Greenwich Council’s cabinet will challenge Eric Pickles’ decision to outlaw its weekly newspaper, Greenwich Time, it confirmed after a meeting yesterday.
Greenwich remains the only Labour council in the country to print a weekly paper – and yet has decided to seek a judicial review of a direction by the communities secretary telling the council to stop publishing by 31 March.
The council insists it saves money by using Greenwich Time as its exclusive advertising outlet, and says it will lose out by having to exit print and distribution contracts early.
A paper released on the day of the cabinet meeting put the cost of Greenwich Time as being nearly £590,000 – although much of this would have to be spent elsewhere anyway on advertising planning applications and other statutory notices.
After a recent tender for alternative publications to place advertising in, Greenwich head of legal Russell Power says axing Greenwich Time would cost the council an extra quarter of a million pounds each year.
There’s no news on just how much a judicial review will cost – but the bill will be faced by the same Greenwich council taxpayers who get the paper shoved through their letterboxes every week.
With a general election coming up, it may well prove to be a spoiling tactic to get any ban moved until after the general election.
But the decision also makes it very hard for local Labour representatives to complain about coalition cuts when they’re blowing cash on saving a weekly newspaper that no other Labour council feels the need to have.
Indeed, the decision – which came a day after Greenwich West councillor Matt Pennycook stood down to concentrate on the battle for Greenwich & Woolwich – could prove embarrassing for Labour candidates in the general election.
The council’s announcement of the judicial review on Twitter was greeted with universal criticism. Tweets included “time to close it down and get your councillors to engage with residents properly,” “Don’t ever tell me in the future that there’s no money available to improve services”, and “why exactly should we fund this?”
How did we end up here, though? Let me take you back in time, to the early 1980s…
If you ever find yourself with a day free, head down to the Greenwich Heritage Centre in Woolwich’s Royal Arsenal and ask to have a look at their old newspapers. The microfilm goes back centuries, but even looking back to the 1980s is fascinating – a time of deep political polarisation.
Until the early 1980s, Greenwich had always been seen as a moderate, or even right-wing, Labour council. After 1982’s elections, things changed somewhat – left-winger John Austin-Walker took control, and a new wave of Labour councillors began to push more radical policies, complementing Ken Livingstone’s programme at the Greater London Council.
Of course, this was set against a particularly right-wing Conservative government, plus a national press that couldn’t understand why all these lefties were giving money to gay groups, ethnic groups, women’s groups – and then there were the nuclear-free zones, solidarity with striking miners, and more besides.
These battles were fought out on billboards, in newspaper ads, in Sun editorials, even in ads on the side of dustcarts.
The local press was in a much healthier state back then. The Woolwich-based Kentish Independent – 20p each week – was the paper that followed Greenwich Council the closest. The small-“c” conservative weekly faithfully reported all this stuff – and the opposition to it. (Its editor, Frank Dunkley, wasn’t shy about expressing his own rather ripe views, branding Austin-Walker “Nonsense Talker” in his own column. That column may have played part in the eventual closure of the paper – but that’s another story.)
A new council logo? Could the council be sharpening up its communications act?
Greenwich had been publishing a news-sheet called Civic News six times a year. With the local press, particularly the KI, sceptical about the council’s policies – and the nationals on the hunt for “loony left” stories – it seems the Labour administration wanted to fight its corner a bit more robustly.
I couldn’t track down any copies of Civic News at Greenwich Heritage Centre, so I can’t see if it had headlines to match the one about the missing maracas. But at the the bottom of a box, I found this…
In April 1984, just days after the Kentish Independent closed and Charlton Athletic had staved off the same fate, Greenwich Time was born as a monthly. It was distributed alongside the Mercury, which had just gone free (helping seal the old KI’s fate).
And yep, it was talking up the council’s role in helping save the Addicks from doom. A rate rise was promoted because it helped stop job cuts, while inside an editorial from John Austin-Walker said if it hadn’t been for government cuts, he would have been able to cut rates instead.
