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MPs: Town hall newspapers can damage your democracy

PUBLISHED: 15:29 20 January 2010 | UPDATED: 10:03 12 August 2010

WARNING: MP John Horam

WARNING: MP John Horam

MPs have called for the axing of council tax-funded newspapers published by town halls. A debate was held in the House of Commons following concerns that councils use public money to push biased news on residents and remove advertising revenue from loca

MPs have called for the axing of council tax-funded newspapers published by town halls.

A debate was held in the House of Commons following concerns that councils use public money to push biased news on residents and remove advertising revenue from local independently produced newspapers and websites.

Greenwich Time, written by council staff, claims to be "the newspaper campaigning for an even greater Greenwich". It has won the Chartered Institute of Public Relations' Newspaper of the Year award.

Kent County Council has its own television station, Kent TV, which can be viewed on the internet.

Bexley council dropped its newspaper when the Conservative Party came into power in 2006, while Boris Johnson scrapped The Londoner on becoming Mayor of London, saving £4 million a year.

Bexleyheath and Crayford MP David Evennett has joined Conservative MP for Gravesham Adam Holloway and Orpington MP John Horam in calling for a cull of council 'newspapers'.

In the parliamentary debate last Wednesday, Mr Evennett said: "It is an issue that many members, from all parties, are concerned about. When we are trying to engage more people in politics and the democratic process, surely the local press has an important role.

"Council publications cannot fulfil it to the same extent because they are informative journals, but we need to get more people interested in politics, and the only way to do that is to have a vigorous local press."

He added: "Clearly, some councils are not spending taxpayers' money appropriately if they are sending out publications that include things that are beyond their remit, like TV listings and theatre reviews. A vigorous local press that provides real scrutiny is an important part of the democratic process."

In 2008, it emerged that Greenwich council spent more than £3 million on publicity that year, compared to £648,000 in Bexley and £907,000 in Bromley.

Kent County Council leader Paul Carter previously told the Times that the authority saved £1 million in publications by switching to publishing solely on its website.

Mr Horam was unable to comment as he is abroad in Spain as part of his role on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and Mr Holloway was unavailable for comment as the Times went to press.

Lynne Anderson, Newspaper Society communications director, said: "We have no complaint about the traditional council newsletter, published three or four times a year and providing helpful information to residents about council services.

"But we do object strongly to this new breed of council 'newspaper' or magazine, often monthly or more frequent like the weekly Greenwich Time, which uses taxpayers' money to compete head-to-head with independent local papers for readers and advertising revenues.

"They are nothing more than propaganda sheets in the guise of impartial news reporting. They threaten the existence of the only voices which can hold councils to account, and for that reason they should be banned."

"The recent Local Newspapers debate in Westminster showed that MPs are becoming increasingly aware of this important issue, which has potentially profound consequences for democracy at a local and national level."

Times group editor, Melody Foreman, agreed adding that local newspapers were the only real independent voice of the community.

She said: "The Kentish Times series has a long and thriving reputation for balanced reportage. It is something our advertisers and readers value us for. The government must do everything it can to protect the independence of genuine, recognised and independent local newspapers.

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