Greenwich Council’s propaganda weekly got an unlikely airing in the Midlands at the end of last week as Prime Minister David Cameron took aim at Greenwich Time when he launched the Conservatives’ local election campaign.
London boroughs won’t see an election for another year yet, but seats in English county councils are up for grabs on 2 May.
“And what about all those Labour councils shamelessly spending your money on their propaganda?
Greenwich – whose town-hall newspaper is about as balanced as Pravda. And about as interesting to read as well!
Tee-hee! Dave did a funny!
Lambeth – which scare-mongers about cuts – but funnily enough still has cash for posters all over the borough attacking the Government.
These people: when it comes to spending your money, they just cannot help themselves.”
Interestingly enough, I spend a fair bit of time near Shepherd’s Bush Green, where the lamp posts are covered in posters boasting about council tax cuts in Hammersmith & Fulham – a Conservative borough.
That aside, David Cameron’s speech shows how Greenwich Time has become an exposed target for opponents to kick – despite the fact that his government has failed to kill it off after promising to once already.
A recently-introduced code on council publicity was meant to put an end to the likes of GT – but it doesn’t have the force of law, and Greenwich has blithely continued publishing, and is likely to do so up to the next council election.
Now communities secretary Eric Pickles has launched a consultation on making that code law.
“Some councils are undermining the free press and wasting taxpayers’ money which should be spent carefully on the front line services that make a real difference to quality of life. It should not, under any circumstances, be used to fund political propaganda and town hall Pravdas and yet a hardcore minority of councils continue to ignore the rules despite public concern.”
Greenwich Council has always maintained that Greenwich Time covers its own costs and that scrapping it would divert money away from frontline services. This is because the council would have to place its public notices (planning permission, consultations, that kind of thing) in the News Shopper or the Mercury.
Let’s deal with the value for money question first. The finances of Greenwich Time are difficult to quantify, since they don’t account for the involvement of the council’s seven-strong press office, which is as involved with GT as the freelancers whose names appear in the paper.
With Greenwich Time the central plank of all council communications – unlike other boroughs, Greenwich doesn’t have advertising space on bus shelters, for example – it’s nigh-on impossible to split it out from the schmoozing, scheming, talking and influencing press officers do. Without GT, Greenwich would have to completely reshape its press operation.
Yet most other councils manage without producing their own weekly newspaper – the only other one is Tower Hamlets’ East End Life. Hillingdon Council’s communications manager Charlotte Stamper says by using the law, “Pickles is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut” – adding that local councils effectively subsidise local papers by placing public notices in them.
If Pickles removed the need for councils to place so many public notices, the justification for Greenwich Time would vanish overnight.
“The line in the sand is clear, publicity material straying into propaganda clearly crosses that line, and this legislation will stop this disgraceful misuse of public money, which damages local democracy and threatens an independent, free and vibrant local press.”
Greenwich Time certainly gets in the way of honest reporting. On a financial level, it’s believed to undercut the ad rates demanded by traditional local papers (and making life hard for potential new entrants – remember Games Extra, the Olympics clone of the Greenwich Visitor?); while on a practical level, council news stories tend to be held so GT gets the exclusive and its rivals are left chasing.
But the problem in Greenwich is that there wasn’t an independent, free and vibrant local press to start with. Despite the work of talented reporters, the owners of the Mercury and the News Shopper have squeezed budgets to such an extent that their papers are barely able to cover the basics. Indeed, distribution is so poor that the only paper many residents will see is… Greenwich Time.
A good case study is Greenwich Council’s scheme to give jobs to residents hit by social security cuts. This has been known about since the end of January, and was launched last Monday with a press conference at the Woolwich Centre – as usual, too late for coverage in the print versions of the Mercury or News Shopper, but guaranteeing oodles of uncritical coverage in Greenwich Time.
On the left, Greenwich Time in September 2009, announcing a scheme to employ people in temporary jobs. On the right, Greenwich Time in April 2013, announcing a scheme to… yep, you got it.
But was the initial scheme a success? Did the people given “green jobs” in 2009 get back into work? We don’t know. An “independent, free and vibrant local press” would have scrutinised this and asked difficult questions. But it hasn’t. It’s a worthy-looking scheme, but we’ve no idea if it’s really going to do something to improve people’s lives for the long term.
So the only coverage most people will see is what they’ll read in Greenwich Time – not just because the council’s trying to smother the market, but because the traditional local press won’t invest to free reporters up to do any real, in-depth reporting. Greenwich Time undercutting their ad rates won’t help them do that, of course, but it’s the editors and proprietors who ceded the space to the council in the first place.
But there’s one other consideration – has Greenwich Time naturally had its day? Are people now seeing through the propaganda after five long years of weekly papers? Does anyone actually read it any more?
Essentially, GT stories tend to associate the council with community initiatives, good deeds with children, and regeneration schemes – this week’s issue sucks up to the developers of (The Heart of East) Greenwich Square. Its favoured worldview also promotes Chris Roberts’ pet projects and people – this week’s features an embarrassing photo of his deputy (and his preferred successor) Peter Brooks with swimmers and Duncan Goodhew at Charlton Lido. Expect to see a bit more of Brooksy over the next year. It’s all getting a bit samey.
Councillors and council officers might think they’ve got people’s attention when they tick off the box marked “get article in Greenwich Time”, but that’s no good if half your taxpayers are binning the thing, and you’ve no other publicity options. I was intrigued that the council’s Bridge The Gap campaign on river crossings only had 795 online pledges of support out of the 84,000 households Greenwich Time is delivered to, despite seven consecutive weeks of promotion there. I’m waiting to find out how many of those pledges actually came from within Greenwich borough.
Yet sometimes it’s best when other people do your publicity for you. Take a look at new-ish blogs The Only Way Is Woolwich and Seen In Greenwich talking about the council’s Environment Champions scheme. This stuff is far better than anything you’ll read in GT – and far more valuable because it removes the “well, they would say that anyway” factor you’d get from a council publication. Sometimes you just have to do the right thing and trust other people to be your messengers, be they journalists, bloggers or residents (or all three at once) instead of trying to force it down people’s throats.
Or maybe we could just gang together and use another Pickles innovation, the community right to challenge, to bid to run Greenwich Time and take it off the council’s hands altogether. Who’s got a few quid spare?
So, sledgehammer or not, I’ll be responding to the government’s consultation. I’m sorry for the other local councils that don’t break the rules – but this one’s screwed it up for the rest of you. Not out of nostalgia for a golden era of local journalism, but because it’s an abuse of power that’s increasingly looking anachronistic. If you’ve got a strong view on GT either way, you might like to do the same.