Oh how I laughed when Hazel Blears, Minister for Communities and Local Government, recently launched her BIG IDEA about giving `Real People:Real Power'…"A strong independent media is a vital part of any democracy" she bleated. In reality the complete opposite is happening as local councils are increasingly launching mini versions of Pravda, using their own huge publicly funded advertising budgets to finance what many see as a blatant attempt to control the flow of news and information.
Around the London boroughs, fortnightly council newspapers have sprung up all over the place this year but what you won't find in any of these is any true community dissent or proper journalistic investigations into how local taxes are spent. Meanwhile, in Tower Hamlets, the independent East London Advertiser is lodging a formal complaint with the Audit Commission as no-one seems to be able to find out the real cost of the council's free weekly paper, East End Life.
Here in Hazel's Salford backyard, on a peanuts budget, volunteers produce the Salford Star – a free, 76 page, fiercely independent magazine that gives the community a voice to tell the truth about the City's `regeneration', backed up by hard core investigative journalism that got us the award for top magazine in the North West this year and runners up in the Paul Foot Awards.
The Star is about democracy, empowerment and holding public bodies up to account. We're doing everything that Hazel is urging, yet last year our application for devolved funding from the City's community committees (another of Hazel's BIG IDEAS), was ripped up by Salford Council on the grounds that we didn't meet its criteria of being `balanced'.
It was with horror, then, that we recently discovered the Leader of Salford Council deciding to spend £175,000 to take its own `magazine' LIFE IN Salford monthly, and stuff the pages with its own adverts to help pay for it. Balanced? Last week, Councillor Steve Cooke resigned from its editorial board saying it provided "a thin veneer of democratic respectability to an often misleading and relentlessly and unjustifiably upbeat publication" and that he wanted to play "no further part in legitimising council propaganda".
Despite being overturned at a `call-in' committee, the decision to expand LIFE is soon expected to be rubber stamped at a full council meeting where the ruling Labour Party has an inbuilt majority. Meanwhile the Salford Star's Christmas issue will not be appearing, and the magazine has been put on hold until we can raise the cost of printing it. You're doing a great job, Hazel…A `strong independent media'? My arse…