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.”
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.