Representatives from Salford's community were told last night that they would be "breaking the law" if they agreed to fund the Salford Star.
The Salford Star applied to three of Salford's eight `community committees' for half the costs of producing another print issue of the magazine. The committees are each supposed to be `empowered' with their own budget, devolved from the council tax, to fund local projects which benefit the community.
But representatives from these committees who sit on `budget sub groups' were sent an e-mail with "definitive guidance" from Sue Lightfoot, Salford's Director of Community Health & Social Care, stating that "the applications for funding by The Salford Star are not supported on the basis that the organisation has not met the criteria laid down by the city council to safeguard the expenditure of public money."
A further report gave the reasons that the Salford Star "is overtly political in nature", "does not take a balanced view" and that it "tends to criticise authority, in particular singling out Salford Council and individual councillors".
East Salford Community Committee's `budget sub group' met last night and was instructed by Salford Council and its legal team not to fund the Salford Star as it would be in breach of the Local Government Act.
In a letter to the budget sub groups the Salford Star has vigorously refuted all of Salford Council's claims, arguing that the magazine is totally independent, is not aligned to any political party, and never tells anyone how to vote.
"The magazine does have an agenda - to give the community a voice and to hold public bodies up to account" the letter added "We would argue that this is something worth striving for, and that the concept of empowerment is included in many Council documents. The Council might not like the voices or the empowerment but we do not believe that this makes the magazine `overtly political' in any way. Indeed, we would argue that the Council's own publicity machine and magazine only gives one perspective - does that make it `overtly political' or just `subliminally political'?"
The award winning Salford Star magazine has been produced as an online only publication for the last year due to lack of public funding and, given that only one third of Salford's residents have direct access to the internet, has been striving to get back into print ever since. The community itself has raised over £2500 towards this end from donations and sales of merchandise.
The last time the Salford Star applied for such funding from the community in 2007, Salford Council also intervened, re-writing its constitution for `devolved money for publications' and ripping up the Star's application before the community reps could even see it. This time, the community committee in East Salford voted to be able to see the application, which was allowed, but it was powerless to support it.
The chair of Vertical Villages residents group stood up at the East Salford Community Committee meeting last night and said it was a "sorry day for freedom of speech".
• Salford Council continues to produce its own Life In Salford monthly magazine at a total public cost of £28,000 per issue. Salford Star applied to the community for £3,500.
• Sue Lightup, Salford Council's new Director of Community Health & Social Care (and wife of Labour Councillor and mayor Roger Lightup), who sent out the e-mail warning the community not to support the Salford Star application, has only been in post since the beginning of March when Salford Council issued a press statement saying that her new role included "helping more people to get involved in decision making at a local level".
• Brian Wroe, Salford Council's former Assistant Director of Community Services sent out an e-mail to community reps a few days before he resigned from his post stating "I have expressed a view that the Salford Star…should not be supported by Council monies…Applications will have to be deferred to await the outcome of deliberation by Lead Member and thereafter the Leader". This implies that the decision to refuse funding for the Salford Star was being ultimately made by Salford City Council Leader, John Merry – and that the decision was not based on legal grounds at all but on political grounds.
• In the report sent to community reps by the Council two examples were given of the Salford Star being `overtly political'. The first was an article on the apparent u-turn on green belt destruction by Planning Lead Member Councillor Derek Antrobus, with an election around the corner in a marginal seat. All media in Salford printed the u-turn as fact. The Salford Star was the only publication to question its validity… The u-turn was not a Council decision, and had been issued as a Labour Party press release. Who was being `overtly political'?
The second example given was that the Salford Star backed the Hazel Must Go! campaign – in line with criticism of Hazel Blears by 99.9% of Salford residents (and plenty of Labour Party councillors and members) at the time of the expenses scandal.
In the letter sent to community reps the Salford Star stated that "The magazine is completely independent...to the point where we cannot even tell people not to vote for the BNP or Hazel Blears for that matter, or even tell them to vote for the Hazel Must Go! candidate. As was seen during the Congestion Charge vote, the Salford Star stayed neutral - we do not tell people how to vote or think."
The Salford Star has backed many campaigns, including opposing the closure of St George's High School (subsequently supported by the Schools Adjudicator) and the campaign to save the priceless Tree of Knowledge mural which was due to be bulldozed within 24 hours (subsequently saved and listed). Were these `overtly political' campaigns too? The Star asked the Council to define the term `overtly political' – and never got a response.
• The Salford Star has the right to appeal against Salford Council's decision to ban the community from funding the magazine – it can appeal to Salford Council's ruling Labour Party Cabinet.
• Or it can launch a legal challenge costing around £25,000…
Updates on this story here...
Updates on this story here
Update on the Salford Star appeal here... June 2010
Further details on Salford Council's spend on its Life In Salford `magazine' here...