estimated at £24,500 by graduate career advisor Prospects, raising questions about the council’s use of taxpayer funds.

But a spokesperson for the National Union of Journalists said an average salary was not representative of most people’s wages, adding: “The overwhelming majority of NUJ members at the council are paid nowhere near that amount.”

A council spokesperson said: “You can’t equate this figure directly into paid salaries as it includes National Insurance, pensions contributions and on-costs. This figure includes a range of salary grades.”

The figures emerged weeks after Conservative minister for Communities Eric Pickles threatened to outlaw council newspapers, which he called “town hall Pravdas”.

The paper has come under fire in the past for its cost and lack of independence, with a large amount of its funding coming from advertising that the council effectively pays itself for.

Tower Hamlets Labour  leader Joshua Peck said: “The paper has become a mouthpiece for the Mayor and is just packed full of puff pieces for him. You would need more than two hands to count the number of photos of him – it’s moved from being a public service into a personal vanity project.”

“It’s a very expensive outfit at a time when the council is having to cut into frontline services that people rely on. I don’t think it’s an appropriate use of public funds.”

The council said: “East End Life staff are paid in line with  salaries across the council and indeed across the public sector. We know these salaries are higher than some in the newspaper industry but staff salaries reflect the skills required to run a popular and well-read council publication.

“East End Life is budgeted to be produced at net nil cost to the taxpayer and is better value for money than the alternatives.”

But Ted Jeory, a local blogger and ex-Advertiser blogger, said that junior press officers are routinely paid more than even senior editors at local papers.

Jeory said: “Salaries in the private sector are largely determined by profit and bottom line. Council papers are in a bubble. Their staff’s wages are determined by local government grades, not profit. They don’t have to worry about going bust.

He told EastLondonLines that senior council officers had told him that communications post had been “over-graded” since a consultancy called Verve Communications ran the department seven years ago.

The free sheet’s editorial budget is £218,000 per year, according to the council.  A previous FOI request in 2010 found that 49% of the paper’s revenue came from council funds.

Peck claimed there was a “perverse incentive” for the council to inflate the costs of its own advertising in order to create an effective “subsidy” for the paper.

But Jeory also believes low wages in the private sector represented a failure on the part of local media companies.

He said: “Local newspaper groups have been very poorly run over the years. In the good times, they suppressed journalists’ wages and paid out their profits to senior managers and even to advertising staff. Local paper groups always argue they can’t afford to pay more; I think that’s nonsense.”

Peck agreed: “I think it’s right that staff of the council should be properly paid; I suspect if you ask most journalists they would think they were underpaid.”

Archant Media, which owns the Advertiser, paid its chief executive £445,000 in salary plus benefits for the financial year ending in 2010.

Angela Phillips, a member of the National Union of Journalists who testified at the Leveson Inquiry, said: “We are in a position where the NUJ should be protecting the jobs of journalists rather than the jobs of press officers.

“Local authorities should not be allowed to produce free sheets. They should be under an obligation to advertise in the local press in order to keep the local press alive.“

Written by Laurence Dodds and Alan Dymock

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