Wirral Council plan to spend £22,500 on a Birkenhead community newspaper. Will it fall foul of Pickles’ publicity law?

Wirral Council plan to spend £22,500 on a Birkenhead community newspaper. Will it fall foul of Pickles’ publicity law?

Wirral Council plan to spend £22,500 on a Birkenhead community newspaper. Will it fall foul of Pickles’ publicity law?

A recent meeting of the Birkenhead Constituency Committee who will consider proposals to spend £22,500 on a Birkenheadcommunity newspaper
A recent meeting of the Birkenhead Constituency Committee who will consider proposals to spend £22,500 on a Birkenhead community newspaper

Buried among the appendices published ahead of the Birkenhead Constituency Committee on Thursday are two interesting reports.

The first report is the result of a Surveymonkey survey sent out to all residents that Wirral Council has an email address for in the “CH41, CH42 or CH42 postcode” areas. It seems however this is just a typo and residents in CH43 (which covers Bidston & St. James, Claughton, Oxton and Prenton) were also included as I received an email about the survey with the subject “Would you like to receive a community news update?” on 27th February.

Most people responding to the survey stated that what they liked most about the local free newspapers was local news, however question three revealed that around half responding to that question said that they don’t read the local free newspaper as it isn’t delivered to them any more. This answers concurs with statistics in the other report that states that out of the 39,823 households in Birkenhead, 24,962 receive the Wirral News (62.7%) and 22,091 the Wirral Globe (55.5%).

The survey continues with asking what people want they would want included in a “Birkenhead Constituency Committee news update” and the top answer was “unbiased, relevant local news” closely followed by finding out about local services, events and activities.

Interestingly there were also responses about why people didn’t currently read the newspapers from surveys in public locations where people gave responses such as “Council matters only appear if news editors think that they are controversial” and “fed up of hearing about bad people doing bad things and getting away with it”.

When asked about what information they thought should be included in a Birkenhead Constituency Community Newspaper there were a range of responses such as “find out about positive local news and important council information concerning regeneration and development”, “main council committee decisions – with commentary if necessary”, “planning applications”, “proposed road & transport information” but interestingly and this one seems to be a reference to Labour Rose/Lib Dem Focus “but not of councillors’ photographs at places where council work has been done at their behest”.

Not unsurprisingly not one of the questions asked residents if they thought that spending £22,500 of taxpayer’s money for three editions was a good idea. What is proposed is a pilot of three editions over six months (each edition being bi-monthly) of an eight page publication (whether it would be colour or black and white is not mentioned). It’s stated that “It will be non political and inform people of news they are interested in.” Quite how it will manage to write anything about Wirral Council that people are interested in (which means the more controversial political news), yet remain “non political” remains to be seen. The long term aim is to have advertising from “public sector partners”, grants and “appropriate advertising” cover its costs for future editions.

It will be edited by Lairdside Community Together, who will be recruiting an apprentice to work on it through Wirral Metropolitan College. Interestingly it won’t be delivered by paid deliverers but by volunteers with ward councillors suggesting an organisation in their ward (sports clubs and scout groups are mentioned in the report). These organisations would then receive “an incentive”.

However the future is not looking particularly rosy for such Council run publications. Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP is not as keen on them as the Birkenhead Constituency Committee. In approximately a week (30th March 2014) s.39 of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 on the code of practice on local authority publicity comes into force. This section gives Eric Pickles the legal power to tell Councils off who aren’t complying with the “Code of practice on local authority publicity” and force them to comply. This section also allows the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP to create a new law making it a legal duty for all local Councils to comply with the Code of Practice on Local Authority Publicity.

So what is the Code of Practice on Local Authority Publicity (which also comes with an explanatory memorandum and how could the proposed Birkenhead Constituency Community Newspaper fall foul of it?

Section 2 of the code makes it quite clear that it applies to such publications “The code therefore applies in relation to all decisions by local authorities relating to paid advertising and leaflet campaigns, publication of free newspapers and newssheets and maintenance of websites – including the hosting of material which is created by third parties.”

Section 4 outlines some principles applying to “publicity by local authorities”. These are that it should be cost effective, objective, even-handed, appropriate and “be issued with care during periods of heightened sensitivity”. I think that last bit refers to the period in the lead up to elections.

Going back to what somebody wanted in such a newspaper being “main council committee decisions – with commentary if necessary” section 15 would appear to rule that out “Such publicity may set out the local authority’s views and reasons for holding those views, but should avoid anything likely to be perceived by readers as constituting a political statement, or being a commentary on contentious areas of public policy.”

Section 28 is specifically about such newspapers, restricts their frequency to quarterly and restricts what can be put in it “Local authorities should not publish or incur expenditure in commissioning in hard copy or on any website, newsletters, newssheets or similar communications which seek to emulate commercial newspapers in style or content. Where local authorities do commission or publish newsletters, newssheets or similar communications, they should not issue them more frequently than quarterly, apart from parish councils which should not issue them more frequently than monthly. Such communications should not include material other than information for the public about the business, services and amenities of the council or other local service providers.”

Section 34 bans such publications in the lead up to elections “During the period between the notice of an election and the election itself, local authorities should not publish any publicity on controversial issues or report views or proposals in such a way that identifies them with any individual members or groups of members. Publicity relating to individuals involved directly in the election should not be published by local authorities during this period unless expressly authorised by or under statute. It is permissible for local authorities to publish factual information which identifies the names, wards and parties of candidates at elections.”

As it states in the explanatory memorandum “Council newspapers, issued frequently and designed to resemble a local newspaper can mislead members of the public reading them that they are local newspapers covering council events and give communities a biased view of the activities of the council.” There’s also the concern that such publications (as this one is expected to be funded after the first three issues through advertising) will take advertising away from local newspapers and make them less financially viable.

So I’m starting a poll to see what readers think about the community newspaper proposal ahead of the Birkenhead Constituency Committee on Thursday which will consider it.

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