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Secrecy has increased in local Government, say journalists

Reporters and editors believe the introduction of cabinet-style Government in local councils has led to too much decision-making going on behind closed doors, according to a new survey.

Regional journalists and council press officers were asked in an online survey, conducted on behalf of the Society of Editors and LG Communications, to give their views on the effects of the town hall revolution.

It had been hoped that cabinets would boost local democracy, but the survey showed that many local journalists feel the new system has had an adverse effect and confused the public, with some saying that readers now turned to their local newspapers for information instead.

On the key question of openness and accountability, there was hardly any support for cabinet government among those reporters and editors who took part in the survey.

Only seven per cent thought the new structures had been good for local democracy and nearly 75 per cent thought councils were now less open and transparent.

One journalist said: “The doors are not just closed – they are locked.”

Some also said there was now a lack of clarity about scrutiny, with just 15 per cent of journalists agreeing that it had made council more open.

One journalist commented that items which were available to the media via the old system, had now “disappeared into a black hole”.

However journalists did feel the system had brought some benefits, giving more clarity about who is responsible for what, and faster, more accountable decision making.

One journalist said: “The spread of power to experts on each major portfolio area gives journalists a new outlet for stories, information and reaction. They are no longer just ‘rent a quotes’.”

Commenting on the results, Bob Satchwell, director of the Society of Editors, said the Government needed to look again at ways to improve openess.

He said: “Changes in local government were supposed to encourage the public to ‘engage’ with their local councils.

“First, the public has to know what is going on. It is unlikely, and not necessarily helpful, to have yet another major change.

“That means the Government clearly needs to think seriously about other ways of improving openness. It is not only about the media, it is about encouraging respect for local government.”

  • 110 journalists and council press officers took part in the survey last month, which was carried out by Grant Riches Communication Consultants.

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