853 exclusive: Greenwich borough’s newest local paper scrapped its news coverage after Greenwich Council objected to “negative” stories and considered withdrawing its advertising, sources have said.

The free Greenwich Weekender launched in May this year after publisher Southwark Newspaper successfully bid for a contract to carry the council’s public notices – official notifications about planning applications, traffic restrictions and other council functions.

Public notices used to appear in the council’s own weekly, Greenwich Time, which closed in June 2016 after government restrictions were put on “council Pravdas”.

33,500 copies of the what’s-on paper are delivered door-to-door across Greenwich borough, with a further 8,500 available at collection points across the area.

As well as covering culture and leisure items, early editions of Weekender devoted space to straight news stories, following a template set by its sister paper in Lambeth. Ahead of its launch, reporter Kirsty Purnell made contact with local community groups to introduce herself and get stories.

Weekender’s first edition featured Woolwich residents’ concerns over council redevelopment plans

‘Community events and campaigns’

An editorial introducing issue one, signed by managing directors Chris Mullany and Kevin Quinn, promised “local news, town hall events and all your community events and campaigns”. And Purnell’s efforts paid off, with Weekender featuring many stories missed by other outlets.

But this didn’t go down well with Greenwich Council.

The first edition gave space to people concerned about Greenwich Council’s plans to redevelop the old Woolwich covered market and neighbouring buildings. Later editions saw traders in Greenwich Market get space for their fears over business rates, while residents in Woolwich grumbled about council staff taking their parking spaces.

But there were also positive stories about council initiatives – with front pages for Tall Ships and the annual Great Get Together event in Woolwich, and a page for deputy leader Danny Thorpe to discuss controversial plans for a leisure centre in Plumstead. Eltham Labour MP Clive Efford’s views on possible changes to rail services were given an airing, and the local branch of the Campaign for Real Ale praised the council’s pub protection policies.

Coverage was also given to the general election campaign, with a photograph of Greenwich Conservative leader Matt Hartley, who challenged Clive Efford in Eltham, appearing in the second issue. Weekender was the only outlet to give full coverage to the election count.

Greenwich Weekender issue one
The Political Brief feature never appeared, despite being trailed in early editions of Weekender

‘Negative’ stories

In short, Greenwich Weekender was doing the job of a proper local paper. Indeed, it even planned to run columns from local political leaders, again echoing a feature in Lambeth Weekender. Hartley was among those approached, but the columns never apeared.

This website understands leading figures in the council were angry about the paper covering “negative” news stories – and were also unhappy about Efford’s coverage in the paper during June’s general election campaign.

A proposal to scrap Greenwich Weekender‘s ad contract – which would effectively close the paper – was discussed. But councillors voted down the measure at a meeting of the council’s Labour group in mid-June, which is said to have descended into a “huge row”. One idea discussed was to place the ads in the London Evening Standard instead, this website has been told.

Instead, it was decided that the council would tell Weekender to stop covering news stories.

News stories disappeared from the title at the end of June, and the only “news” in Greenwich Weekender – which still bills itself as “an independent weekly newspaper” – since have been advertorial pieces paid for by Greenwich Council.

Weekender, June 2017
Weekender also covered council initiatives

Why do public notices matter?

All local councils need to publish formal notices about planning, traffic and other issues in at least one printed newspaper. Historically, Greenwich’s notices were carried by the Greenwich Mercury, but were switched to Greenwich Time when that went weekly a decade ago.

Publishing Greenwich Time meant the council the council could fulfil that obligation and ensure its key messages – regeneration, investment, pictures of the council leader – went unfiltered to every home in the borough. Greenwich added information about choice-based lettings – where tenants can bid for council and housing association homes – too, using it as a justification for distributing it to every home in the borough.

But rival publishers and political opponents cried foul, and there was a lengthy battle to end Greenwich Time and other “council Pravdas”.

After an out-of-court settlement saw Greenwich Time close in 2016 the notices switched back to the Mercury for a time before Southwark Newspaper, best known for the weekly Southwark News, won a tender to carry the ads.

The three-year Greenwich Weekender deal is worth up to £1.2 million to Southwark Newspaper. It also means the paper can be distributed from libraries and other council-affiliated locations.

But in the council report recommending taking up the contract, it said it wanted its public notices to be “published… in the context of engaging local editorial content which helps to positively inform local residents about the measures that their neighbours and local service providers are undertaking to make the borough a great place to live, work, learn and visit”.

It would appear that Greenwich Council believes this means snuffing out scrutiny of its actions in any outlet that carries its ads.

Greenwich Weekender first issue
Greenwich Weekender promised community campaigns and town hall news… but these have now been snuffed out

Awkward relations with local press

Most local councils accept that their public notices will sometimes appear alongside critical coverage – after all, that’s what happens with a free press.

In 2012, the National Union of Journalists criticised Carmarthenshire County Council after it pulled an advertisement from the South Wales Guardian in a dispute over a story. “Attempting to suppress healthy public debate is no business of a local authority,” NUJ president Michelle Stanistreet said at the time.

But Greenwich has a very long history of awkward relations with the local press, which still seems to colour councillors’ views today. Way back in October 1982, the Woolwich-based Kentish Independent newspaper was the subject of a Greenwich Council advertising boycott after its editor insulted a senior councillor in an innuendo-laden opinion column. Although the row was later resolved, the paper closed 17 months later – with opposition councillors blaming the boycott for causing its demise.

But while that old KI column set out to be provocative, it is unclear quite what Weekender did to upset the council other than print some residents’ criticisms, or not slavishly covering one local MP’s activities.

When asked for correspondence with Weekender under the Freedom of Information Act, Greenwich refused because it had a commercial relationship with the paper.

Greenwich Weekender
Now the only ‘news’ in Weekender is council advertorial

Comment: All councils need media scrutiny – even Greenwich

Councils need watching, whether they like it or not. Most councils understand this. There was effectively no local media watching Kensington & Chelsea Council in the months and years leading up to the Grenfell Tower fire disaster, and no local reporters to listen to residents’ concerns.

Similar conditions exist in Greenwich. Cuts to the Mercury and News Shopper over many years have reduced those titles to skeleton staffs.

While Weekender‘s news coverage wasn’t in-depth – it was only a few pages out of a mostly leisure-based publication – it aimed to provide something that the legacy print outlets in Greenwich have stopped doing: original journalism and a forum for debate that might have inspired the council to do its job better. Yet that has now been snuffed out by remarkably thin-skinned politicians.

That’s bad news for anyone who values independent local journalism, which is in a precarious enough position. So if you value outlets in Greenwich borough such as Greenwich Visitor, SENine magazine, Charlton Champion or 853, make sure you can do what you can to support them.

Southwark Newspaper managing directors Chris Mullany and Kevin Quinn did not respond to an email asking for comment, while Weekender reporter Kirsty Purnell – who no longer works for Southwark Newspaper – could not be reached for comment. Greenwich Council has also not provided a response at the time of writing.

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