Defending our independent local media

Waltham Forest Echo
Waltham Forest Echo was established in 2014 as an independent not-for-profit newspaper

Echo editor James Cracknell welcomes judge’s ruling against council propaganda

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. It also promotes consultation dates, public health campaigns and information about council meetings and upcoming events.

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.

As you will likely be aware, local newspapers are struggling. The Press Gazette recently reported a net loss of 245 regional titles since 2005. Two of them – Harrow Observer and Enfield Advertiser – are publications for which I myself have reported. When a newspaper closes, the local community suffers. It loses a vehicle for challenging politicians, for raising grievances and for publicising local campaigns. Newspapers are a fundamental part of local democracy – providing balanced and impartial information for voters. Waltham Forest Echo was launched in 2014 in large part as a reaction to the decline in local media.

The government itself recognised this decline when, in 2011, it published a publicity code forbidding local authorities from publishing ‘newspapers’ more than four times per year. MPs agreed that such publications provide unfair competition and contribute to the struggles of the local press. At the time there were dozens of such publications around the country, but over the next few years all but two councils agreed to either reduce the frequency of their ‘newspapers’ or switch instead to producing magazines.

But together with neighbouring Hackney, another Labour-dominated authority, Waltham Forest Council has stubbornly refused to comply with the government’s request. So determined have these two councils been to defy the order that they launched a judicial review case – which was last month rejected by a High Court judge. Mrs Justice Andrews, in her verdict, said: “There seems to me to be considerable force in [government lawyer] Sir James Eadie’s argument that the enforcement of the restriction on local authority publications promotes freedom of expression by protecting and encouraging the development of the local independent press.”

While we welcome this verdict, the council has since stated it intends to appeal and, in the meantime, continue publishing Waltham Forest News. To date this legal case has cost the council £28,000.

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.