A COMMUNITY newspaper funded by taxpayers is facing a probe into claims it is little more than a campaign tool for the Labour Party.
Economy chief Councillor Frank Ross and deputy communities leader Cllr Alex Lunn have called for an “immediate suspension” of council support for North Edinburgh News (NEN), alleging a “misappropriation” of funds.
In a letter to city council chief executive Sue Bruce, they reveal concerns over £25,000 given to the NEN board, which helped pay for a short-term editorial role filled by former Labour regional councillor David Pickering.
No efforts were made to advertise the position, with Mr Pickering being offered the role by the board, which is chaired by Martin Hinds - also secretary of the Edinburgh Western constituency Labour party.
The letter highlights the board’s alleged “lack of political neutrality” and questions why no “visible” digital media training strategy has been provided – even though this is what was agreed by councillors when funding was approved.
Cash was originally released to NEN as part of the Contact in the Capital pilot programme, which aims to improve communication between the city council and local communities.
Calls for an official probe have been backed by senior opposition figures, who said it should begin “as soon as humanly possible”.
Councillor Paul Edie, leader of the city’s Liberal Democrat group, said: “[The pilot] was rushed through and I am not convinced that it was scrutinised as effectively as I would have liked.
“I had concerns about the project from the outset and the fact that the administration seem to be fighting like cats in a sack about this does not surprise me.”
Cllr Lunn added: “The pilot’s main aim is for the training of young people in the use of digital media – I have seen nothing which indicated that funds should be used for printing newspapers.”
But members of the NEN board rejected accusations of political bias and insisted the use of public money was being closely monitored.
Mr Hinds, the husband of transport leader Cllr Lesley Hinds, said: “A survey was carried out which showed that people wanted to see a print version of the North Edinburgh News appearing alongside the digital media – that’s what was agreed and that’s what [the NEN board] have been asked to deliver.
“I take exception to [allegations of misuse of public funds]. The council officers control the budget. There has been no misappropriation of funds.
“The philosophy of the paper is to be apolitical. It is clearly stated in the paper and on the website that it’s apolitical.”
He added: “We would be more than happy to cooperate with any investigation as there’s nothing to hide.”
A city council spokesman said: “The Community Communication Pilot is a one-year project which aims to improve engagement with Edinburgh residents and is due to finish in March 2015.
“A report evaluating its progress will be considered by the Neighbourhood and Communities committee shortly after that.”