Over the course of this weekend I will be writing to the Secretary of State to refer the Medway Matters publication for review as I believe the publication is in breach of the Publicity Code for Local Authorities that is now underpined in statute under the 2014 local audit and accountability act.
I will be referring it for several key points that I believe lay open the authority to independent challenge from a member of the public.
For reference the Publicity Code for Local Authorities can be accessed here.
The code was introduced because of concern by this government that local papers would lose revenue because of the production of a free Council-based magazine or publication.
Since the Medway Matters magasine has been issued we have seen a reduction of independent newspapers in Medway over the last decade. Ad revenue continues to decline for Local Papers whilst our Local Authority continues to take sums in publicity from ostensibly public sector sources.
With the introduction of free wi-fi upcoming I am concerned that the Council will continue to persue a 'news' orientated site instead of focusing on purely Council services and amenities via the Medway Council official website (that incidentally cost £250,000 to create). It is therefore in my mind subverting the basis of the Code.
Below is the detail of a Members Item request I submitted (and since has been designed up by the KM Group) on the cost of the Medway Matters publication and the ad revenue it raises. This forms a useful basis as it highlights the cost of printing and distribution of 6 magasines a year (two more then should be produced) and also the issue around advertising revenue.
In short, Medway Matters can solicit for ad revenue. This matters when creating websites.
It is clear that advertising for the magasine comes from both in-house ads and also external financed ads including private companies. The sum total to create the publication is therefore a mix of taxpayer and private funding.
Since the start of this magazine the number of newspapers in circulation across Medway has dwindled. Medway now only has one bi-weekly independent newspaper via the KM Group. Whilst this does reflect a long term trend in Print journalism it is also true that Town Hall publications are hurting local press through ad-revenue seepage.
My complaint to the Minister will include a number of points but the core areas of review include:
Please see below two additions to the last Medway Matters that has failed to present the different positions at all on issues of contention.
These two issues are politically contentious issues. Despite a petition being presented to the Overview & Scrutiny Committee's and Full Council there has been no mention of any form of controversy either during, or after plans had been passed. The quotes offered were the same. It is therefore, in my mind, not being even-handed.
There are other examples in the Council newsletters that do not provide balance on issues of contention that I will be supplying but these two issues (Rochester Airfield / Strood Library) are merely the current items.
The Council are issuing bi-monthy publication of the newsletter.
In addition the content of the magazine does not solely include references to business, services and amenities of the Council. In just the latest magazine we had Gardening Guidance given to the public from the 'regular column' Chris Collins - BBC Gardening Expert.
In other Medway Matters magasines we also see examples of this type of publication (some are not sponsored).
The local authority could also be incurring expenditure in the hosting and management of a Medway Matters website; though interestingly whilst the main Medway Council website cost some £250,000 to produce and manage this site is costing taxpayers only in the hundreds of pounds according to press officers. I do not believe this is an accurate representation of the overall cost to contribute and manage the site.
I would suggest that Medway Matters website has been constructed to now act as a first point of call and defacto news site for the Council; as opposed to the £250,000 Medway Council website (see point 3 for more detail on this)
The headline for the Medway Matters even admits as such. See below from the 'News Room' of the Medway Matters.
The website itself even has a handy drop down tab that includes 'Community News' and 'Commununity and Living' and 'Gardening' with 'News Updates'
And in case you were in any doubt that this was solely about bringing you Council news the website 'About' makes clear that it wants to be more...
Why does the Council need to solicit views on favourite walks and views? The fact a Council magasine is openly seeking to solicit views on issues outside of the strict remit of Council publicity is an issue that warrants further review.
The use '.com' is unusual in itself for a government publication. Whilst the usage of .com has changed its original usage was as a commercial basis.
All of these links emulate the 'style' of online commercial publications in my mind that may constitutute a breach of the guidelines.
Point 3 relates to the above point in the attempt to refer residents not to the medway.gov.uk address but to the medwaymatters.com address.
The Council was formerly publicising this fact in all magasines; but this has changed recently.
April / May 2014
In the most recent addition; there is no clear and umambigious reference to identify this as a Council Magazine other than a tiny logo in the corner. This could in my mind be considered no more than a Council 'sponsors mark' as opposed to it being a Council publication.
The Council has also removed all references to 'Council Magazine for Everyone in Medway' and also amended and deleted the link to the official Medway Council website.
The header on the magazine refers all web interest to the newly created 'Medway Matters' website that has a .com link. This magasine therefore does not unambiguously 'identify itself' as a product of the local authority; rather the 'Medway Matters' brand.
These three points I believe warrant further investigation.