Gazette Leader’s Column – September 2014

Dear All

Please see this post which has been published by the Leader of the opposition in the local Gazette.

As readers of your local Gazette you will no doubt appreciate the vital contribution that a healthy local press makes to a thriving democracy. The impartiality that allows this paper to produce a monthly column for leaders of both political parties represented on the Council, is something that should not be taken for granted. Contrast this with your Council news-sheet Hillingdon People. This tax-payer funded publication makes no attempt at such even-handedness. Instead it provides an indulgent level of exposure for the Council Leader and Cabinet members and rarely invites contributions from elected members of the Opposition, even regarding matters affecting their wards.

It is this principle of supporting an independent local press that led Kris Hopkins MP, to write to Hillingdon (as well as six other councils) on 15th August 2014, pointing out that the publication of our news-sheet, Hillingdon People, is currently in breach of the Local Authority Publicity Code. The Publicity Code aims to prevent Local Authority news sheets, published by local authorities, funded by tax-payers, and providing biased commentary and publicity for the leading local party, from creating unfair competition for the local free press.

We do not know how the Leader chose to respond to this communication. However, we do know that Eric Pickles MP for Communities intends to take legal action against Council’s who do not comply with the Code. We also know that this issue was discussed at our latest Council Meeting last Thursday, 11th September, and the Conservatives rejected the motion, put forward by Labour, that Hillingdon should comply fully with the Publicity Code.

In contrast to your local free press Hillingdon People makes no attempt at even-handedness. For example, as Leader of the Opposition, I was at no time offered the opportunity to contribute to articles on such issues as Heathrow Airport, HS2 or the closure of South Ruislip Civic Amenity Centre. There is rarely any reference to elected members outside the Leader, the Cabinet and the Mayor.

And it doesn’t stop there. In addition to Hillingdon People the publicity machine steps up a gear every 4 years just before local elections with distribution of a further, ward-level, publication. Even the individual elected Ward Councillors were not consulted on the content of this publication, which included an address from the Leader of the Council and content prepared by Cabinet members.

As readers of your local free newspaper you will appreciate the balanced view, and superior scrutiny that an independent press can provide. It is easy to take it for granted. Our neighbours in Hammersmith and Fulham have been without a local news-sheet holding the council to account since April 2014 when the Fulham and Hammersmith Gazette was closed. The F&H Gazette had been involved in a long running legal battle with London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham over their frequent publication of a rival news-sheet. Ultimately this legal battle was successful, forcing LBHF to reduce the frequency of their publication. Unfortunately, despite this, the paper went out of business with the loss of 15 jobs in their Uxbridge Offices (now moved to Watford). These offices also serve several other West London newspapers. If the administration at Hillingdon does not comply with the Publicity Code I can envisage a negative impact on our local free press across West London.

Cllr Mo Khursheed – Leader of the Labour Group