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Queen's Speech: Bill to Enforce Publicity Code against Council Newspapers

The Local Audit and Accountability Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech yesterday (Wednesday) is to “tackle town hall pravdas” and “deliver the Coalition Agreement pledge to impose tougher rules to protect the independent free press from unfair competition by town hall newspapers and propaganda.”

The Bill “would strengthen the legal status of the existing Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity, which some councils are currently ignoring. Healthy local democracy requires robust scrutiny by an independent local press.”

Commenting on the Bill, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said: “This government is reining in the quango state, saving taxpayers’ money and giving more power to local people. This bill extends the government’s localism agenda - ensuring robust scrutiny of council spending, strengthening the role of direct democracy and protecting an independent free press.”

The NS has supported Mr Pickles and the DCLG proposals for protection of the local independent press from unfair competition from council publications. However, it has objected to the DCMS’s presentation of the DCLG consultation as an offset to the exemplary damages and costs sanctions to which the regional press will be liable if they do not join an “approved regulator” but not council publications, despite the threat to regional press viability noted by the Leveson Report and its exoneration of the regional press from any allegation of wrongdoing.

In response to the DCLG consultation, the NS urged the Government to bring forward and implement legislation on enforcing the publicity code as soon as possible. It said that the Secretary of State should make immediate use of the powers of direction backed by court order to stop any council breaching the Publicity Code through publication of council newspapers and ensure all bodies’ compliance with the Code.

The NS, local and regional media companies publishing newspapers in print and online together with their publishers and editors have made representations to Government, DCLG, OFT, Audit Commission over a number of years on council newspapers and the unfair competition constituted to independent local and regional newspapers.

The DCLG Consultation Paper points out that some councils have continued to publish weekly council newspapers. It therefore proposes that the Secretary of State should be able to direct any body subject to the code to comply with any part of the code. If  the council or other body  fails to do so, any interested person should be able to obtain a court order to enforce the direction.  

The NS is the voice of Britain’s local media, the UK’s most trusted medium. It represents 1,100 newspapers, 1,700 websites and other print, digital and broadcast channels.