Tower Hamlets Council has rejected accusations that its publicly funded newspaper can be considered ‘propaganda’, after a Labour MP made an attack in a new parliamentary measure.
Labour MP Andy Sawford questioned Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, about an alleged breach of the Code of Ethics by Tower Hamlets during Commons Questions on Tuesday last week.
The government’s Code of Ethics about publicity cost-effectiveness reads: “Local authorities should not publish or incur expenditure in commissioning in hard copy or on any website, newsletters, news sheets or similar communications which seek to emulate commercial newspapers in style or context.”
Tower Hamlets uses council taxes to distribute 90,000 copies of the council’s free weekly newspaper, East End Life. According to them, it keeps “residents up-to-date in an informal and accessible way on the work of the council.”
The cost of publishing East End Life is estimated at around £1.5 million per year.
However, the publication has been criticised for its alleged bias towards Mayor Lutfur Rahman and its independent group in the run-up to next years’ local elections.
When asked for a comment, a spokesperson for Tower Hamlets council rejected any notion that East End Life or any other publication produced by the council breaks the Code of Ethics.
The spokesperson said: “Like neighbouring local authorities, Greenwich, Newham and Hackney, we have a council publication and all of us follow clear guidelines set by the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity to ensure that all council publicity is fair, balanced and politically neutral. The code is explicit in permitting politicians to lead council campaigns.”
The spokesperson also said that all local authorities have a duty to “report back on the performance of the administration and the services available for residents, including those that affect health, community safety and social cohesion” and that this is precisely what East End Life does.
Last week, the Tower Hamlets Labour Party released a statement, criticizing the number of mentions of the mayor and his supporters against members of opposing parties, in East End Life.
When compared with Hackney Mayor Jules Pipe in the council’s biweekly newspaper, The Hackney Today, Rahman does have significantly more coverage in East End Life.
Over 28 issues examined by the Tower Hamlets council, Rahamn is mentioned, on average, 9.1 times, while Pipe was mentioned, over the last five issues of the Hackney Today, only an average of 3 times per issue.
Leader of Tower Hamlets Labour Group, Councillor Sirajul Islam, said that figures like those “leave no doubt that the Mayor and his supporters are abusing the paper for their own political benefit.”
A bill currently running through Parliament would give the government power to directly stop the borough from printing the newspaper.
Called the “Local Audit and Accountability Bill 2013-2014,” the bill includes a section that would enable the government “to make provision for directions to comply with codes of practice on local authority publicity.”
The bill, which has already passed its House of Lords reading, is due to have its report stage and third reading in the Commons tomorrow.