Hackney mayor Jules Pipe angrily responded to claims that the council paper Hackney Today was a waste of money by laying into independent freesheet the Hackney Citizen at a council meeting last Wednesday.
The attacks on Hackney Today, the council’s own paper, which has a fortnightly circulation of 106,000, began when the Liberal Democrats made their suggested amendments to next year’s council budget.
Leader of Hackney Council’s Lib Dem group, Ian Sharer, suggested that the Council “undertake a review of the costs and content of Hackney Today with a view to stopping the production of it.”
According to data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act the budget for 2009/2010, including staffing, production, print and distribution, was forecast to be £490,000.
Last year the newspaper made £160,000 through external advertising, but the council estimated that they saved £40,000 in placing statutory notices in Hackney Today, which by law must be displayed in a local newspaper.
But his concerns were not merely financial. Sharer argued: “This is council propaganda and should be abolished.
“It is not a newspaper. Its role is too often about particular council achievements, not what’s happening in the community.”
Not only is the paper partisan, he claimed, but its existence threatens that of local newspapers. Making particular reference to the Hackney Gazette, he said: “They drive local newspapers to the wall.”
Conservative councillor Harvey Odze agreed. “This council is not allowed to produce propaganda,” he said. “Of course we should abolish Hackney Today, financial gain or not.”
Labour mayor Jules Pipe hit back at the allegations.
“Hackney Today costs £50,000 but this is minimal for what you gain from the information you get. If Hackney Today was scrapped, how would the council communicate with residents?” Pipe asked. “By semaphore?”
Holding up a copy of the latest Hackney Citizen, Pipe then launched into a tirade against the free quarterly community newspaper.
He labelled it “absolutely ridiculous,” and questioned whether anyone actually read it for news.
He took particular issue with the front page, which claims that the five-year council tax freeze in Hackney will lead to a “budgetary black hole of nearly £40m in its financial forecasts”.
Pipe said this was journalism based on instilling fear into the community. He added: “This journalist doesn’t understand the budget any more than [the Tories] do.”
He concluded with an impassioned defence of Hackney Today. “This is one of the reasons that it’s important that we have a council paper, to correct inaccuracies about the council. I don’t think the Press Complaints Commission would deal with a lying little rag like this.”
Hackney Citizen’s website now includes an updated article with specific reference to the evidence for the £40 million shortfall claims, and the editor, Keith Magnum, has commented underneath the story: “The story has been updated and additional material has been provided to substantiate the claims it makes.”