30 August 2014

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Stop hiding behind press offices, editor tells councils

A regional daily editor has hit out at local authorities on his patch after his reporters were told not to speak directly to councillors.

Peter Barron, who edits The Northern Echo, penned a blog post after three councils in the North East said they wanted journalists to go through their press offices if they wanted comments.

He said the move was “completely unacceptable” and that his reporters had been instructed to carry on contacting councillors about stories directly.

Peter told HTFP he did not want to name the authorities involved but had written the piece to send “a bit of a warning” to them.

He said: “I have just made it clear that that is not what we are going to do. Our reporters have a right to speak to councillors – they are elected people and represent their communities.”

On his blog, Peter also highlights an incident in which a councillor told a reporter to “put your pen down, girl” when he was speaking at a public meeting.

He wrote: “‘Freedom of speech’ is the buzz phrase in the news this week because of the frantic efforts to draw the Leveson proposals on press regulation to some kind of satisfactory conclusion.

“It’s ironic really because there’s never been a time in my 30 years in journalism when so much effort has gone into restricting free speech.

“We’ve noticed a growing trend amongst councils which don’t want our reporters to speak directly to councillors. Yes, that’s right, those people directly elected to speak for their communities.

“Increasingly, councils would prefer us to restrict our conversations to their press offices so that all comments can be managed – controlled. The inference appears to be that councillors aren’t trusted to say the right thing.

“This is, of course, completely unacceptable. It will be a very sad day indeed when local newspapers don’t have direct relationships with councillors. For the record, our reporters are under instruction to carry on calling councillors in pursuit of information and comment.”

He added: “Meanwhile, I’ve also had an instance this week of a councillor telling one of our reporters ‘put your pen down, girl’ when he was speaking at a public meeting.

“Again for the record, when politicians – MPs or councillors – speak openly at public forums, they should expect to be quoted. If they don’t want to be, they shouldn’t speak. That’s how it works.”

Peter’s comments follow a Twitter row broke out last month when a councillor in Brighton told Argus political correspondent Tim Ridgway he “disliked” being asked for comments after meetings.

16 Comments

  1. KellyC

    Absolutely. Press officers are paid to represent the media interests of the authority, not the councillors. Their job should be to make media access to the council easier, not more difficult.

    Report this comment

  2. Luisetta Mudie, UK

    As a former Beijing correspondent, I note with concern that this approach to the media is very similar to that practised by the Chinese Communist Party. Which, by the way, is one of the biggest jailers of journalists and citizen journalists in the world. But even they wouldn’t allow journalists into an event and then expect them not to report what was said at it.

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  3. House Rules

    A few years ago I also had a councillor who refused to speak during a town council meeting unless I promised not to quote him!

    I refused and it lead to a stand off which lasted for 20 minutes. Annoyingly the public who had attended the meeting sided with him. Bit strange just sitting there when everyone is asking you to get out. Worth it though.

    It seems the “new breed” of councillors hide behind the press office, I find where I am a lot of the older ones are happy to talk one on one. The ambitious young ones send you straight to the press office.

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  4. Dorothy-Grace Elder, Glasgow

    It’s time for journalists to expose how the media -and truth – are ABUSED by official bodies all over the UK, something Leveson didn’t tackle or even seem to know about.
    These massed ranks of so called “communications” officials probably outnumber writing journalists by now, acting often as barriers to legitimate information – in quangos, councils, government, health boards, defence, everything.
    Orwellian information control extends into teachers, medical consultants, public “experts” responding timidly to even good news enquiries with “You’ll have to speak to our PR department” (Usually useless; time is wasted while they ring the doctor, whatever, and pass on second hand duff stuff).
    Let’s show up this totalitarian state rubbish which is paid for by the public purse!

    Control creep should not be tolerated. The media is already hobbled by ambulance chasing lawyers; now we have post Leveson virtual political control of everyday honest journalism. Most of us were never hackers or dirty tricksters.
    Taxpayers MUST be told they’re paying a fortune to deny themselves information.
    I AM COMPILING EXAMPLES. COME ON, FELLOW JOURNOS! TOUGHEN UP. EXPOSE THE CONTROL FREAKS.
    Hit back by sending examples to me of what you suffer, from anywhere in the UK:
    dg.elder@ntlworld.com
    Dorothy-Grace Elder, a former UK investigative journalist of the year

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  5. House Rules

    @Dorothy.

    I don’t know if HTFP archives old jobs that have been advertised on the site but there was one last year for a local authority (I think it was somewhere in Leicestershire) for a “Reputation Manager”.

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  6. Bluestringer

    There’s a weird breed currently running town halls up and down the country
    They seem to believe they’re untouchable and beyond scrutiny.
    Any questioning of their often opaque and sometimes damaging decisions is treated as an affront.
    In my view, local councils have become ‘not fit for purpose’ and we’d be better off without them.

