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Editor accuses council of ‘lies’ as row over town hall freesheet deepens

James CracknellThe editor of a community newspaper has accused a local authority of peddling “lies” about the local press after its leader listed a series of topics she claimed no newspaper would ever cover.

As previously reported by HTFP, Waltham Forest Council is fighting a court ruling ordering it to stop publishing its fortnightly newspaper Waltham Forest News in defiance of government guidelines restricting publication to quarterly.

Its leader, Clare Coghill, has sought to defend its position by claiming that WFN publishes news that “no other newspaper would ever do” listing a campaign for a new hospital and the activities of local charities and voluntary groups as examples.

But her comments met with a strongly-worded rebuke from James Cracknell, editor of independent monthly the Waltham Forest Echo, who said all Echo readers know that to be a lie.

Waltham Forest and Hackney councils are appealing against the outcome of a judicial review case in which the High Court backed the government in its bid to restrict publication of the freesheets to four a year.

James, pictured, took aim against the move in an editorial headlined “Defending our independent local media.”

He wrote: “For eight years Waltham Forest Council has been fighting a battle over its publication Waltham Forest News. This taxpayer-funded freesheet is delivered fortnightly to every household in the borough and is used by the council to publicise the good things it is doing to help local people. I

“What Waltham Forest News does not do – contrary to its misleading title – is report the news.

“It does not tell you about the nine council-owned tower blocks posing a ‘substantial’ fire risk to residents. It does not tell you about the art studios in Leytonstone the council is set to demolish. It does not tell you tell about the tens of millions of pounds the council has invested in fossil fuels despite declaring a ‘climate emergency’. It does not tell you about the fears of Chingford residents about the environmental impact of a new council-backed incinerator. And it does not tell you about an existing pocket park in Leyton the council wants to build homes on.

“These news stories have all appeared in the last two editions of Waltham Forest Echo. We are an independent community newspaper, run on a not-for-profit basis, providing a platform for local people to raise issues important to them, champion the voluntary sector, and hold authority to account. These are things any local newspaper should strive to do.

“So what’s the problem? Can’t the council just continue publishing what it wants? Surely it’s fine if newspapers like the Echo or East London Guardian continue to report balanced news stories?

“The problem, as set out by the government in its successful court case last month, is that frequent council publications such as Waltham Forest News undermine the viability of independent papers such as the Echo.

“We can testify to this – potential advertisers have told us they would rather spend money with the council because Waltham Forest News is read by more people. What’s ironic here is that the Echo would likely be read by more people if it weren’t for Waltham Forest News.

“The council is also required by law to publish public notices in a local newspaper, but by printing its own ‘newspaper’ it sneakily dodges this obligation and avoids buying advertising space with the local press, again limiting our ability to publish more frequently and reach more people.

“Sadly the council leadership remains completely blind to the harm it is causing not just to the local press but to local democracy itself. Writing in Waltham Forest News immediately following the High Court ruling, council leader Clare Coghill said: “Residents love the fact that Waltham Forest News promotes topics no other newspaper would ever do. Vital issues like foster care, community work, local charities and voluntary groups, school programmes and campaigns for things you want: like a new hospital or for Waltham Forest to become the first ever London Borough of Culture.”

“This statement, as any regular Echo reader will know, is a lie. Worse still, Clare goes on: “The absence of a well-read local media means there is a legitimate need for Waltham Forest News… Part of a healthy local democracy is understanding the operation of the democratic process. Local authority publicity is important to transparency and localism, as the public need to know what their local authority is doing if they are to hold us to account.”

“It is grimly ironic for Clare to use this argument to justify the existence of a publication that specifically and directly reduces the ability of independent news organisations to perform the accountability function that she claims to support. And it is difficult to understand how a council reporting its activities unchallenged in a taxpayer-funded publication has anything to do with transparency.

“How can anyone hold the council to account if they only read propaganda? Democracy does not begin and end with the council; a real participatory democracy is about asking questions, challenging politicians, launching petitions and organising protests – all of which are made possible by a healthy independent media.”

In response, Waltham Forest Council told HTFP there was no change to its previous statement, issued last month following the court ruling.

A council spokesperson said: “We did not take the decision to challenge the Government lightly. We produce Waltham Forest News because the government, by law, insist that councils pay to publish statutory notices in a printed newspaper.

“These rules mean local authorities currently pay an estimated £68 million in council taxpayers’ money to comply with these rules.  Waltham Forest News was our way of complying that also helps us communicate with all our residents, particularly those who are hardest to reach or who don’t have regular internet access. These are often the people most in need of help from our services.

“We know that our residents appreciate a newspaper that champions both the people and the area giving every household a vital guide to what’s on and what’s great about Waltham Forest. Therefore we are appealing the decision.”

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  • July 11, 2019 at 1:02 pm

    Councils should support local businesses, not compete with them.

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