The NUJ speaks out to defend local council communications in response to the latest attack by Eric Pickles MP.
The role of council communications is often hugely misunderstood, as well as sometimes deliberately misrepresented. They face significant criticism whilst taking little credit for the service they provide to local people.
Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has recently reiterated his determination to stop local councils publishing newspapers, referring to them as "Town Hall Pravdas".
"The NUJ rejects Pickles assertions about the publications - concerns about politicisation or waste are better dealt with by facts and analysis rather than bluster and innuendo." says Fiona Swarbrick, NUJ national organiser.
There are statutory safeguards against the misuse of public money for political ends, as the Audit Commission highlighted, and we would agree that it is not appropriate for local and national tax payers' money to be paying for propaganda for any political party, nor should council newspapers compete with local newspapers.
The union has already submitted robust evidence to the government about these issues and you can watch the parliamentary session on local authority publications with
the NUJ giving evidence here.
You can also read the communities and local government parliamentary committee - first report of the select committee for the proposed code of recommended practice on local authority publicity here
Sadly Eric Pickles completely disregarded the committee’s recommendation that there be an impact assessment of local government publications, meaning that we are unable to see policy being evidence-based.
In March 2011 Pickles introduced his code of recommended practice on local authority publicity which, whilst not legally enforceable, came to the arbitrary conclusion that local authority publications should be issued no more frequently than quarterly.
The union is not convinced that local authority publications are responsible for the decline in local newspaper sales - it has been the attempts to maintain profit margins by cutting overheads, rather than investing in quality journalism, that are at the heart of the current decline in circulation amongst many local and regional newspapers.
Allegations of unfair competition are false; particularly given the tiny number of weekly and fortnightly local authority publications - with some commercial newspapers enjoying a profitable relationship with local authority publications. Trinity Mirror, for example, has a lucrative printing contract with several London local authorities.
The reality for journalistic staff working on these publications is one of habitual struggles to resist attempts by local authority cabinet members and chief executives to dictate content.
NUJ members working in PR and communications – both in and outside of local authorities – are bound by both defamation law and the union’s ethical code on working in the sector, obliging them to:
- carry out their duties fairly, honestly and truthfully
- ensure information they disseminate is accurate and fair
- refuse to disseminate false or misleading information
- provide their employers with independent professional advice without fear or favour
- maintain professional political neutrality when working in local or national government, unless their conditions of employment specifically allow otherwise.
Given the problems faced by the local newspaper industry and the limits placed on local authorities by both financial constraints and legislation, the NUJ believes there is merit in developing alternative models of newspaper and website ownership - based on reporting in the public interest with editorial and political independence - and models of co-operative ownership and profit-sharing which may involve local authorities, unions, and community groups.
"We would be more impressed by efforts to address the real problems faced by local media and local communities rather than have to rebut the misrepresentation of the authorities as they seek to deliver information. The NUJ is committed to help and support those involved in the production of council communications deal with the challenges they face at work." said Fiona.
If the government can ensure that local newspapers are given the support necessary to survive and thrive, then journalists and citizens will all benefit.