A new law is set to stop councils distributing free newspapers in competition with the local press.
The bill announced in the Queen’s speech to Parliament last week will strengthen existing rules and give the Secretary of State power to check whether or not a local authority is complying with restrictions on the publication of council newspapers. Where the code is being flouted, a court order can be issued.
Despite a 2011 government code of practice which says that councils should not publish newspapers more than four times a year, many councils have carried on publishing weekly titles in competition with local papers. In England alone around 150 council publications carry private sector advertising.
Editors of local papers have complained for some time that publicly funded council free-sheets soak up advertising revenue which would otherwise go their way and are hastening the decline of the local press.
Newspaper Society spokesman Paul Sinker told London Journalism Centre the legislation was long overdue.
“Council newspapers and their websites compete with independent local newspapers for private and public sector advertising, the lifeblood of independent local newspapers in their areas,” he said. “It is vital that this unfair competition, which causes real damage to local newspapers, be stopped as a matter of urgency”.
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said: “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 new bill is expected to become law by 2015.