2 August 2014

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Weekly's scoop sees two top councillors quit their posts

The leader and one of her senior cabinet colleagues both resigned from Cambridgeshire County Council within days of an exclusive story by the Cambs Times/Wisbech Standard.

And the story that contributed to both their decisions to quit was published on the Cambs Times and Wisbech Standard websites, four days before the print edition of either paper hit the streets.

News editor John Elworthy wrote the story only hours after returning to work from a fortnight on holiday.

His exclusive revealed the names of the three candidates lined up to become the £200,000 a year chief executive of the county council, including the name of the preferred candidate selected by the council’s appointments committee to take on the role.

It had previously been known that council leader Shona Johnstone had phoned the successful candidate the morning after his selection – which prompted him then to withdraw.

Coun Johnstone’s resignation followed what she admitted was an ill-judged telephone call to the successful candidate the morning after his selection which resulted in him turning down the post.

And when both his name and that of the two unsuccessful candidates went on the web, Coun Johnstone came under immediate pressure to explain more fully her actions.

By 4pm – six hours after the story broke on the web – the unsuccessful candidate, Mark Lloyd, chief executive of Durham County Council, had threatened the paper with legal action and with a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission.

John said: “The story went up the line through Archant and a decision taken to keep the story out there.

“Our lawyers advised we had a strong public interest defence, especially since the council had spent £50,000 worth of council tax payers’ money on the recruitment process. With the aborted bid to find a chief executive, the money was lost.”

Coun Johnstone resigned five days later and her resignation was followed soon afterwards by her closest cabinet colleague, Coun Alan Melton, in charge of the authority’s £500m a year spending and also the councillor who had chaired the appointments committee.

John’s story made the front page of another Archant title, the Hunts Post and was followed up by other local media.

“By Friday, when our print edition came out, the story was relegated to page four,” said John. “That’s the nature of the beast we now know as the web.”



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