What a load of rubbish

| 1st November 2006
The rise of free newspapers means that hundreds of thousands of trees are pulped each week to provide us with disposable pap

London is in the grip of a turf war between the UK’s heavyweight newspaper publishers.

In the red corner is Rupert Murdoch’s News International; and in the blue corner, Lord Rothermere’s Daily Mail group, Associated Newspapers. Ordinarily this would be a joy to watch, in the hope that one would deliver a fatal blow to the other. But this time the stakes are too high to get any enjoyment from the dingdong. At risk is the future of the British press, which for all its wrongs has been a mainstay of our system of democracy for centuries.

Forget the notion of the press ever having been objective: newspapers have always been politically driven. It is this fact that has always resulted in the politicians of the day being placed under intense scrutiny and exposed for wrongdoing, real or fabricated, by one title or another. Hence the press became known as the fourth estate – the counterbalance to the pomposity and hypocrisy of the Church, judiciary and executive. The current battle signals that any pretence that this situation still pertains is about to end.

Get on the London Underground today and you are in danger of being suffocated by one of a number of discarded freesheets, 1.5 million of which are being given away in and around the capital’s Tube stations each day. The breakdown is as follows: Associated Newspapers’ Metro 540,000; London Lite (also published by Associated Newspapers) and News International’s thelondonpaper around 400,000 respectively, and City AM 65,000.

Soon to be added to this is a free afternoon paper to be distributed, like Metro, on the underground system, rather than outside Tube stations like the other three. And on the last Friday of September, two free sports newspapers were unleashed on an unsuspecting public. This is a problem that is growing like Topsy, which has an unchecked motion all of its own.

Look at the ballpark figures behind the 1.5 million daily papers put out by the current four. It takes 12 established trees to make one tonne of newsprint, which is enough to print 14,000 editions of an average-size tabloid. That means a daily usage of newsprint of a little over 107 tonnes. Which, in turn, means the felling of 1,284 trees.

Not directly, of course, as 70 per cent of paper used by the newspaper industry is claimed to be ‘recycled’. On the face of it, this ‘saves’ 899 trees, meaning that only 385 are felled daily to feed London’s freesheet phenomenon. However, you have to remember that recycled paper has to come from somewhere – a virgin source – at some time. Predominantly in the UK, recycled paper usable for newsprint comes from unsold magazines.

Executives of the Daily Mail group and Newscorp make great play of the possibility that the London Lite or thelondonpaper you’re reading today could be the same paper that you read two weeks ago – ie, it has been recycled. This is arrant nonsense.

To start with, recycled paper can only be used in newspapers a maximum of five or six times before the fibres become too short. Recycling may delay destruction. It does not confer immortality. And as we all know, for paper to be recycled it has to be separated out from other rubbish, such as cans and food waste, etc.

These freesheets are designed and marketed as ‘20-minute reads’. In other words, they have no retention value and none of the publishers expect them to be retained. Hence they are dumped on tubes and station platforms, or on the streets or in the municipal bins surrounding the tubes. Tube Lines and Metro Link, who run the tubes, admit that they only recycle around 10 per cent of the 100-150 tonnes of rubbish that is left on the Underground. No local authority is collecting its municipal rubbish from public litter bins and recycling it.

Just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, there is no such thing as a free newspaper when given out in such a ‘homeless’ manner. You will be paying for your supposedly free paper in your council tax, for it either to be landfilled or, worse, through the creation of an incinerator on your doorstep. Across the country, scores of these highly polluting destructor units are being planned, because burying our burgeoning waste in landfill is no longer an option – the methane released is hastening climate warming. How at this time publishers have been allowed free rein to create such litter on the streets of London, and a corresponding waste disposal problem, is a mystery. It won’t remain a London problem for long, however.

News International has registered the names themanchesterpaper, theglasgowpaper, thenewcastlepaper, etc, and Associated Newspapers’ Metro is already available in other cities, such as Brighton and Manchester, doubling its brand circulation.

The more sinister side of the freesheet phenomenon is its ultimate impact on paid for newspapers, which within a generation could be a fond memory. The current crop of freesheets are aimed at those who are too busy to read a newspaper or have no inclination to buy one. Rather than address the reason why the paying public is shunning their products, News International and Associated Newspapers are seeking to create revenue by numbers alone.

Advertisers will be seduced with the argument that while only half a million editions of Metro are published, readership will be well over a million because it is dumped on the Tube.

In the long term, who is going to buy a newspaper when they have grown up having been given them for free? Already the pressure is growing. The famous Manchester Evening News is now given away free in inner-city Manchester in response to pressure from the presence of Metro.

Freesheets such as Metro et al operate on very tight margins. They have no care, consideration or concern about the area they serve, either environmentally or editorially. As they become more nationally embedded, whole elements of them will become syndicated, beginning with TV pages and pop gossip through to national and international news. They might tell you the what but not the how or the why. Investigations and campaigns will become rarer than they are now. Coverage of politics above the tittle-tattle of personality, less and less. At such a time, politics will correspondingly become more presidential than it has been of late and the parties will go down the road of American politics, addressing the public via TV and ‘shock jock’ adverts.

We will have our news, but it will be a news lite monoculture, further dislocating the executive from the people it is supposed to serve: us. To supply the newsprint on which all this trash is printed, whole swathes of Europe are being turned over to plantation forests, which is wiping out biodiversity. What we get for this is plantation news, with all the resonance of subjugation that word holds.

Don’t read this rubbish. Lobby your MP and local authority to seek ways to ban ‘homeless’ freesheets; withhold your council tax if they refuse to act. If the publishers of the Daily Mail and The Sun want to convert these and other paid-for papers into freesheets in order to raise advertising revenues (which, incidentally, have been dropping on their flagship titles over recent years), they should at the very least be made to deliver to homes, where there is an increased likelihood that they will be recycled, rather than carpet-bombing pedestrians.

Metro, London Lite, thelondonpaper, City AM? What a load of rubbish.

Jon Hughes is The Ecologist’s Deputy Editor.

Join Project Freesheet's campaign to collect 1.5 million of your freesheet newspaper images to highlight the effect of freesheets on our streets and our environment.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist November 2006

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