Posted by: Ciaran | April 6, 2010

News in the nude: the week’s stories undressed

While the UK was dominated all morning by the announcement of the General Election, a report called Future for local and regional media quietly crept out from the House of Commons’s Culture Media and Sport Committee.

It warns of the dire impact of council-funded freesheets on local papers, citing not only the competition in readership but also in advertising.

More seriously, though, it notes the inherent threat these council publications pose to a free press, with committee chairman John Whittingdale warning that they have “serious implications for local democracy.”

Taxpayer-funded papers have the potential to hegemonise council agendas and undermine any other media seeking to hold them to account.

They are also costly and increasingly common and frequent. Today’s report notes at paragraph 59:

The LGA [Local Government Association] conducted a survey of council publications in 2009 and nearly all respondent authorities (94.5 per cent) produced a newsletter, magazine or newspaper. Of these, quarterly publications were most common, accounting for 32.4 per cent, while 14.4 per cent published editions monthly or more frequently. On average, it cost authorities £70,000 to produce the publication over the financial year 2008/09, employing the equivalent of one full-time person.

The report called for the Office of Fair Trading to examine the impact of council-run newspapers on the local and regional press, something which Northern Echo editor Peter Barron supports on his blog. He writes: “I agree because there are too many council publications which are using taxpayers’ money to peddle political bias and to compete for commercial advertising with local newspapers.”

The Newspaper Society has a great list of links to articles on public sector competition. The rundown includes a link to today’s blog by Roy Greenslade, who has been calling for an OFT inquiry for months now.

The Government has a duty to protect a free press and today’s report is a timely reminder of the difficulties facing local and regional media. Tighter regulations on publicly-funded output might not be the magic bullet the industry needs, but it sure would be a welcome shot in the arm.

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