It’s been a great few weeks for several of my little hobbyhorses (with the exception of a certain bus.) The latest domino to fall looks like being that democratic disgrace, the local council pseudo-newspaper. Yesterday’s full coalition government agreement included a promise to “impose tougher rules to stop unfair competition by local authority newspapers.”
I think I was the first journalist, in the Evening Standard last year, to take a detailed look at how councils were increasingly starting high-frequency, in-your-face tabloids to drive out of business the independent local press. The papers are published as often as weekly and delivered to all households. They are subsidised by taxpayers (Tower Hamlets’ weekly, East End Life, cost the public purse £1.1 million last year) and can therefore undercut the ad rates of their commercial rivals.
Far from being confined simply to the doings of the local authority, many have TV listings, sport, restaurant reviews, columnists, even news, of a sort. Only two things are missing: anything whatever that reflects badly on the council, and any mention at all of their political opponents. They resemble nothing so much as the official Communist Party newspapers from the old Eastern bloc countries. Several can be shown to have told direct lies.
The disturbing thing is that in this month’s election, it did sometimes seem to work. Tory-controlled Hammersmith and Fulham, which has a particularly subtle and pernicious propaganda organ, H&F News, saw a lower swing to Labour than its neighbouring boroughs. In Labour-controlled Tower Hamlets, the swing to Labour was higher than average.
These newspapers are part of the giant official PR and marketing apparatus that has grown up to spin us. They cannot die soon enough.