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Editor accuses council freesheet of spreading “fake news”

James CracknellAn editor has urged the government to put a stop to a council newspaper operating on his patch which he says is spreading “fake news.”

James Cracknell, left, who edits the Waltham Forest Echo, says the council-run Waltham Forest News is comprised “almost exclusively of local government propaganda”.

The twice-monthly News is produced by Waltham Forest Council, which last month was one of two London authorities threatened with court action by communities secretary Sajid Javid for breaching guidelines which state such publications should be published no more than quarterly.

In his editorial for the Echo, an independent monthly free paper established in 2014, James argued that “fake” was an appropriate term to level at the News.

He wrote: “So-called ‘fake news’ is of course a genuine problem, but care should be taken before such a serious accusation is levelled against any particular journalist or media organisation. Fake news is also not a new phenomenon, having been around for as long as the profession of journalism itself.

“I would argue, however, that ‘fake’ is an appropriate description of Waltham Forest News, a free fortnightly publication comprised almost exclusively of local government propaganda.

“There is nothing wrong with publishing propaganda – it is a legitimate method for politicians to defend their record and win votes. The problem comes in how propaganda is presented and funded.

“I’d argue Waltham Forest News is presented as a ‘newspaper’ to trick residents into thinking they are reading something impartial and balanced. Next year there will be council elections. How can it be fair that taxpayers’ money is used to produce propaganda on behalf of the current council administration?”

In a direction issued to both Waltham Forest and Hackney Councils, Mr Javid made clear his actions were designed to help protect the local free press.

Waltham Forest News is distributed to 97,000 households in an area covered by both the Echo and the Waltham Forest Guardian, while Hackney Council’s publication, Hackney Today, has a print distribution of 108,000 in a borough already served by the Archant-owned Hackney Gazette and the independent Hackney Citizen.

In his piece, James quoted a Waltham Forest Council statement, which describes the News as a “valuable, cost-effective way of communicating with our community” that also fulfills the authority’s obligation to publish statutory notices “as opposed to the government’s insistence we pay other newspapers to do that”.

But James added: “It sounds to me like the council leadership is scared of being properly scrutinised by a healthy and thriving local press.

“Both Waltham Forest Echo and Waltham Forest Guardian exist to hold the council to account, but this job is made more difficult when we have to compete for potential advertisers with a taxpayer-funded propaganda machine. It’s time we put a stop to Waltham Forest’s fake news.”

A Waltham Forest Council spokesman said: “While our cabinet will certainly be discussing the future of Waltham Forest News, we believe the government’s directions, as laid out in their letter of 6th November, do not comply with the 1986 Local Government Act.

“We have therefore asked them to withdraw the letter and reconsider their position in accordance with the Act.”


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  • December 5, 2017 at 9:30 am

    “presented as a ‘newspaper’ to trick residents into thinking they are reading something impartial and balanced”
    Industry double standards here?

    This is exactly what many free papers, from many different publishers across the country did in the run up to the last general election by allowing 4 page party political messages ( propaganda) to wrap their covers week in week out,accompanied by the papers own masthead ,as long as it was paid for so it’s a bit rich complaining that local councils are doing this now via their own publications.
    As for paying for statutory notices this is just sour grapes that a once rich source of taken for granted high yield ad revenue is no longer there due to restrictions being lifted with regards to where this type of notice can be published, nothing to do with council accountability.
    The frequency of these council newsletters might well be the main issue here but if a local papers integrity was allowed to be sold to the highest bidder for easy money then ( not this particular paper admittedly) the publishers can’t complain about it happening to them now.

    Not the most professional looking photograph to accompany a serious piece is it?

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  • December 5, 2017 at 9:36 am

    Spreading propoganda. Whatever next. Of course they are – and I hate it. Apart from the fact that they detracting from proper newspapers they are a misuse of council taxpayers’ money.

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  • December 5, 2017 at 9:49 am

    Fake news is surely something that is not true. To accuse the council of this is pretty serious stuff.
    Like them or loathe them, you cannot blame councils for getting over their point of view.
    There is always the local press to redress the balance, isn’t there?
    As for impartial and balanced, I wish all locals were.

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  • December 5, 2017 at 10:13 am

    @Prospectus ” Not the most professional looking photograph to accompany a serious piece is it?”
    Well of course not, didn’t ya know? There’s no ‘togs left to take ’em.
    (As social meejah correspondents write: RIP. So sad. Poor togs u is wiv da angles and princess Diana now. :'( )

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  • December 5, 2017 at 2:49 pm

    James I agree with your summary, people are missing the important point you have made, The use of local tax payers money should not be used for funding propaganda to win votes in the forthcoming local elections. The paper should also be balanced with articles from all sides of the political spectrum about local issues which it is not and has not been to date since it was first published.

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  • December 5, 2017 at 3:16 pm

    Print distribution of local papers today is not as relevant as the likelihood of a council press officer getting something in them.

    Papers have cut pagination over recent years and your typical council press release doesn’t fare too well online, rarely being featured unless it’s some sort of political scandal, an FoI about the biscuit budget or the latest cuts to bus services. Positive council stories rarely get a look-in as they don’t ‘sell papers’ or get website clicks.

    On that note, I don’t see too many editors calling for council to stop publishing news on their own websites and social media which, by the same logic, must impact upon their own digital business models!

    It is vital, however, that political decisions which affect taxpayers are properly scrutinised and are reported upon in a balanced way but I also think it’s unfair to assume that everything is propaganda.

