11:17am Thursday 17th June 2010
NEWS Shopper’s parent group struck a blow for local newspapers in Parliament on Monday night.
Howard Scott, managing director for Newsquest in south and west London, won a Parliamentary debate after proposing that taxpayer-funded council 'newspapers' undermine local democracy.
The debate was the first hosted by the Parliamentary Debating Group since the new coalition government took office.
And Mr Scott - supported in the motion by Brian Doel, managing director of Tindle Newspapers - argued against councils being allowed to spend taxpayers' money publishing their messages under the guise of genuine, unbiased, newspapers.
The debate came at a critical time, with Labour's last culture secretary Ben Bradshaw branding council newspapers as propaganda.
Now, the new government has also pledged to 'impose tougher rules to stop unfair competition by local authority newspapers'.
At the start of the hotly-contested debate, Mr Scott said council 'newspapers' not only mislead the public but, by subsidising the production using public money and competing for advertising with commercial newspapers, they could lead to the closure of real newspapers, some of which have been serving their communities for centuries.
He cited the case of Greenwich Time, the weekly paper produced by Greenwich Council, which is produced at a gross annual cost to the taxpayer of £600,000.
Greenwich Time contains no mention of Labour’s opponents on Greenwich Council and is used to shamelessly promote the ruling party’s interests.
Mr Scott said: "The cynical attempts by some authorities to control and manipulate public thinking and debate via these official mouthpieces is something which should concern anyone who treasures our democratic processes.
"If they are allowed to continue and spread, then local democracy is damaged and our lives will be the poorer for it."
But Alex Aiken, head of press at Westminster City Council, argued council publications 'illuminate' debate and were filling a gap created by local newspapers themselves, who no longer covered council meetings and local affairs in the way they once had.
He said 'arrogant' newspapers, often not based in the area they purport to cover and with an expectation of high profit margins, had lost touch with their readers and had failed to adapt to changing advertising markets, with more adverts going online.
Mr Aiken also pointed out that only a handful of councils had gone down the route of publishing newspapers on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.
But his case was fatally undermined when Mr Scott quoted a statement by Mr Aiken himself earlier in the year when he had advised councils to stop publishing newspapers.
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