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The pre-election ban on Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food press conferences has come under fire from editors in the Westcountry, who claim the “purdah” could sweep foot and mouth under the carpet until voting is over.
Barrie Williams at the Western Morning News, Steve Hall at the Express & Echo in Exeter, Alan Qualtrough at the Plymouth Evening Herald and Brendan Hanrahan at the Torquay Herald Express – along with Carlton TV – are voicing their concerns in a letter to the Prime Minister.
They want MAFF press conferences reinstated to provide answers to the public’s right to know what is happening.
The civil service cannot make policy statements which could be construed as being party political or to show a particular party – including the current Government – in a favourable light.
But spokespersons can comment on “operational” matters, and still put out press releases on factual information.
Throughout the foot and mouth crisis there had been a daily press conference for reporters to put questions on behalf of readers and publish the answers, which often come from the people making the key decisions.
The letter to Tony Blair said: “Because of the decision to suspend press conferences and provide only “factual information” we cannot fulfil that [watchdog] role until the election is over.
“That is, whether by accident or design, an intolerable obstruction to the public’s right to know and we cannot believe that, given your frequently stated commitment to such rights, the situation which we are now in is what you really want.”