    Most politicians know that typical local voters are still best-reached by something through their door so the only option, therefore, is to print ‘good news’ themselves. The bonus for them is that they can also include the issues which should really be presented in a much more transparent, independent way.

    Mind you, local papers aren’t always as independent as they claim to be either. An editor I once worked with said: “We should only give the council a kicking when they deserve it, but it’s up to us to decide when they deserve it.” However, other editors have been happy to find the negative in every story, much to the ire of local councillors and council staff.

    I think that, for the various reasons above, the relationship between the paper and the council is at an all-time low and they both need to address these issues for the good of the communities they serve.

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  • December 5, 2017 at 3:18 pm

    How the mighty have fallen, from Olympic rower to a free sheet editor!!

    Newspapers have themselves to blame for charging so much for public notices.

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  • December 5, 2017 at 7:57 pm

    I’ve gone beyond caring about the propaganda argument.
    I used to be dead against the Pravdas but they employ journalists and probably on better money and under better working conditions than the skeleton sweatshops run by the likes of Newsquest.
    If you want to complain about propaganda and news manipulation, rant about the mass sackings at Newsquest without so much as a sentence in print (or online).

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  • December 6, 2017 at 1:04 pm

    Having worked on both sides of the fence, questions for newspapers as follows:

    How many actual readers do you have? From a council’s perspective, would having news stories in your paper allow them to reach all residents in their borough?

    How many council stories (excluding nibs with no detail) do you run, which are not just knocking stories but actually showing what they are doing? (Sometimes councils do actually do things which residents benefit from)

    How often do your reporters go to committee meetings, as a percentage of the total number of meetings?

    If the answers to these are as I suspect, can you blame councils for wanting to get their message across in a different way?

    From memory when I worked on a council paper as well, the majority of adverts were placed by council services, although granted this might not be the same now.

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  • December 6, 2017 at 2:10 pm


    To answer your questions:

    Q) How many actual readers do you have?
    A) We print 20,000 copies, but we’d print more if we had more ad revenue.

    Q) How many council stories do you run, which are not just knocking stories but actually showing what they are doing?
    A) Maybe one/two per issue, but we’d run more if we had more ad revenue because we’d be able to increase pagination. It’s a space problem.

    Q) How often do your reporters go to committee meetings, as a percentage of the total number of meetings?
    A) I am the only professional journalist on the paper (we rely on voluntary contributors) and I go to two or three meetings a year. I would go to a lot more if our ad revenue increased and I was employed more than my current two days per week.

    In summary, lack of ad revenue is preventing the Echo from expanding and doing all of the things that you say the council would want us to do before it could consider closing Waltham Forest News, yet Waltham Forest News is also a major obstacle to us increasing ad revenue.

    Chicken or egg?

    James Cracknell
    Waltham Forest Echo

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  • December 7, 2017 at 7:52 am

    Jolly Journo / James Cracknell

    Having read your answers to Petes questions, forgive me, but it does make me wonder if there’s a market for your paper and if you have a viable commercial business model in place?
    We live in a competitive and commercial world where the success and viability of a product relies purely on finding a market, producing something people want and monetising it financially, your answers all come back to ‘ if we had more ad revenue ’
    Do you employ sales people?
    If so why are they not selling enough to warrant additional pagination?
    The excuse of lack of ad revenue due to businesses advertising elsewhere is not a valid one, I believe it’s purely the numbers game here ; 20,000 copies against 98,000- 108,000 is more telling as is you being a two day a week journalist and naturally enough relying on RGC against a bigger publisher presumably staffed accordingly.
    If businesses aren’t supporting your paper there must be a reason?, usually it comes down to who reaches the best audience to get them response and who has the dominant local market; their potential customers, 20k v 100k is as far as you need to look.
    whilst it’s easy to blame the opposition, council run or otherwise ,if a products strong enough on its own merits it will always atttact customers so maybe it’s worth considering if there’s a genuine need for your paper in what sounds like a well served area before complaining that others are stealing your market and lobbying for them to be shut down.

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  • December 7, 2017 at 4:33 pm


    No we don’t have a commercial business model because we’re owned by a not-for-profit. The paper was set up by a social enterprise to help provide a platform for the local community and voluntary sector. We have done remarkably well, considering. There is a huge demand for us to expand and as editor I know that we could easily produce a bigger and more frequent publication to serve the community. We are looking at ways to do this regardless of what happens to Waltham Forest News. We still believe local journalism has a bright future.



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  • December 8, 2017 at 1:58 pm

    Hi James,

    I like and support the work of the Waltham Forest Echo, but as Waltham Forest Resident I also like to receive the actually mostly rather good and informative Waltham Forest News the Council send me. It really does help to keep me informed about what is happening in the borough.

    Only very occasionally do I raise my eyebrow about the Council singing it’s own praises in the paper (always related to what it is doing re Housing, i.e. not nearly enough actual genuinely affordable housing), but I think it is a bit of a stretch to call it Fake News.

    However, I’m mostly writing a comment here to say, re revenue for the Echo: if it were genuinely community owned and controlled (like The Bristol Cable, for example) I wouldn’t hesitate to routinely give it money, and I doubt I’m the only one.

    Perhaps something to think about.

    I mean, it is nice that Social Spider are local and are a social enterprise and CIC (Community Interest Company), and to be fair you do invite people to come to local editorial meetings (which I’ve so far failed to make) but that doesn’t equate to proper local community ownership and control.

    I’d really like the echo to be a Community Benefit Society like The Bristol Cable is (every community should have a proper community owned media org imho) – and I reckon if it were you’d be able to get a lot more support locally, including a fair amount of regular financial support.

    Warm regards and keep up the good work,


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