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Editor brands council a ‘disgrace’ over refusal to let reporter name members

David BartlettA regional daily editor has branded a council a “disgrace” for refusing to allow its members to be named by his newspaper at a public meeting.

Cambridge News editor David Bartlett, left, has criticised Stapleford Parish Council, in Cambridgeshire, for holding an emergency meeting under the ‘Chatham House Rule’ – an anonymity agreement that does not legally apply to such proceedings.

Under the rule, which is usually used as a system for holding debates on controversial issues, information disclosed during a meeting may be reported by those present, but the source of that information may not be explicitly or implicitly identified.

Reporter Tara Cox had turned up to cover the meeting, which was called after around 40 traveller families set up camp on the village’s recreation ground and subsequently left a mess on the site.

But, upon Tara’s arrival, the council claimed the meeting would be conducted under the Chatham House Rule.

She subsequently live blogged proceedings with none of the 70 people present named in the piece.

After the meeting, David wrote an open letter to readers explaining what had happened.

In the letter, he said: “We fully appreciate that members of the local community may not want their name on the Cambridge News website or in our print edition, and indeed at the meeting would have been under no obligation to identify themselves at the meeting – but parish councillors are elected officials.

“The public have a right to know what is being said and done in their name. Just because emotions are running high does not mean that councillors should be hidden behind the cloak of anonymity.

“I did consider withdrawing our reporter from the meeting, but felt that despite the draconian rules applied by the council, that the public interest was better served by us reporting a censored version of the meeting. Only around 70 people were present and many many more will want to know what was discussed.

“Parish councils are often dismissed (wrongly) as talking shops of little importance. It is a shame and a disgrace that when the local community is looking for leadership, its parish council has decided that it does not want to be subject to scrutiny and would rather discard our precious democratic principles.”

HTFP has asked Stapleford Parish Council for a comment.

10 comments

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  • August 23, 2017 at 9:41 am
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    Name and shame. There are too many self important parish councillors around the country, some of whom are co-opted unopposed by the electorate.

    I’d run a story outlining the elections where they were all voted in, together with the number of votes each received.

    With the right investigation, this could be an even better story.

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  • August 23, 2017 at 9:43 am
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    I’d be interested to see how the parish council will attempt to defend the indefensible in this instance. What did it say about this?

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  • August 23, 2017 at 11:14 am
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    All that ex-JP sub says, plus use the Openness of Local Government Regulations 2014 to not only name them but film them attempting to hide from accountability.

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  • August 23, 2017 at 11:24 am
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    Knowing the parlous state of local journalism, this is probably the first time the newspapers sent someone to a parish council meeting for a very long time.
    This kind of behaviour has probably gone on for some time, as is the wont of parish council chairman in my experience.
    So why should unchallenged tinpot generals feel they have to change?
    Why should newspapers out of touch with their community feel they have the right to appear out of thin blue air and tell groups how to behave? This is how I felt as a regional journalist when the nats came to my patch, looking for a headline and ignoring truth.
    The newspaper is right, but it’s a ‘sexy story’, otherwise Stapleford Parish Council would not be hitting the headlines.

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  • August 23, 2017 at 4:30 pm
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    Odd, bizarre and perhaps they feared attack later by travellers. Anyhow, what about simply printing a list of all councillors’ names. Presumably that’s not a secret too!

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  • August 23, 2017 at 6:05 pm
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    If you regularly attend, you don’t need anyone to tell you who the councillors are after a while. You recognise them…well you did in my day.
    You can just get on and report them – not taking a jot of notice about Chatham House rules.

    Such nonsense from the parish council.

    Looks like all the councillors were returned unopposed; so there was no election last time around.

    http://scambs.moderngov.co.uk/mgElectionAreaResults.aspx?XXR=0&ID=815&RPID=1003675393

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  • August 24, 2017 at 9:20 am
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    Blimey, things have changed.
    I regularly attended two or three parish councils in my time as a reporter at the Tamworth Herald and I have never, in my life, met people more determined to get their names IN the paper.
    At one particular council (the esteemed Fazeley, legendary for Herald reporters) there was councillors who when they thought they had something important to say would stare at you and talk really, really slowly so you never missed a note. One of my colleagues once fell asleep there during these three hour epic get-togethers and they gently woke him so he wouldn’t miss the possibility of recording info for another vital nib.
    As I say times have changed – especially, I suspect, the fact that we had enough staff to even send people like me to such grass roots meetings every month…

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  • August 24, 2017 at 10:28 am
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    Obviously this is a bad decision by the council but we should also ask ourselves questions about how journalism and journalists have allowed this to happen. Whether it’s parish councils, courts or even some of our bigger authorities, public servants simply aren’t used to seeing journalists on a regular basis. It’s easy to understand how parish councillors – who let’s not forget are volunteers with little experience, training or incentive to co-operate with the media – can fall into this trap.

    Of course this isn’t an excuse but it is easy for them to develop bad habits: you only act in an accountable way if you are regularly held to account and this is when injustices happen.

    There is no easy answer – maybe the BBC-funded reporters will go some but not all the way. It is too simplistic to see this as nasty councils behaving badly and obstructing newspapers in their quest to tell the trust especially when newspapers are now so limited and selective in when they want democracy to be seen to be done.

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  • August 26, 2017 at 11:43 pm
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    Newspaper managements are to blame for cutting out editorial jobs to the point that reporters not only cannot attend local council meetings but do not have the time to cultivate con tats – so local “big wigs” think they can get away with doing what they want.I once worked for a paper where the editor did not think it was worthwhile covering council meetings – despite my protests that local taxpayers wanted to know what councils were doing with their ratepayers money. He took a similar view with courts because “they take up so much time” despite the fact that many readers wanted to know what had happened to so and so who had been burgling their houses.
    In my view – and I am generalising – there are editors who do the bidding of the more out of ouch managements instead of listening to there readers.

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