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Pickles' attack on council papers "more Putin than Pravda"

13 December 2013

New powers, which allow the government to gag local council newspapers from reporting issues such as local hospital closures or HS2, must be resisted.

Clause 39 of the local audit and accountability bill, which reaches report stage in the House of Commons next week (17 December), would give Eric Pickles, secretary of state for communities and local government, the statutory power to clamp down on councils for putting out information on issues he deems to be "contentious areas of public policy". 

If a Labour-run council put out literature referring to the bedroom tax instead of spare room subsidy, or, for example, a Conservative council put out information on the local implications of a controversial project such as HS2, these could be ruled as "contentious".

The powers would be part of a new statutory code of practice. The NUJ believes there is no evidence that extra statutory powers are required to strengthen the code of practice, as any council which fails to meet its obligation to be balanced and uses publications as political platforms already faces sanctions.

NUJ members working on council publications abide by the union's ethical guide which says:

"Members working in local and national government shall maintain professional political neutrality at work, unless their conditions of employment specifically allow otherwise," and "They have a duty to ensure that their employers or clients acknowledge that goodwill and reputation are based on trust, and that effective public relations practice depends on enhancing the organisation's reputation by truthful means and by ensuring that information disseminated is accurate and fair."

The NUJ believes the bill flies in the face of localism; moving power away from local councils to Whitehall. This has been called undemocratic by members from all the main parties on the Local Government Association.

Annette Brooke, LibDem MP for Mid Dorset and North Poole, said:

"I have a concern that we may be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut— that question needs to be asked. The measure slightly offends my localist principles, because the local council should be making the decisions and standing up to be counted when it is seen by its electorate as wasting money on these 'lavish' publications.
"I am not at all convinced by the argument that such publications are in widespread competition with local newspapers, and the evidence would seem to be against that view; so, again, questions remain. I can see what the government are aiming to do, but we have to recall that the provision of information and a council being outward looking is a good thing, even if most of the photos in the newspaper are of members of the ruling party."

LibDem peer Lord Tope said the clause on the code was:

"…entirely contrary to the much talked about—but not so often seen in practice—localism to which my Government, and many of us in my Government, are committed…
"I suspect that all of us would say that it is the responsibility of the local authority to represent and to argue the views and interests of its local residents, and if it did not, or it felt inhibited in doing so, then it would be failing those residents. So these are the sorts of issues that the move from a voluntary code, with which the overwhelming majority of local authorities comply willingly, to a statutorily backed code — with all its accompanying concerns, issues and fears, groundless or otherwise."

The union is unconvinced that council newspapers, which are printed between four to six times a year, are a threat to the local press.  It is also concerned that limiting publication could prevent local councils from responding to local emergencies, such as flooding or other disasters.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said:

"Eric Pickles is pleased to sound off about what he calls town hall Pravdas, but it seems his plans to determine what these newspapers can print, if at all, smacks of Putinism. There are adequate sanctions if these publications step out of line. The gagging of local council publications seems to fly in the face of the coalition's purported support of localism. I am very surprised LibDem MPs have signed up to this. Next week, they will have the chance to see sense and can vote out the dangerous parts of clause 39 and other parts of this illiberal bill."

Tags: , eric pickles, councils, council publications, code of conduct, pr, ethics