Should Greenwich Time be set free?

The future of Greenwich Time – and other council-funded newspapers around the country – was debated on Monday by MPs scrutinising the government’s plans to cut them down to four issues a year. If it proved anything, it’s that the issue isn’t as clear cut as protagonists on both sides of the debate would want you to believe, possibly best summed up by an executive from local newspaper group Trinity Mirror laying into them – despite the company holding the contract to print GT and other council newspapers across London.

But the House of Commons’ Communities and Local Government Committee did get the pleasure of seeing government minister Grant Shapps wave a copy of Greenwich Time around the place while denouncing its many evils. Or, as he kept calling it, “Greenwich Times” [sic].

You can watch it here if you like. Mr Shapps followed a panel of local government experts and a panel of media luminaries – the latter including Guardian columnist Roy Greenslade and NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear – who took questions from the MPs, who included Eltham’s Clive Efford.

It was with Efford that Shapps came unstuck. Shapps claimed Greenwich Time cost £708,000 a year to produce – with taxpayers stumping up £532,000 of this. Efford challenged this – Greenwich has long claimed GT is close to breaking even – and Shapps agreed to double-check his figures. But that didn’t stop him sticking rigidly to his line. “The idea that residents will feel delighted that £500,000 is going into East End Life Pravda [sic] is ludicrous.”

I think the government’s right to crack down on these papers – which have mainly sprung up in London, with Greenwich Time and Tower Hamlets’ East End Life being the only weeklies. But I’m not sure the government has any rationale for getting rid of them other than a distrust of the councils that are publishing them. Shapps parroted “town hall Pravda”, “the bins”, and “four times a year” like a speak-your-cliche machine, seeming to think the main cost involved was printing, rather than commissioning the content for them. His arguments – particularly around statutory notices, which once appeared in the Mercury and now appears
in GT – were muddled, and he confused “Greenwich Times” [sic] and East End Life.

“What I want to see is a free press flourishing at a local level in this country,”
Shapps said – but what about areas like Greenwich, effectively served only by a pair of poorly-distributed ailing freesheets, both shared with a neighbouring borough, based far outside the area, which long ago stopped trying to scrutinise local institutions properly? The government doesn’t seem to appreciate that market failure has helped bring about the situation in Greenwich, where a council feels it cannot publicise its actions properly.

(The man from Trinity Mirror said his company was in the business of doing “great things locally”. In Greenwich and Lewisham, that was shutting down the Mercury‘s Deptford HQ and moving it to Streatham, before selling it to rival Tindle.)

Of course, none of this stops Greenwich Council from abusing the dominant-by-default position of Greenwich Time, as outlined in this blog over the past two years – the latest example being the recent slavish coverage of the council-backed redevelopment of Kidbrooke’s Ferrier Estate, which has ignored the rows with those still in the crumbling buildings. While the Mercury and News Shopper did cover their plight, GT’s superior distribution means the council can shout the loudest.

Nothing appears without the explicit approval of the council leadership. It is this pernicious influence on the life of the borough which makes Greenwich Time such a problem. Not the cost, not printing, not the effect on local papers whose proprietors treat them just as cash cows – but the council being able to abuse a market-leading position.

If the likes of Grant Shapps thinks that abolishing Greenwich Time will lead to a flowering of local media in SE London, then he’s in fantasy land. Neither Tindle nor News Shopper owner Newsquest are investing in their papers – they won’t even cough up to distribute them properly. (In Tindle’s case, it won’t even give the Mercury a proper website.)

But the fact is Greenwich Council has established a market-leading position for Greenwich Time, showing up the woeful efforts of the newspaper giants. There’s a chance for something positive to come out of this.

If you take out the pro-council guff, GT’s an excellently-produced piece of work with unbeatable reach. Why not simply separate it from the influence of the council leadership?

Make its editorial independent and guarantee space for different viewpoints, use it to train people, make it a proper community newspaper. A partnership, instead of a means of control. I said some of this earlier this year, but I’m pleased to see The Media Briefing’s Greg Hadfield come up with similar thoughts. If Greenwich Time breaks even, isn’t it time to set it free? Even selling a share could come in handy at a time of cuts.

In dictating what councils like Greenwich can do, the government is acting with the same level of control freakery as Greenwich Council’s leadership. Somewhere in between their stubborn positions is a solution which will enable the council to get its message across, but will also challenge the council and other institutions to answer to their public, and will help fill the gap left behind by the dying local press. But will either Labour Greenwich Council or the Tory-Lib Dem government be brave enough to suggest it?

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