TORY Cabinet member Eric Pickles has attacked five London councils for behaving like Russian president Vladimir Putin over their alleged attempts to drive local newspapers “out of business”.
The Communities and Local Government Secretary has given the five Labour-run boroughs a fortnight to defend their actions and to explain why legal proceedings should not be taken against their “propaganda on the rates”.
Mr Pickles described the council-published newsletters as “Town Hall Pravdas”, a reference to Russian political newspapers associated with the Communist Party of the Russian Federation.
“It is scandalous that bloggers have been handcuffed for tweeting from council meetings, whilst propaganda on the rates drives the free press out of business. Only Putin would be proud of a record like that,” he said.
“Localism needs robust and independent scrutiny by the press and public, and municipal state-produced newspapers suppress that. Town Hall Pravdas not only waste taxpayers’ money unnecessarily, they undermine free speech.”
Formal letters have been sent to the five councils responsible for Greenwich Time, Hackney Today, the Newham Mag, Waltham Forest News and (Tower Hamlets) East End Life.
The letters are the first in a series of measures Mr Pickles could now take to force them to comply with the Publicity Code for local authorities.
All publicly-funded news sheets now published by local authorities should be objective, limited in frequency and represent value for money. However, in all five cases, the freesheets were found to have been printed too often, with the Greenwich and Tower Hamlets’ papers published at least 50 times a year.
The pressure faced by newspapers in the capital was illustrated recently when publisher Trinity Mirror announced the closure of a free newspaper series in west London, with up to 15 staff facing possible redundancy.