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Crackdown on ‘town hall Pravdas’ moves forward

A bill which aims to protect local newspapers from competition from “town hall Pravdas” has moved a step forwards after a reading in the House of Commons.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles wants to protect the local newspaper industry with a crackdown on council newspapers to prevent them being published more than four times a year.

Now he wants to strengthen an existing Publicity Code, which was introduced in 2011, with measures in the Local Audit and Accountability Bill, which will allow the government to intervene if councils flout the rules.

Mr Pickles has also introduced new laws in the bill to allow journalists and residents to tweet and film from council meetings in England, following guidance issued earlier this year.

The bill received an unopposed second reading in the House of Commons yesterday and is set to go to committee stage now.

Speaking at the debate, Mr Pickles said: “The second provision in this Bill will protect the local press from unfair local competition. Where local newspapers thrive, local democracy thrives.

“Local newspapers not only inform residents of what is going on, but play a vital role in exposing local waste, mistakes and corruption, and, thus, in holding councils to account.

“When councils put out their own glossy free sheets to compete with local newspapers, local democracy is the loser. Tackling that abuse was a key pledge in not just the coalition agreement, but the general election manifestos of both parties.

“In 2011, Parliament previously strengthened the local government publicity code, but a small number of councils have intentionally ignored it, with Tower Hamlets being a case in point.”

The new bill will give the government the power to act if it thinks a council’s publicity campaign is too political.

But it was criticised by shadow communities secretary Hilary Benn, who said that it would give politicians too much power over what was written in council newspapers and said there was no evidence they damaged the local press.

The bill will also enshrine in law the rights of journalists and residents to use social media and film council meetings.

Mr Pickles published guidance in June saying this should be allowed by councils but a number of them have not complied.

A group of journalism tutors from Leeds wrote a letter to Leeds City Council urging it to allow filming and recording of its meetings ahead of a discussion yesterday on the issue.

The authority decided to wait until seeing the detail of the bill before making a final decision but agreed in the meantime to not allow filming at meetings but to allow requests for audio recordings, except at planning and licensing meetings.