24 November 2014

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Council in ‘bizarre U-turn’ over banned reporter

The row over a regional daily reporter who was apparently ‘banned’ from speaking to a council press office has taken a new twist after a ‘bizarre U-turn’ by the authority.

HTFP reported yesterday how Paul Geater, local government correspondent for Ipswich daily the Evening Star, was told he would be issued with a blanket ‘no comment’ by a senior press officer at Suffolk County Council.

But the authority has now denied the ban ever existed and said his enquiries would be dealt with by the communications team as usual.

The row, dubbed ‘Geatergate’ by the paper, came about after Paul wrote an exclusive story about the council spending more than £12,000 on coaching sessions for its chief executive Andrea Hill, which was followed up by the national press.

Simon Higgins, the council’s head of communications told the paper: “Paul is not banned, I have been disappointed in the line he continually takes and his failure to engage with and understand the issues.

“However he is not banned from Endeavour House, we have not stipulated no comment from now on and we will deal with his enquiries as appropriate.”

The paper published a double-page spread on the U-turn yesterday including an open letter from council leader Jeremy Pembroke, who said the story about the ban was not correct and stressed the importance of the council working with the media.

In response, Paul said: “I didn’t say they said I’d been banned from Endeavour House.

“The county council, in a very clear conversation I had with senior press officer Andrew St Ledger, told me quite categorically that any further requests for information would elicit a ‘no comment’.

“It was made clear to me by Mr St Ledger that this was personal to me. It did not affect other journalists working for the Evening Star and East Anglian Daily Times.

“The conversation was seared on my brain because I have never had anything like this happen before in nearly 30 years of working in journalism and I made notes from it soon afterwards – after I had reported it to the editors of both of the newspapers I write for.

“I am astonished by this statement – which I see comes from head of communications Simon Higgins, not Mr St Ledger, but I am delighted if it means they will continue to deal with me on a query-by-query basis.”

Evening Star editor Nigel Pickover added: “I’m pleased the county council has seen sense, but why Paul Geater was told he was banned from getting comments is beyond me.”

10 Comments

  1. rob

    there’s nothing bizarre about it. They obviously realise they would be opening themselves up to a whole world o’ pain if they kept the ban in place. I wonder if anyone will lose their job over this?

    Report this comment

  2. Parvenu

    I’m going to follows Geats’ example and try to get my council reporter banned, if only for a few days. Much more fun.

    Report this comment

  3. Murray Morse: Editor-in-Chief Sport Newspapers

    Storm in a D-Cup Council Chief to get kit off in life coaching feature by local government correspondent Randy Feelgood. Daily Sport exclusive!

    Report this comment

  4. Golam Murtaza

    I suspect Mr Andrew St Ledger (wicked name!) has some explaining to do.

    Report this comment

  5. John

    The legendary hair is free to roam as it chooses once again – superb!

    Report this comment

  6. EvenMoreHackedOff

    This is brilliant: Reporter carries out proper journalism, exposes the council; instead of just accepting they’ve been found out, council press officer throws the toys out the pram; newspaper quite rightly reports they’ve been banned; now council backtracks. Why do press officers in councils take things so personally?!

    Report this comment

  7. Transparencywhat

    EvenMoreHackedOff: Because most of them are bitter at having moved to the dark side for the sake of a few more peanuts. No matter how bad it gets I will console myself that I will never become the mouthpiece for a local authority who would employ me only to block the truth and spread propaganda. Good work by Paul. You could take those quotes from the press office and apply them to 99 per cent of local authorities in the country. They don’t like it up ‘em, that’s for sure.

    Report this comment

  8. Disillusioned

    Heads of communications AND a senior press officer – I wonder what the people who provide front line services to the public who are no doubt being made redundant make of such a top heavy dept?

    Report this comment

  9. NewsMonkey

    Working in a local authority communications department, I’d have expected better from some journalists’ comments about this story; I can fully understand why the press officer would have taken issue at the way this story was reported. Before I explain why, let me provide some context… In the public sector, press offices exist for a fundamental, and I stress ‘fundamental’, reason: they allow the organisation to be held to account by their ‘watchdogs’, be they journalists, bloggers, community groups, residents or whoever. It doesn’t matter. Not only is this a basic democratic requirement, it’s also enshrined in law. Local decisions are often made and captured in difficult-to-decipher committee reports. In my experience, journalists often miss these important stories because they’re blinded by data tables, paragraphs and excel charts, and hampered by tight deadlines and impatient editors. Any good press office will work proactively with their local ‘watchdogs’, in this case, a journalist, not only to provide them with the story in the first place, but to help them understand the context for the decision. This could be in the form of statements, releases, briefings, Q&As etc. What journalists don’t realise, however, is that finding this information and getting its release approved internally is like pulling teeth. We come against barriers from risk-adverse and sensitive senior managers reluctant to lose control of information, but we want to help our watchdogs; it’s in our best interest to build good relations with them. Therefore, when a press officer works their backside off to support a journalist with their enquiry, the journalist should repay that effort with a fair and balanced report. It does nobody any favours to adopt a sensationalist approach, like this story. It ruins relations.

    Report this comment

  10. NewsMonkey

    Working in a local authority communications department, I’d have expected better from some journalists’ comments about this story; I can fully understand why the press officer would have taken issue at the way this story was reported. Before I explain why, let me provide some context… In the public sector, press offices exist for a fundamental, and I stress ‘fundamental’, reason: they allow the organisation to be held to account by their ‘watchdogs’, be they journalists, bloggers, community groups, residents or whoever. It doesn’t matter. Not only is this a basic democratic requirement, it’s also enshrined in law. Local decisions are often made and captured in difficult-to-decipher committee reports. In my experience, journalists often miss these important stories because they’re blinded by data tables, paragraphs and excel charts, and hampered by tight deadlines and impatient editors. Any good press office will work proactively with their local ‘watchdogs’, in this case, a journalist, not only to provide them with the story in the first place, but to help them understand the context for the decision. This could be in the form of statements, releases, briefings, Q&As etc. What journalists don’t realise, however, is that finding this information and getting its release approved internally is like pulling teeth. We come against barriers from risk-adverse and sensitive senior managers reluctant to lose control of information, but we want to help our watchdogs; it’s in our best interest to build good relations with them. Therefore, when a press officer works their backside off to support a journalist with their enquiry, the journalist should repay that effort with a fair and balanced report. It does nobody any favours to adopt a sensationalist approach, like this story. It ruins relations.

    Report this comment



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