James Cracknell on the latest battle over Waltham Forest Council’s fortnightly free sheet
A new phrase has risen to prominence over the past year after being adopted by a head of state as a way to trash the image of anyone who dare question him.
So-called ‘fake news’ is of course a genuine problem, but care should be taken before such a serious accusation is leveled 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 November the Secretary of State for Communities, Sajid Javid, wrote to Waltham Forest Council and threatened to take the local authority to court if it did not follow publicity guidelines forbidding Waltham Forest News from being published fortnightly. The cabinet minister said: “An independent free press is vital for local democracy and it’s important we support them in holding local leaders to account. Councils shouldn’t undermine local democracy by publishing their own newspapers more often than quarterly.”
The government originally issued this request four years ago. Most councils complied, but Waltham Forest and neighbouring Hackney have held out and now are now facing legal action as a result. In a statement, a council spokesperson said: “Waltham Forest News reaches all 97,000 households in our borough and is a valuable, cost-effective way of communicating with our community. It also fulfills our obligation to publish statutory notices – as opposed to the government’s insistence we pay other newspapers to do that.”
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.