This week is Local Newspaper Week, and to `celebrate', the Newspaper Society has released the results of its survey of local newspaper editors which shows starkly the attitude of local councils to press freedom.
More than a quarter, or 27%, of local newspapers have received a threat from a public body to suspend advertising as a result of journalistic activity – like an article they don't like or even a reporter asking the wrong kind of question or merely attending a meeting.
Salford Council spends thousands of pounds advertising with the Salford Advertiser and Manchester Evening News, so the Salford Star attempted to ask the respective editors if their papers had ever been threatened, or if they tone down coverage to keep the Council advertising budget sweet.
Unfortunately the Advertiser's editor was away until next week, while the MEN editor didn't return our call.
Of those newspapers which had been threatened, 40% had seen the threat of withdrawing advertising carried out, the Newspaper Society survey found.
While the Salford Star has never had a penny in advertising out of Salford City Council, tame community magazines in the city which don't question its antics are kept alive with advertising and funding from the Council and its public body partners - M3*, Essence etc (see previous Salford Star article for further info – click here).
Meanwhile, 70% of editors surveyed said it was getting harder to squeeze information out of local public bodies, 22% said it was about the same, and only 8% said it was getting easier.
The Salford Star could write the book on this…
• five Freedom of Information requests currently outstanding, one dating back to last December
• the blocking of a Salford Star request to see elements of Salford Council accounts for last year - which is a legal right for all citizens
• numerous requests for Salford Council comments ignored
Indeed, since Ian Stewart got the job as Salford Mayor, the Salford Star would argue that the Council's press office has been politicised, with an anonymous e-mail from that department even accusing the Star of being `negative' – for asking a question about loans to Salford Reds? (see here)
Meanwhile, both Mayor Ian Stewart and his Assistant Mayor, Gena Merrett, have accused the Salford Star of being `extremists' and `liars' (see here and see here and see here). When the Star tried to take Gena Merrett to the Council's Standards Committee over the slurs, Salford Council never even had the courtesy to reply, apart from to acknowledge the email.
And so it goes on and on and on. And, as the Newspaper Society survey reveals, the reality of a free local press giving citizens a right to know what is happening with their money and in their name is being eroded by the day.
Speaking about the findings of the survey, Newspaper Society president Adrian Jeakings said: "Local newspapers' ability to hold authority and the powerful to account on behalf of their readers underpins local democracy in Britain and we are in serious danger of seeing this become irreparably damaged."
43% of the editors surveyed said that the current legislative and regulatory framework affecting the press had a negative effect on press freedom – with the three biggest obstacles data protection, libel and privacy.
Before Salford Star Freedom of Information requests were routinely thrown in the bin by Salford Council, the excuse for not providing information was always `commercial confidentiality'. When Salford University used this excuse to block a request on the University's rent to Peel Holdings at MediaCityUK, it took the Star over a year, via the Information Commissioner, to get them to release it (see here).
One editor who took part in the survey – obviously speaking out anonymously for fear of losing advertising or being branded an extremist – said…
"It seems that these authorities' only aim is to protect their reputations rather than give useful information out to the public. Often this manifests itself in simply not getting back to us on queries and hoping we'll go away…"
But the local press cannot go away – or democracy is effectively dead. Maybe it is time for a national debate on self serving councils and public bodies which believe they are above accountability.
The Salford Star will be responding in its own way next week…
* Members of the Salford Star editorial team helped to launch the first edition of M3 but left in disgust when it was censored by Salford's Urban Regeneration Company the night before it went to press.
** The Newspaper Society survey was conducted amongst 37 editors of local papers – for full details click here