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13 June 2019

High Court Judge: Restricting Council Newspapers Promotes Freedom Of Expression

A High Court judge has dismissed a bid by two London local authorities to challenge the Government’s crackdown on council papers saying that restricting council papers promotes freedom of expression by “encouraging the development of the local independent press.”

London authorities Waltham Forest and Hackney, which both publish fortnightly publications, brought a judicial review against the Communities Secretary challenging the lawfulness of directions prohibiting each council from publishing more than quarterly.

Dismissing the claims in a judgment this week, Mrs Justice Andrews said that the Secretary of State had adopted the correct legal approach in issuing the directions for the councils to comply with the publicity code for local authorities.  

In the judgment, Justice Andrews said there was “considerable force” in the argument that the enforcement of the restriction on local authority publications “promotes freedom of expression by protecting and encouraging the development of the local independent press.”

“The Secretary of State is entitled to pursue the Government's policy of creating, so far as is practicable, an environment which is as conducive as possible to the flourishing of independent and politically free local media and to use the powers given to him to ensure that limits on the frequency of publication of local newsletters are adhered to,” Justice Andrews said.

There was “no impediment to his making a rational judgment that the very frequent publication by these Councils of a free local newssheet disseminated to each household in their boroughs was likely to hinder the market for independent local newspapers,” Justice Andrews added

“He was entitled to take the view that residents who obtained free newssheets delivered directly to their door every fortnight would be less likely to buy a local paper.”

“It was also rational for him to conclude that at least some of the advertising revenue received by the Councils from adverts published in their newssheets would potentially become available to the local press, if those authorities were only to publish their newssheets quarterly.”

Justice Andrews said: “It must be borne in mind that the objective of the restriction on the frequency of publication of local newssheets was to foster greater access to an independent local press which could hold local authorities to account.

“That is also a matter of importance to equality of opportunity.”

Despite the Government launching a crackdown on council newspapers following a sustained News Media Association campaign to highlight the damage taxpayer-funded propaganda papers do to independent local press some councils have continued with the publications, in defiance of the publicity code for local authorities.   

Newsquest chief executive Henry Faure Walker, NMA vice chairman, said: “Both our politicians and now the courts have explicitly acknowledged the damage that taxpayer-funded council newspapers inflict upon local democracy and said they should be stopped.

“Wherever they operate, council newspapers pose a direct threat to the sustainability of local journalism by competing aggressively with independent newspapers for audiences and advertising.  If the councils who publish them refuse to act, then Government must step in to shut down these publications.  Local Government should be working to support local news publishers, not undermine them.”