Conservatives to call for public apology for Greenwich Time legal bid

Opposition Conservative councillors will propose a motion at Wednesday’s Greenwich Council meeting calling for Labour Leader Denise Hyland to issue a public apology for wasting more than £48,000 on the Council’s failed legal bid to save its Greenwich Time newspaper.

The move follows this month’s news that the Labour-run Council has abandoned its legal challenge to the government against the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government’s instruction to cease weekly production of Greenwich Time. The controversial newspaper was determined to be in breach of the Local Authority Publicity Code, with the government deeming it “not objective”, “not even handed” and published weekly in contravention of the Code.

Labour councillors pressed ahead with their legal action against repeated Conservative objections last year, admitting last month that as of November £48,243 of council taxpayer’s money had been spent on the challenge in legal costs and staff time. From June, the Council will only be able to publish “newspaper-like” communications a maximum of four times a year.

Conservative councillors will use the meeting to press for a series of criteria to ensure that any such future quarterly newsletter is free form party political content, and the establishment of an independently-chaired editorial board to guarantee compliance with the Publicity Code. The Conservative motion also calls for the Council to actively encourage existing Greenwich Time advertisers to instead give their business to “genuine local media outlets” such as the News Shopper, Mercury, SEnine, Greenwich Visitor, Westcombe News and other independent publications.

Councillor Matt Hartley, Leader of Greenwich Conservatives, said: “Labour Leader Denise Hyland should apologise to council taxpayers for this extraordinary waste of public money. To blow more than £48,000 on this doomed legal challenge at a time when finances are tight is quite simply outrageous. This is to say nothing of the nearly £3million that has been spent on producing Greenwich Time over the last five years alone.

“Taxpayers deserve an unreserved apology, and I hope she will do the right thing and accept this at the meeting on Wednesday night.

“We must also ensure that the Council does not simply continue to produce the kind of propaganda we have seen in Greenwich Time, but just four times a year instead of 50. Any future quarterly newsletter that the Council tries to introduce must be objective and free of party political bias – and an independently-chaired editorial board is the only way of ensuring that.

“There are of course still more than 20 weekly issues of Greenwich Time to come, most of which will fall behind the Mayoral election in May. We will be watching very carefully to see if Labour councillors use the paper’s death-rows to try to influence one last election.”

The full wording of the Conservative motion on Greenwich Time, to be proposed at Full Council on Wednesday 27th January, is below;

Council expresses its disapproval, in the strongest possible terms, of the Leader’s decision to launch legal action against the government as part of its failed attempt to retain Greenwich Time in its current non-compliant form, at a cost to the council taxpayer of £48,243 (as at November 2015). Council calls on the Leader to publicly apologise to council taxpayers for this waste of public money. 

Council welcomes the significant savings to the public purse that the abolition of Greenwich Time will bring at a time of financial constraint, with almost £3million of taxpayers’ money, net of advertising income, having been spent on producing the paper between 2010 and 2014.

Council notes that the administration’s decision to abandon its legal action and fully comply with the local authority Publicity Code limits the council to producing a maximum of four newspaper-like communications to all residents each year. Council calls on the Leader to commit the administration to a guarantee that any such future newsletter that may be introduced;

a) fully complies with all aspects of the Publicity Code, including the criteria of objectivity and even-handedness that Greenwich Time has been determined to have failed

b) is published at regular set times throughout the year, and not on an ad-hoc basis at the administration's discretion

c) is never published fewer than three months in advance of any Council, Mayoral/GLA, European or General Election polling day

d) is produced at the minimum possible cost to the taxpayer

e) is free from any content that promotes one political party’s agenda or electoral prospects over any other

To ensure that these conditions are met, Council calls on the Leader to establish an editorial board, in the event a quarterly newsletter is introduced, that;

a) is chaired by an (unpaid) independent person appointed annually, in mutual agreement between the Leaders of all political Groups on the Council, by Full Council

b) includes an equal number of representatives of all political Groups on the Council

c) approves each edition of any future newsletter by simple majority vote, so that no edition is published without the editorial board affirming that the above five tests are satisfied

Council further notes the positive impact that the end of Greenwich Time in its weekly form will have on the borough’s genuine local media outlets, and calls on the administration to encourage existing Greenwich Time advertisers to consider advertising in the Mercury, News Shopper, SEnine, Greenwich Visitor, Westcombe News or other independent publications instead.