Investigation into Life in Salford launched

by Tom Rodgers, originally posted over at Salford Online

As part of its Digital Britain report, the government is to launch an investigation into free council newsletters including John Merry’s baby, Life in Salford, to discover the effect they are having on the local press.

The report said it would be “against the public interest” for local papers to be rendered commercially unviable by the flight of paid-for advertising to local authority publications.

The local spending watchdog The Audit Commission will carry out the inquiry to work out whether “restraints should be placed on local authority activity in this field.”

The report said:

“While local authority information sheets can serve a useful purpose for local residents and businesses, they will inevitably not be as rigorous in holding local institutions to account as independent local media.”


You may remember all the fuss back in November 2008 when Cllr Steve Cooke resigned from the editorial board of Life in Salford, citing the fact that:

The editorial board has next to no editorial control over the content of Life; no say in its distribution, size or business model (as Cllr. Merry has been so keen to demonstrate). The board meets rarely and meetings are not minuted; there are no terms of reference; and the board appears to have no powers. In short, it is utterly pointless.

It is my firm opinion that the editorial board exists solely to provide a thin veneer of democratic respectability to an often misleading and relentlessly and unjustifiably upbeat publication.

And Mr Merry sanctioned a £175,000 investment in this freesheet to increase the frequency and size to a monthly 16 page “magazine for people who live or work in Salford”.

Salford Advertiser and other local organisations have no doubt lost out in terms of advertising revenue from the council, which now with its own glossy rag, has no need to pay to put public notices in other media like local papers, magazines or websites.

When we spoke to Mr Merry (now Mr Merry CBE) at a recent event, he told us that there are certain areas of Salford that Advertiser “just doesn’t get to” and that his free paper gave out vital information to the people, reaching 110,000 homes.

But the problem is that it exists not to tell the truth or to provide scrutiny or accountability. Its purpose is to “sell the message of success”.

It is essentially a public relations tool – there will never be any criticism of council policy in there.

The Salford city council website tells you themselves: “It aims to reflect the positive, forward-thinking new image for the city and Salford City Council.

While it’s trying to be an events guide and information sheet (community committees and the like) it is still “unjustifiably upbeat” and a threat to the future of all local media, be it the Salford Advertiser, SalfordOnline or the Salford Star.

Comments

  1. Steve Middleton June 26, 2009 at 10:34 pm

    I have no problem with Life In Salford being upbeat, but when it uses taxpayer’s money to damage a local business I do think that is wrong. How can the Advertiser compete with money that will always be available no matter what the economic climate?

    They can’t.

    Local rags provide a genuine service, a balanced view both good and bad of what is really happening in the local area.

    In particular, I think the Advertiser does a great job of showcasing the many good things that go on in Salford, but they are not afraid to criticise when the right story arises.

    Take this week’s addition of the Advertiser: a five-page spread about how wonderful Pendlebury Hospital was, the positive story about the head of Oasis Academy winning “headteacher of the year” and some good local sports stories.

    These positive stories are interspersed with an equal amount of negative items, such as the Demi Leigh Mahon court case and more on a certain Hazel Blears.

    Lastly, whoever came up with the headline for Cllr Merry’s column should be shot “We need more power disolved to our region”

    I can hear that power dissolving as I type. Presumably, the headline was meant to be something along the lines of “We need more power DEVOLVING to our region”

    If the headline is right, I worry about any damning report that might cross the desk of Cllr Merry – it could dissolve into thin air!

  2. Tom Murphy June 25, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    Steve,

    Stop me if I’m wrong, but I thought the rationale for the Liberal/Tory critique of ‘LIFE IN Salford’ was that it was a rentlessly upbeat Council propaganda sheet – not viable competition for a newspaper! I certainly don’t think for one second there’s anything reported in LIFE that threatens the Advertiser’s existence. LIFE’s function is to be informative, not to be sensationalist or to campaign on issues like the Advertiser.

    As for your last paragraph, what a shock: newspaper barons want to stop local councils from publicising themselves positively so they can keep the money rolling in instead. We could have a long discussion about in whose ultimate interest it is that newspaper’s view such ‘competition’ as a threat to be tackled, rather than upping their own game. I don’t believe that newspapers watching their financial bottom line necessarily represents the public interest in this matter either.

    Tom.

  3. Steve Middleton June 23, 2009 at 11:27 am

    The Council has a duty to protect local businesses, not start up in competition against them using taxpayer’s money.

    The recently released Digital Britain report said it would be “against the public interest” for local papers to be rendered unviable by the flight of paid-for advertising to local authority publications. The report revealed that ministers have now asked the Audit Commission – the local spending watchdog – to carry out an inquiry into the issue. It will consider whether curbs should be placed on local authorities competing for advertising revenue with the local press.

    “The review noted the adverse impact on local newspapers of the increasing role of local authorities in taking paid advertising to support local authority information sheets,” said the report.

    “Clearly, if such advertising grows to the extent that, coupled with other pressures on local commercial media it renders them unviable, that would be against the public interest.

    “While local authority information sheets can serve a useful purpose for local residents and businesses, they will inevitably not be as rigorous in holding local institutions to account as independent local media.”

    “The government is therefore inviting the Audit Commission to undertake a specific inquiry into the prevalence of this practice and if restraints should be placed on local authority activity in this field.”

    The review was warmly welcomed by Trinity Mirror chief executive Sly Bailey.

    She said in a statement: “Not before time the Audit Commission are to look at the travesty of local councils using tax payers money to masquerade as and compete directly with local newspapers. This must be tackled with a sense of urgency.”

    it’s my view, and I hope Councillor Cooke’s, that Salford Council should work in the public interest, not against it.

  4. Tom Murphy June 23, 2009 at 10:57 am

    Steve M and Steve C,

    It is disingenuous of you both to suggest that it is somehow the Council’s responsibility to support private sector media (Advertiser, Salford Online, Salford Star) via public funds or advertising revenue. It isn’t.

    All three publications have the freedom to write what they choose, but they also have the responsibility to pay for themselves through whatever means they see fit – including attracting advertisers. I’ve asked it before elsewhere and didn’t get an answer – by how much would a Lib Dem run Council subsidise independent media in Salford?

    Tom.

  5. Steve Cooke June 18, 2009 at 10:30 am

    It’s a waste of time and space that Labour denied having an impact on the revenues of the free press. It must be coincidental that the M.E.N. announced that a loss of advertising revenue was forcing them to close the offices of their local papers, like the Salford Advertiser, and lay off staff very shortly after the council moved its advertising spend from the Advertiser to Life. I really hope that this investigation is properly rigorous.

  6. Tom Rodgers June 17, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    Have to agree with Kat. ‘Life’ is a waste of time and space.

  7. Kat June 17, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    “his [John Merry’s] free paper gave out vital information to the people, reaching 110,000 homes.”

    I can’t remember ever reading anything ‘vital’ in ‘Life’. It’s a propaganda tool used by the Labour party to maintain its foothold on the Council. And it comes out of my council tax! At best I find it irritating. At worst it’s an infuriating waste of money. Either way, it’s not a vital communication tool.

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