The battle begins: A brief history of Greenwich Time

Greenwich Time bundles awaiting delivery in Charlton

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.

Greenwich Time in the gutterPower’s figures nail once and for all claims by former council leader Chris Roberts that axing Greenwich Time would cost it £2.2 million. You can read the full council response on its website.

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…

Greenwich Time

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.

Kentish Independent, July 1982

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.)

Kentish Indepdendent, December 1983

Kentish Independent,

A new council logo? Could the council be sharpening up its communications act?

Kentish Independent

ki_24_02_1983

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…

Greenwich Time, April 1984

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.

Greenwich Time
gt_greenwich_petition640
Greenwich Time 1984

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.

Greenwich Time
Greenwich Time
Greenwich Time
Greenwich Time, July 1984

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.

Greenwich Time, April 1984
Greenwich Time, 1985
Greenwich Time
Greenwich Time, 1984

There was even a short-lived cartoon strip…

Greenwich Time

…while a council U-turn was owned up to.

Greenwich Time, 1988

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.

Greenwich Time, September 1987
Greenwich Time, December 1989
Greenwich Time, 1990
Greenwich Time, 1990

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.

Greenwich Time, 1993
Greenwich Time, 1993

The next big change came after this fresh-faced chap took over Greenwich Council in 2000.

Greenwich Time, 2000

Chris Roberts started with a blast at newly-elected mayor Ken Livingstone – then outside the Labour fold as an independent.

Greenwich Time, 2000

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.)

Greenwich Time, 2004

It’s here the personality cult also starts to kick in…

Greenwich Time, 2002
Greenwich Time
Greenwich Time
Greenwich Time, 2005

…and a 2004 story about Greenwich Peninsula which feels like it’s been repeated about 50 times since then.

Greenwich Time, 2004

There was also a campaign to bring Crossrail to Woolwich….

Greenwich Time, 2004

…and a “youth champion” becoming the youngest-ever councillor.

Greenwich Time, 2004

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.

Greenwich Time, 20 January 2009

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.

19 comments

  1. Darryl – there are a whole lot of things here, and I could comment on a lot of them, but probably not. Just a couple of more recent points.
    One crucial thing in the last fifteen or so years with Greenwich Time was the decision to advertise vacant Council homes so that tenants knew what the choices were, and could decide for themselves what to bid for within their banding. The thought was to reform the paternalistic old system, give applicants information and make it as near that which home buyers and private renters had as possible – and this could be done efficiently in a Council owned publication.
    There is also a whole issue about statutory notices which need by law to go out to the whole borough, and of course, a monopoly commercial press knows this and can charge what it likes. I understand some local commercial papers base their profitability on what they can make from local councils who are forced, legally, to use them – while at the same time they may be running, sometimes inaccurate, stories about them, or indeed not covering anything except sport, local violence and scandals.

    Several other Councils produce fortnightly papers (I have no idea how many) and the basic cost can’t be much different in terms of staffing and so on, and they seem to say what they like. Why are they not being shut down by the Government? Or is the policy to pick them off, one at a time? And will you endorse that too when it happens?

    (Thank you for including the tiny note about my election in 2000 – other by-election winners get a photo and a note about their increased majority. Several locals told me they thought I had lost because there was no coverage).

  2. Very interesting post. Thank you Darryl.

    RBG doesn’t just waste money on printing and distributing Greenwich Time. They also telephone and ask residents if they have received the paper. I know this because I have been getting random calls for years to ask if I my copy has been received.

    If RBG is paying Council employees to do this, it’s a foolish allotment of resources. If they have hired an outside agency to check, it’s also a waste of money.

    They can easily put all this online. Everyone with a smart phone, a laptop or a local public library can check the information.

  3. The argument about informing locals re statutory notices doesn’t stack up. I live in a new development (built within the last five years) and we don’t get a copy (100’s of flats). I know others in the borough in new builds who also don’t get a copy. Now I’m not saying where live as I don’t want one in my letterbox (!)….but if it fails to be sent to everyone then it is not achieving it’s statutory purpose and this claim and should be scrapped from their argument to keep it running.

  4. In some ways, Greenwich Time is more like a traditional local newspaper than NewsShopper. For example, the World Book Day event got coverage in GT, if it did in the NS I missed it. The NS has recently been full of stories of misguided parents taking children out of school, porn on show in restaurants, a secret porn cinema in New Cross etc plus an editor who has a regular Jeremy Clarkson like rant.
    Interesting article by the way.

  5. another quick comment – Local – you ought to get it papers with statutoruy nortices in and also to get then when and if statutory notices go into the local commercial press – which, by the way, at the moment deliberately selects where they distribute in the borough.. and – D.Beale – that is why people ring up to ask, in order to check on that very point. Either way – not of you – need to complain to the publishers if you are not getting it.

    Look – these notices are about planning applications, road works and all sorts of things. If you don’t complain because you don’t get the paper (Greenwich Time or whatever) don’t complain also when someone builds a tower block next door to you, or closes or your road and you say that no one told you.