Looking through those early issues, it’s obvious Greenwich Time was a propaganda tool. But it’s clear those behind it saw it as a tool to champion the marginalised – the unemployed, women and minority groups. Greenwich councillors had found their most potent weapon to fight the decade’s culture wars.
It wasn’t all one way. A lively letters page contained a range of views, while a panel promoting council meetings cautioned: “it’s your council, keep an eye on it!”. Might have to revive that one.
It promoted discussion about just what the council should do about government cuts – and there was a surprisingly even-handed write-up of the all-night session which saw Greenwich finally, grudgingly, set a rate for 1985.
There was even a short-lived cartoon strip…
…while a council U-turn was owned up to.
This Socialist Worker-style campaigning fervour faded as the decade wore on, but Greenwich Time remained the place for a frustrated council to vent against Margaret Thatcher’s government.
12 years ahead of the Lewisham extension becoming reality, Greenwich Time praised the 1987 opening of the “space age” Docklands Light Railway, while rows with the government continued into the 1990s.
The paper went fortnightly in 1991 – still being distributed with the Mercury – and adopted a new look in 1993, when the council was run by Len Duvall. This era of Greenwich Time was almost benign – the news items were briefer and briskly-written, while council policies were still regularly challenged in the letters page.
The next big change came after this fresh-faced chap took over Greenwich Council in 2000.
Chris Roberts started with a blast at newly-elected mayor Ken Livingstone – then outside the Labour fold as an independent.
Another new look in 2002 saw Greenwich Time inch away from looking like a council newspaper and starting to ape the look of a local paper – specifically, the Mercury, whose former editor Peter Cordwell was drafted into work on it. (The relationship ended in acrimony a decade later.)
It’s here the personality cult also starts to kick in…
…and a 2004 story about Greenwich Peninsula which feels like it’s been repeated about 50 times since then.
There was also a campaign to bring Crossrail to Woolwich….
…and a “youth champion” becoming the youngest-ever councillor.
The final transformation came in May 2008, when Greenwich Time went weekly, carried a TV guide, was distributed on its own and started carrying council ads exclusively – making it much cheaper to run.
Strangely, that first weekly edition isn’t in the Heritage Centre, so here’s a council tax freeze – before it started telling porkies about long it’d lasted for – with our favourite picture of the Dear Leader.
Looking back over Greenwich Time’s history, you can see three key stages – the nakedly political, campaigning paper of the 1980s; the brisk information sheet of the 1990s; and the 21st-century imitation of being a local paper.
Under Austin-Walker it wanted to persuade you to support a particular viewpoint, and published monthly; the Duvall version was more about information, published fortnightly; while under Roberts it became something aimed at more subtly shaping opinions, and published weekly.
It’s also worth considering the wider media context – the free Mercury had a near-monopoly in Greenwich for much of the the 1980s after the Kentish Independent’s demise, although the paid-for Eltham Times still figured in the south of the borough along with the free News Shopper. By 1988, the local newspaper market was still strong enough for the Shopper to launch borough-wide.
Scroll forward to 2015, and the Mercury is a shadow of its former self while the former Eltham Times retreated to Bexley and Bromley some years back. Neither the Mercury nor the News Shopper have the reach of Greenwich Time – a near-reversal of the situation in 1984.
Much of this has been down to the greed and stupidity of the local newspaper industry – but Greenwich Time, once the paper that fought for minority causes, has taken advantage of this to get a dominant position in both distribution and advertising.
Back in the 1980s, Greenwich Time was run by councillors willing to risk their own finances for what they believed in – risking surcharges in battles over rates. Their 2015 successors have not nearly been as active in defying government cuts, except when it comes to risking taxpayers’ money to defend their own newspaper.
Now Greenwich Time’s life has flashed before our eyes, will we see it come to an end soon? We may find out the answer in court soon – as well as the bill for the council’s legal action.
Thanks to the staff at the Greenwich Heritage Centre in the Royal Arsenal for their help and patience in my trawl. You should go and visit some day.