Town hall “propaganda” weekly papers which cost the public purse millions of pounds a year could be investigated by the Office of Fair Trading after Members of Parliament criticised them as an 'attack on democracy'.

MPs called on the Government to do more to safeguard local and regional newspapers against unfair competition during a 90-minute debate at Westminster lead by Liberal Democrat Chief Whip and Sutton and Cheam MP Paul Burstow.

Minister for Creative Industries MP Sion Simon said he would refer the matter to the OFT and ask Ofcom – the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries – to also look into the issue.

Speaking at the debate Ealing, Acton and Shepherds Bush MP Andrew Slaughter slammed some local council-run papers – including Hammersmith and Fulham Council's fortnightly publication the H&F news, as “propaganda masquerading as independent newspapers”.

Leading the debate Mr Burstow said Tower Hamlets council was also operating unfair competition against the East London Advertister, which could not match its subsidised advertising rates and has consequently seen its advertising revenue and circulation plummet.

He said the £1m council-run subsidised weekly weekly paper East End Life operated without scrutiny and harmed local democracy.

He said: “Just imagine if a beleaguered prime minister were to decide to hire a team of journalists and commentators to turn out a daily newspaper to create a positive image of the Government, talking up its achievements, always on message – all at a huge cost to the taxpayer.

“There would be an outcry. Quite rightly so.

“But that is what is happening at a local level.

“There is a sinister emerging trend in some corners of local government which is determined to directly compete with local independent newspapers, to put them out of business.”

In June last year the Digital Britain report acknowledged the negative impact on independent local newspapers of local authority newspapers.

It said council-run newspapers will “inevitably not be as rigorous in holding local institutions to account as independent local media.”

Mr Burstow said it was estimated that in London alone council-run “pseudo-newspapers” were costing the taxpayer about £10m a year.

He said: “Without action the risk is the creation of 21st century rotten boroughs, where the only news freely available to everyone is provided by the council.”

Central Croydon MP Andrew Pelling, Malden and East Chelmsford MP John Whittingdale, MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey Derek Wyatt were also among those who raised concerns during the debate.

MP for Wokingham John Redwood, MP for Wantage Edward Vaizey, MP for Nuneaton Bill Olner, MP for Bath Don Foster, MP for Argyll and Bute Alan Reid, MP for North Southwark and Bermondsey Simon Hughes, MP for Leyton and Wanstead Harry Cohen, MP for Stroud David Drew and MP for Wallington and Carshalton Tom Brake also spoke. Last year the Audit Commission was asked to review the impact of council-run newspapers on independent owned newspapers.

But it has not yet published the report and has since said it could not tackle the issue of unfair competition, because it did not have the right statutory remit.

However MP's this afternoon agreed this was not acceptable and that the Government needed to do more to address the issue.

Speaking after the meeting, Mr Burstow said the next step would be to make sure the OFT is called in to do the work.

He said: “The other thing is we need greater transparency to see how much council produced papers are costing.”

Research by the Newspaper Society last year found that nine out of 10 councils now print their own papers.

Over the past year about 60 local papers have closed across the country – almost one in 20 titles.

During the debate the impact of the internet – specifically Google – and the impact of the BBC were also noted as further strains on the survival of local newspapers as was the influence of decisions made by the owners of newspaper companies themselves.

Mr Burstow said he was inspired to initiate the debate after meeting with Howard Scott, managing director of Newsquest South London, publishers of the Sutton Guardian.

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