At last! Someone is getting to grips with the problem of tens of millions of pounds being spent on providing key information about what is happening in their area in a way that almost guarantees they won’t see it. Eric Pickles at the Department of Communities and Local Government is asking people to bid for funding for innovative pilot projects to ‘bring the process into the 21st Century’.
Unfortunately, I don’t think there is any reason to get too excited about Mr. Pickle’s appeal. It is hard to get past the idea that this is a box-ticking exercise that is being undertaken for reasons that would only make sense to someone working in the public sector. The best guess is that there was a small amount of unallocated funding and this was one way the department thought they could use it up.
The over-arching problem with the initiative is that both the two key participants have a vested interest in it not working.
Eric Pickles has made it clear that nothing in this exercise will threaten the market position of the major newspaper groups and a very strong hint is given that they should be involved in any proposal. This commitment is underwritten by the presence of the News Media Association (NMA) on the selection panel.
Despite this some in the industry will view this project as less of a chance to innovate and more like asking a turkey what sort of stuffing it wants for Christmas. The dilemma that the newspapers have is that, were they to successfully bid for funds to launch a pilot scheme and it worked well, this could end up undermining the market position of the whole industry. The inherent contradiction in this initiative is that, as everyone knows, the newspapers enjoy a massive public subsidy through an archaic system which gives them a monopoly on the publication of Council notices. The mere suggestion that there could be a better way of doing this presents a challenge to the status quo. What seems to be on the table is a small amount of funding to develop add-on digital distribution for the existing print copies of notices. There is no suggestion that there will be additional payment from local authorities for the improved level of service they are getting.
Every major newspaper group currently has a faction within the organisation that would see this as an opportunity rather than a threat. The digital teams at most local newspaper groups are always pointing out that they have the most readers and would love the opportunity to take a tilt at providing an enhanced public notice service. The ‘dead tree’ faction counter by pointing out that they are making all the money and that even if their digital colleagues can make a better job of publishing notices their company will end up getting paid less overall thereby winning the argument.
Local authorities are also going to view this initiative with very mixed feelings. Every Council in the country wants to do away with the requirement to publish these notices in the local paper. They don’t believe they should be subsidising a failing industry and argue that circulations have become so low that there is an increasing danger they will be found not to have met their statutory obligations even if they have placed a notice. In their view the problem would be solved by allowing them to carry the notices themselves in their magazines and on their web site. By partnering in a pilot a Council would be endorsing Pickle’s non-negotiable stance on newspapers remaining involved in the process. Pickles will not be the minister in May and with Labour ahead in the polls at the moment local authorities will be assuming that an administration will be in place that will be more sympathetic to their way of thinking.
The short-time scale for this initiative is very interesting. It was announced on 28th December with a deadline for submissions on 28th January and a decision date in March. This is ridiculously rushed and the reasons must be political. The most obvious explanation is that there is an expectation that Labour would have shut the whole thing down on coming into office.
Some Councils probably will bid for funding but only because it is in their DNA to bid for funding where it is available. It will be done cynically in the knowledge that the initiative is likely to be ended before the project is even implemented.
There has been some fluttering of excitement from hyperlocals on this process but they are effectively excluded from it. Councils are genuinely concerned about breaches of statutory duty due to a failure to put a notice in a publication that has a sufficient distribution and very few hyperlocals have an audience size that would give them any comfort in that regard. Even where it is arguable that they do have sufficient readership, they rarely, if ever, cover a whole administrative area.
When the DCLG talk about newspapers they clearly mean something that is made out of paper rather than something that provides quality local news. They state in their FAQs regarding the exercise, “The statutory requirements to publish notices in newspapers are contained in a large number of primary and secondary pieces of legislation. Amending these would be resource intensive and time consuming, and would inevitably delay the pilots for some considerable time.”
This ignores convincing arguments made by some hyperlocals that no amendment to the law would be necessary for Councils to use them for public notices. The contradiction in asking people for initiatives on public notices which will all involve digital methods and not clarifying whether they can have an expectation of a revenue stream from publishing them is clearly daft and can only signify that that the process is all about protecting the larger media groups’ market position.
With only ‘low hundreds of thousands’ on offer in total for this initiative it is too small and too badly timed to effect any real change. What really matters at this stage is what the next Government will do. It is safe to assume that this will be a Labour administration or a Labour dominated coalition.
On the one hand they will be a lot more receptive than Pickles to local authority pleas to end the subsidy to local newspapers. On the other hand the lobbying power of the newspapers in the shape of the NMA remains formidable and it is unlikely that the next Government will take them on. My best guess is that there will be a relaxation of the current publicity code to allow ‘Town Hall Pravdas’ to be set up again if the local authority can prove that the local newspaper has an insufficient distribution or employs too few people in the local authority area. As a quid pro quo the newspapers will be allowed to combine their print and digital readership in any determination of whether or not their readership is large enough as long as they are publishing public notices digitally. The NMA won’t like it but they will only be forced to close titles with a small readership and a limited number of staff and their current privileged position will continue to be protected so it probably the best deal they could get. Councils will like it because it will give them extra leverage over the newspapers and a chance to set up their own. The NUJ will like it because their members will end up in better paid jobs in the public sector. The only people who will lose out are the public who will continue to be poorly served despite the millions of pounds they have to pay to be kept informed about what is happening in their area.