Monday, October 18, 2010

Perplexing Pravda Pickle

I think quite a few people sympathised with Eric Pickles when he came out against 'Townhall Pravdas', those mock newspapers produced by your local council promoting your local Labour Mayor or whatever. Sorry, I mean publicising the work of your council.

Back in June Pickles explained that "The previous Government’s weakening of the rules on town hall publicity not only wasted taxpayers’ money and added to the wave of junk mail, but has undermined a free press." I think that's broadly true.

More to the point he also argued that;

"local newspapers have been put under increasing pressure in recent years by the proliferation of town-hall Pravdas. These glossy magazines have been designed for the sole purpose of telling people how great the council is. And they are competing with independent newspapers for readers and advertising space: undermining local newspapers already under threat from the internet and the 24-hour news cycle.

"This has serious consequences for local democracy. Local journalists have a proud tradition of holding councillors to account, questioning unpopular decisions and exposing unsavoury behaviour. These propaganda sheets are no substitute for a free and independent press."

The government using a supposedly independent looking medium to put out subliminal, or all to often very liminal, propaganda is a serious issue. Especially so at a time when local papers are struggling with a lack of advertising revenues meaning they don't have the funds to produce the kind of quality local paper that you can find in some other countries and that local communities deserve.

However, I wonder if I'm the only person to have been surprised to see that while the government is clamping down on this sort of behaviour by local councils it seems to be toying with the idea of using the BBC's network to do the exact same thing on a national level.

The Independent reports that "The Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude is in talks with BBC bosses about running a series of adverts on their TV and radio stations... it could go much further than the long-standing relationship under which the BBC had the power to choose what it broadcast. Insiders believe ministers could now demand regular slots for government information films... Such a move would require a change to the BBC charter, which gives the corporation complete independence over the content of its broadcasts."

The BBC Trust described the idea as having "serious implications for the corporation's independence and impartiality". They said that it was for the BBC "alone to decide what it broadcasts and when". It added: "Furthermore, if the BBC were to broadcast free of charge advertising content that could otherwise appear on commercial channels, that would be likely to have an adverse impact on the wider market."

So basically exactly the same arguments that applied for the Town Hall apply for Whitehall. I hope Pickles doesn't find out, he'll be furious, it will make him look like he has double standards.


darryl said...

That's an odd story - maybe the Independent got hold of the wrong end of the stick on a story about promoting the census.

The BBC's always run public information films, it's just the nature of them has changed over the years and they look more like ads (and sometimes crop on on commercial channels as ads) and they no longer have the announcer intoning "that was a public information film" at the end. You'll see a rash of them over the next few weeks warning people about fireworks, and there's usually one at the end of the broadcast day.

I guess what the story is here is the government asking the BBC to show census ads for free as opposed to paying ITV or commercial radio to do so. (The cut in government ad spend has already hit commercial radio badly - I remember listening to Xfm at night a couple of years back and all its ads were NHS ones.)

As for town hall Pravdas - I'll send a few Greenwich Times down to you :-)

Jim Jepps said...

Well I think there's a control issue here too in that the BBC has always had editorial control over what it shows and when - the Independent is suggesting that this will be/may be threatened with the government actually having direct control over the schedules and content.

Paul Jeater said...

I agree that most local council newspapers are self-congratulatory, my local council in Brentwood produces copy that is part information, part advertising and a slice of political self promotion. However I've never heard my local MP take a stand against the publication.

Oh yes, my local MP is Eric Pickles !

Jim Jepps said...

That's hilarious - thanks Paul!

John Mullen said...

The BBC varies, but it is often very obedient to the powers that be. I recently read the BBC history website on the First World War, which is completely dominated by a small minority of historians who emphasize how wonderful the victory was... I was truly shocked. I don't mind these historians saying their piece, but some idea of historiographical balance would be nice...