    I do not know the legal position of only putting statutory notices on line, and someone- Darryl? – needs to check. I suspect it is not legal because clearly very very many people do not get on line access.

  6. Great article Darryl, chronicles public sector comms through the decades well.
    Greenwich council just gets curiouser and curiouser when it comes to legal battles. The Affordable Housing FOI Tribnunal, Greenwich Time (of all things critical)…and perhaps more to come? As looks like they’ve been beaten to the post by an Academy for their Peninsula school plans. Since Greenwich Time has escaped the archives, will I be reading about the latest online petition against RBG in the next edition?

    Very interesting that they are seeking Judicial Review against the Communities Secretary. Does Greenwich Labour assume Pickles will back in his post after May then?

  7. @maryorelse

    None of your comments address the blatant propaganda in the free sheet. THIS is what the residents object to. If the council published a fair and accurate paper nobody (apart from Pickles) would give too hoots and the council might actual have people on their side. As it is people hate the paper not because it costs more or less than private advertising, but because of the editorial nonsense that goes along with it.

    If the council is really bothered about the cost of publishing of notices, why don’t they just publish the notices and nothing else? They wouldn’t even need to employ staff to write the current guff.

  8. The point about internet access – I am always meeting people (mainly elderly men, but not entirely) who say they haven’t got any of that ‘web thing’ and will never ever have it – ‘my wife won’t have it in the house’ says one. I suppose I have to believe figures if they come from official sources, but I find it hard.

    I don’t know about the propaganda – I don’t like the general tone of Greenwich Time – and I have a lot of disagreements from experience as a back bench councillor. I don’t really want to put myself in the position of justifying it – what I really object to is the Government intervention.
    A lot of what is in it is about local achievements of various sorts – school kids, local clubs and so on. There is also a lot of what is sort of public service – success at the local first aid training place and the like. I can’t see how that is propaganda really. I think leading councillors feel the need – rightly or wrongly – to justify what they are doing. I understand a bit that they always feel accused of doing the wrong thing when they really only meant to do the right thing and do their best. I wouldn’t want to judge that myself. I know the sort of publication I would like to see – but that is something you will never know about.

  9. What the councillors feel the need to do – rightly or wrongly – is not really relevant. I’m sorry they feel misunderstood, but that doesn’t justify Greenwich Council out of all the councils in the UK creating it’s own newsheet when other councils seem to be able to cope without one. Perhaps they should consider other ways of running the council in an open fashion so that people actually trust the council.

    I welcome the government intervention in this instance, just as I welcome their oversight in Tower Hamlets. If councils can’t keep their house in order then they need the parents come in and tell them how to behave once in a while.

  10. Sorry -other Councils do produce newspapers with similar content fortnightly – I don’t really see the difference between that and weekly (beyond the number of issues, obviously)

  11. Mary – Sounds like Greenwich residents don’t care for or even want Greenwich Time; but as usual, that is irrelevant isn’t it?

  12. No its not irrelevant – but – first there is no proper measure of how many want or don’t want it – nor, more importantly perhaps any serious look at a a whole range of alternatives to both this and the local commercial press – and I mean a whole range of alternatives in timing, style, content, tone, and so on. There is a very diverse population locally with a many different cultures and expectations. If I were able I think I would look at relevance as a first issue along with consensus.

  13. Sorry -other Councils do produce newspapers with similar content fortnightly – I don’t really see the difference between that and weekly (beyond the number of issues, obviously)

    Well I guess the difference is that fortnightly is seen as complying with the Local Audit and Accountability Act and weekly isn’t:. All publicly-funded news sheets published by local authorities should be objective, limited in frequency and represent value for money.

    Also you yourself have stated in this thread “I think leading councillors feel the need – rightly or wrongly – to justify what they are doing.”. That’s not objective.

    At least it does seem to provide value for money – so it’s got that going for it.

  14. I agree I ought to shut up, and this isn’t my argument, and I don’t want to defend Greenwich Time particularly. BUT I also think that Councils – and other elected bodies – have some sort of duty to produce a popular report on what they are doing. Sorry.

  15. Mary – They can do that monthly or quarterly though can’t they? And we usually get something from Lewisham with our council tax bill detailing what they’ve been up to…

  16. I also think that Councils – and other elected bodies – have some sort of duty to produce a popular report on what they are doing.

    So you think the government should be pushing a weekly sheet through our letterboxes saying how great they are? I don’t see why local politics should get to do this when we’d be aghast if it happened at a national level.

  17. As already mentioned by others, most people tend to object to the blatantly self-justifying tone of Greenwich Time. As Mr Eee suggested, why not produce a (less-frequent) paper with just the notices? True, even less people are likely to read it, but we wouldn’t be annoyed so much, and presumably it would satisfy the legal requirements.

    At present most editions travel from my doormat to recycling bin unopened and unread; on the rare occasions when a headline has caught my eye it turns out the council is trying to weasel its way into getting credit even for sporting and other achievements of Greenwich residents. I don’t read any local newspaper nowadays. I confess to relying on the excellent work done by people like Darryl to alert me about matters that might affect me.

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