What Would Stalin Think Council Newspapers Should Be Made More Democratic Not Banned

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Brighton & Hove, Grant Shapps, Greg Hadfield, Peter van Hove, TheMediaBriefing Experts' Blog, Newspapers

Leon Trotsky wouldn't know whether to laugh or cry. The newspaper he created for Russian workers in 1912 - when it had to be printed abroad to avoid state censorship - is back in the news.

"Pravda-style" council newspapers waste money and undermine local democracy, insists Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

Therefore, they must be banned. Perversely, the freedom of press demands it.

More accurately, council newspapers must be rationed, to four times a year. "It is necessary," says Secretary Pickles, quoting Thomas Jefferson, "to keep the waters pure".

General Secretary Josef Stalin would have delighted in such doublethink.

A confusion of reasons is offered by central government for the "crackdown" on council-run publications that are variously blamed for pumping out town-hall propaganda, "wasting" council-taxpayers' money, and diverting advertising revenue from commercial publications, including local newspapers.

I'm certain there is a lot truth in such charges. Equally, I'm certain that regulation from on high is the wrong way to go. It's undemocratic, oppressive, bureaucratic, and ineffective.

The performance of Grant Shapps, the Communities and Local Government Minister, at yesterday's Culture Media & Sport select committee hearing about the nitty gritty of the proposed regulations, did nothing to convince me otherwise. He even suggested council auditors would be the appropriate arbiters of what should and should not be published.

If I have one complaint about local authorities - and I have many - it is that they seem institutionally incapable of clear communication of information that I want to know, need to know, or have a right to know. There's not too much communication; there's too little.

More significantly, in an era characterised by social media, local authorities are peculiarly averse to engaging citizens in conversation. Trying to regulate council "newspapers" is as pointless and anachronistic as seeking to restrict the activities of town-criers.

This month, in Brighton and Hove, where I live, the city council has revamped the format, design and content of its "City News". The 24-page December/January issue promises to contain "what you need to know about Brighton & Hove". Of its genre, it's a modestly attractive - but determinedly unglossy - publication, which is now quarterly rather than 10 times a year.

"You may have noticed we have redesigned City News and introduced new features," it notes, before adding pointedly: "This work has been carried out by existing staff at no extra cost."

Gobbets of information about council initiatives are mixed in with longer personality-led articles. It has no obvious paid-for advertising - although there is a full page of material related to fundraising by a local hospice.

Citizens are offered a chance to have their say - in letters restricted to a maximum of 60 words. Roughly the equivalent of two tweets.

It couldn't be mistaken for a newspaper. It couldn't seriously be regarded as propaganda, in the proper sense of the word. Nor does it appear particularly extravagant in its production values.

And yet, when I happened to discuss it the other day with a local newspaper executive, he was exercised by the content. Specifically, he pointed to plans for the city's hospital that had been covered in The Argus, the local Newsquest title, as well as "A Day in the Life" feature about an RNLI volunteer. "What has that to do with council services?" he asked, querulously.

He was also concerned about the cost, which he put at 120,000 - a figure he suspected was inflated by the choice of a non-standard paper size. (It should perhaps be noted that Brighton and Hove City Council has recently cut its advertising spend from 900,000 to 300,000 by putting job advertisements online.)

So where does the public interest lie?

It certainly does not lie in cushioning the decline - in circulation and revenues - of local newspapers, most of which have long abandoned covering local authority news in any serious way.

Nor does it lie in parti pris action by a national government as it strives to smother the voice of local government.

The true goal - and a more powerful response - would be to make local authorities more accountable to the communities they serve. To open up - or even outsource - the editorial process so that council newspapers become a co-production; to hold public meetings to discuss editorial content; to frame local codes of conduct; and even to elect editors and editorial boards that are independent of the council and representative of the readership.

In short, the response of government should democratic. Not Stalinist.

Who knows? Such democratisation of the media could even catch on in the private sector. We need is more competition in attempts to engage citizens in democratic dialogue. Not less.

Greg Hadfield, a former Fleet Street journalist and internet entrepreneur, is director of strategic projects at Cogapp, an award-winning digital agency.

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