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MPs blasted over local press mimicry during Commons journalism inquiry

Matt Abbott DCMSMPs have been blasted for producing campaign material mimicking newspapers during a House of Commons inquiry into journalism.

Members of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee have been warned about their colleagues in the House of Commons practising the tactic as they examine the sustainability of local journalism.

During the latest session of the Comittee’s inquiry, Matt Abbott, deputy director of hyperlocal trade body the Independent Community News Network, took aim at the practice and also criticised local authority-run publications, claiming they have “no right” to compete for advertising with local newspapers.

Political pamphlets masquerading as local press titles have caused controversy in recent years, sparking an industry-wide campaign in 2021 urging voters not to be “duped” by party political leaflets.

Matt, pictured, told the Committee: “MPs will put a letter, flyer or leaflet through my door which looks on the face of it like a newspaper.

“I think that’s very disingenuous and I don’t think it helps journalism at all when advertising, or propaganda as I would call it, pretends to be journalism.”

Matt and fellow panellists George Brock, chair of the Charitable Journalism Project, and Polly Perkins, editor of Sheffield-based title the Burngreave Messenger, had been quizzed by Committee member Giles Watling on whether they believed council-run newsletters were valuable.

HTFP reported last year how Waltham Forest Echo editor Victoria Munro had criticised the Waltham Forest Council’s claim to publish the “largest local newspaper” in its area.

Victoria also accused the authority of “undercutting” her on advertising rates with its Waltham Forest News publication.

The Echo is run by Social Spider, whose managing director David Floyd had appeared before an earlier session of the inquiry last Thursday.

Responding to Mr Watling’s question, Matt told the hearing: “It goes against the vital role of journalism as being the fourth estate.

“I think that councils have no right to be publishing their own information, and publishing it in a print newspaper, for example, which directly competes with a local independent title which seeks advertising from the same business and local organisations that the council is seeking advertising from.

“David Floyd and other organisations in London have been battling this issue for a long time.

“Councils shouldn’t be publishing newspapers which seek to compete with local newspapers, yet they’re doing so and breaking the law by doing so, publishing more frequently than they’re allowed to.”

George said: “Some of the publications put out by councils were criticised for being rather propagandistic and misleading.”

He added: “If you look at where it’s bad in news deserts, what you find is that there is a lot of information coming out from major institutions and authorities – police, councils and so on.

“Most of it is coming out online, but the paradox, of course, is that with institutions much more able to communicate themselves than they used to be, the role of somebody independent looking at what they’re doing is more important than ever.”

And Polly added: “I’m not sure that something produced by the council with journalists who are prevented from holding the council to account can have equal value to something that can hold the council to account, but I think it is valuable.

“I think any information that’s getting out there and telling people what’s available is valuable and the less of that there is, the greater the paucity in our knowledge about where we live.”