    Report this comment

  7. CEThom

    We have been told repeatedly by Essex Council that we are not to contact any of its elected members without first gaining press office permission. On some occasions when we have approached councillors directly, they have contacted the press office to complain.

    We are also regularly banned from contacting officers at local authorities on our patch and are frequently denied access to individuals and information which, as members of the public, we can gain access to.

    We are supposed to find the truth and deliver it to our readers, but with the rise of PR, we are finding ourselves increasingly shut out. It is a source of real concern and constant discussion in our news room.

    Example: I want to see a planning file. As a member of the public, I can call the planning department and make an appointment. If, however, they realise I am a journalist, I ‘have to go through the press office’.

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  8. Breezy Blackpool

    Nobody likes admitting they’ve made a mistake so you employ a battery of press officers to cover up the truth from the public. Unfortunately, the generally fair regional press gets lumped in with the appallingly biased national press in the eyes of the public . The upshot is that councillors don’t trust any journalist and with perks having risen so sharply they’ve got a lot to hide.
    I remember the day when any newspaper, large or small, could ring up the local council chief executive, planning officer, treasurer, etc and talk to him direct without making an appointment. Even councillors were more receptive then.
    I started out as an 18-year-old on a news agency no-one had ever heard of. The town’s water supply was suddenly cut off. I phoned the local water board who put me through to the works manager who explained everything on the spot. When the private water companies moved in some years later you had to phone their press office 100 miles away. No-one there had ever heard of the town you lived in. They came back two days later asking: “Where did you say you were exactly?”.
    It’s the same with all the utility companies. They regard journalists and the public as children there to be mugged. Just look at how they do their adverts on telly with cartoon characters.

    Report this comment

  9. LOL

    Sounds like it is us who have forgotten how to be journalists

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  10. PaperBoy, Wales

    I can understand, though I don’t like it and reluctantly have to play along, when councils insist questions about the authority are directed to the press office rather than an individual staff member.
    However councillors must be expected to answer questions from journalists and any members of the public.
    In my experience any half decent councillor would be insulted at the suggestion they are not ‘authorised’ to answer questions. I’m sure they, like me, would question what authority a paid official, employed to carry out the political wishes of the council, has to order councillors about. Sounds like monkeys grinding the organ.

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  11. House Rules

    CEThom’s story rings true. I rang up for a planning result last week and was told I had to go to the press office.

    Gave it 10 mins, rang back said I was a member of the public and was given it.

    I don’t blame council staff, they have the ‘fear the media’ mentality drummed into them.

    Report this comment

  12. Marty McFly

    Totally agree – press offices are there to give details on the authority and should be politically neutral. If a councillor is unsure if they can or cannot comment on a particular issue, for example if they will be sitting on a committee which will discuss that issue at a later date and commenting would prejudice their voting position then there is no problem in them taking advice first. But as an elected representative of the people they should be accountable to the people. We had an issue in our area when a town council refused to give out contact numbers for certain councillors – which actually made for a half decent story in itself!

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  13. GladImOutOfIt

    Mr Thom: find yourself a snout. A member of the public (or several – they’ll get known) who’ll do it for you, given a brief. I bet there are many retired journos out there, who look like jolly, harmless white-haired OAPs, who’d love it!

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  14. CEThom

    Freedom of Information is also an enormous obstacle. Information which we could normally obtain within hours or, at most, a couple of days, we are now forced to wait 20 days for. Yes, it’s a breach of the Act, but try filing a complaint with the Information Commissioner: By the time it gets heard, the info you wanted will be so old and irrelevant that the whole process has been a waste of everybody’s time.

    A few weeks ago my news editor asked for some information and called backk the next day for a status update. He was told that his request was being treated as an FOI query and he would have to wait four weeks. He told them he didn’t want it treated as FOI, he wanted the answer immediately – and the authority told him it was within its rights to treat the query as FOI and there was nothing he could do about it.

    Now government ministers are trying to limit FOI queries and lower the payment threshold because they say too many people are making requests!

    Report this comment

  15. Rupert Bear

    Bluestringer. There has been a substantial decline in the quality of elected representatives in recent years – coinciding with the substantial increase in their allowances.

    Many councillors today are effectively full-time professionals. It is inevitable that they are going to protect their positions. In the days before local government organisation introduced paid councillors, anyone who made themselves unpopular via quotes to the press had comparatively little to lose.

    We are drastically overgoverned in this country. Just imagine how many millions of pounds allowances to councillors costs.

    We could well stand a major reduction in elected representatives without any effect on democracy.

    Sadly, post-Leveson the number of councils and councillors thumbing their noses at newspapers is going to increase.

    Report this comment

  16. Peter Devine, Manchester

    I recently contacted a councillor in South Manchester and she seemed angry that I had the impertinence to call her for a comment.
    I reminded her she was elected to represent her ward members and she was expected to comment on matters happening in her ward. She refused and referred me to the council press office. Instead, I spoke with her party bosses, to try to get them to put the clearly confused politician on the right track about her duties

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