One of the biggest threats to journalism is the growth of Britain’s new state press – free propaganda papers, either weekly or fortnightly, produced at great public expense by local authorities and delivered to all homes. The idea is to destroy the independent local press, thus ensuring that the only news you read about your local council is written by your local council.
The councils, of course, dispute that this is their intention – but why else would so many of them include TV listings, restaurant reviews, features, sport and other material that has nothing to do with local government?
The frontline of the struggle is the Tory flagship borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, which looked like being the first place in Britain where official news became the only news. The council’s propaganda organ, H&F News, is a brilliant facsimile of a proper local paper – unless, of course, you are looking for any mention of the Labour Party, or any criticism of the council, the police, the NHS or any other branch of officialdom. The local independent paid-for paper, the Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle, meanwhile, was on its last legs, with a circulation of 1,500.
Now, however, the Chronicle has decided to fight back. It too is going free – boosting its circulation to 72,000 with no loss of editorial jobs – to take the fight to H&F News. It’s the latest in a series of small events which suggests that the tide could be turning against the propaganda rags. Proposals to remove councils’ obligations to advertise planning applications in the local press have been rejected. MPs have slammed H&F News and other propaganda operations (most of which are run by Labour councils.) Two councils – Doncaster and Cornwall – have even closed their papers and a third, Birmingham, is reportedly considering it.
There is life in the local press yet. Let the fightback grow.