Stephen Glover On The Press

State newspapers are rivalling the free press – right under your nose

Many of us are familiar with the giveaway newspapers and magazines produced by many councils that flutter unsolicited on to our doormats from time to time. Though they are largely composed of Soviet-style propaganda – recycling rates have risen to new heights; a new park warden has been appointed – they do contain some unspun local news, and occasionally useful local advertising.

Several London boroughs have taken to distributing these doleful freesheets more frequently, and others are intending to do so. Council publications in Lambeth, Hackney, Waltham Forest and Havering have gone from being monthly to fortnightly, and Hammersmith and Fulham is planning to follow suit. Greenwich will soon have a weekly title. No doubt more and more councils inside and outside London will be turning themselves into publishers.

Just when many local newspapers are fighting to stay alive, and the shares of some of their owners such as Trinity Mirror and Johnston Press are reaching new lows, this development threatens to finish off the weakest among them. Councils who publish their own propaganda rags are taking no risk, since local council taxpayers are effectively putting up the capital. If their giveaways don't attract much advertising, and go on losing moderate amounts of money, that is hardly going to matter to them.

This is surely an abuse of state power, albeit on so small a scale that it has barely provoked any criticism, though The Newspaper Society, which represents regional and local newspapers, is up in arms. If the Government were to start producing publications to rival the national press, there would be an outcry; when the same thing happens on a local level it is deemed acceptable behaviour.

Local newspapers are more trusted than national ones, and they are often more able to influence decisions. Yet, most politicians and national newspaper journalists are remarkably blasé, and often condescending, about them. They pay lip service to the importance of the role of the local press in ensuring democratic accountability, but, while there are countless agonised pieces about the decline of national newspapers, the much more drastic problems of local titles are scarcely mentioned.

The BBC has already proposed a local video service in 60 areas, which has led to accusations that it is stifling competition. Like local councils, the BBC has a guaranteed income, and it is immune to the downturn in classified advertising revenue that is particularly afflicting local and regional newspapers. A local video service would very likely affect their already flagging circulation. The BBC's plans are being investigated by Ofcom, but I have a feeling that, in the way of these things, the corporation will be allowed to go ahead, though possibly in fewer areas in the first instance.

Even without the competitive activities of local councils and the BBC, local papers are in trouble. These are two further thorns. But whereas nothing can be done about long-term circulation decline in the regional press, or about the migration of classified advertising to the net, something can and should be done to restrict the activities of these taxpayer-funded behemoths, which can play in commercial markets without taking commercial risks.

The Telegraph's colourful relationship with The Times

Eight days ago, the Sunday Times received a major facelift, which included a new masthead, new body headline and body fonts, smart colour folios on every page and full colour everywhere.

The overall effect may sound revolutionary, but on the whole it isn't, because the structure of John Witherow's paper feels pretty much unchanged.

Tristan Davies, the design whizz who used to edit the Independent on Sunday and masterminded this makeover, should probably be credited with a job well done. However, my new resolution is not to discuss newspaper redesigns as soon as they have taken place. I am often initially uneasy with changes that a few months later appear indispensable.

This is certainly true of the recently redesigned Times, which grows on me. I still can't come to terms with leaders on page two, and I will probably never love the look or content of Times 2, but the appearance of the main paper is striking. The layout is elegant and neat without being fussy. Most impressive of all is the extraordinarily high quality of the colour photographs and graphics, as well as the generally high standard of printing. This is a testament to News International's three brand-new plants, which will also benefit the Sunday Times and the company's other titles. It's worth buying a copy of The Times just to admire the quality of the colour.

Soon the Telegraph Media Group will be using the same presses, having made a deal with News International to have it print its titles. Tonight, Scottish editions of The Daily Telegraph will be printed at the new plant near Glasgow for the first time. Though the Telegraph has said that it will not withdraw the bulk of its print run from its existing operation in West Ferry until next year, it is possible that all its printing will be done by News International by this autumn.

If I were the Barclay brothers, who own the Telegraph titles, I might have qualms about putting my means of production in the hands of a rival, however excellent the presses. However, they have the comfort of knowing that they have in Murdoch MacLennan a chief executive said to be a world expert on print, who presumably knows what he is doing. If all goes according to plan, The Daily Telegraph's colour should soon be as fine as The Times's.

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