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Council reporter banned over critical story

A council has banned a regional daily reporter from speaking to its press office after a story revealing that it spent more than £12,000 on coaching sessions for its chief executive.

Last Friday’s Evening Star exclusive about Suffolk County Council boss Andrea Hill was followed up by a string of national newspapers over the weekend.

But the local government correspondent who broke the story, Paul Geater, has now been told that the authority is no longer prepared to work with him and will issue a blanket ‘no comment’ to all future requests for information.

Evening Star editor Nigel Pickover has branded the ban as “laughable and ridiculous” and splashed it across pages one, two and three of yesterday’s edition.

 

The council imposed the sanction after the Star’s exclusive revelations that £218,000-a-year chief executive Ms Hill received 23 sessions with coaching guru Sol Davidson at £525 a time.

Senior press officer Andrew St Ledger told Paul that the council didn’t like the “tone” of the story, which arose from a series of FoI requests tabled by Paul.

Said Nigel: “I have seen the Freedom of Information request, together with the answer from Suffolk County Council and stand by Paul Geater and our story 100 per cent

“The ban is as laughable as it is ridiculous – the county council needs to get its message across, not to suppress it because they are unhappy with what it sees as the tone of a true story.”

Paul has worked as local government correspondent for the Star since 1994 and never been banned from speaking to councillors or press officers before.

The council’s action has been roundly condemned by both the town’s MPs.

Ipswich MP Ben Gummer said: “This is bizarre behaviour from the county council. Councils should be publishing all details of invoices they pay in any case, so it’s hardly as if they can keep these figures a secret.

“Paul was only doing his job – reporting on what the county was spending our money on. And with public finances so tight, it is only right that he does just that. The council needs to stop this silly vendetta.”

Central Suffolk and North Ipswich MP Dr Dan Poulter added: “This is ridiculous, it is a crazy decision. It is important to have journalists to hold authorities like the county council to account.

“There is nothing unreasonable about these stories – people have the right to know how public money is being spent.”

23 comments

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  • March 8, 2011 at 8:48 am
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    My wife is a professional life coach and neither she nor I have never heard of a life coaching session costing £525. And 38 of them? If this is from ratepayers’ money, we should be told the purpose of the sessions. Sounds like this council had a lot to hide – and has a lot more to hide. Get digging, Evening Star – and make sure this story breaks into the national media.

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  • March 8, 2011 at 9:07 am
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    This is typical of council press offices of this time, trying to surpress the local media. Council press officers and even some who work for police forces who have marketing and PR backgrounds rather than journalism baclgrounds are therefore far more interested in internal communications and dodging press enquiries rather than working with the local media, A them and us situation has been created which isn’t good for openness of local authority or the ability of a journalist to do their job properly. Churnalism will be the eventual winner – although that’s probably what public bodies would prefer.

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  • March 8, 2011 at 9:14 am
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    Disillusioned makes a good point. Another very truculent breed of press officer is the failed hack who quit journalism after a few years for the comfort and safety of the press office. Often they are imbued with an arrogant “been there, done that” attitude to journalism when in reality they were simply press release rewriters. Either way it’s a joke of a job. Suffolk Council’s behaviour here is hilarious and childish.

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  • March 8, 2011 at 9:15 am
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    As a public servant I dont think that Andrew St Ledger (remember that name) has the right to decide who he works with, I would recommend he reconsiders this position as I have a slight feeling he may be looking for a job soon, what with all these cuts, we can give him a no comment reply then…

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  • March 8, 2011 at 9:34 am
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    Still, we’ll get the full and truthful story when the council produces its own newspaper, with none of this scurrilous muck-raking…

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  • March 8, 2011 at 9:56 am
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    A story about a ridiculous stance by Suffolk County Council is run above an ad with the strapline YOUR TOOL CENTRE. How very appropriate.

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  • March 8, 2011 at 10:42 am
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    Isn’t it brilliant that the Council’s press office is so large that it needs a Senior Press Officer. Wonder what he does, other than decide which funny accent to instruct his junior press officers to say “No comment” in?

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  • March 8, 2011 at 10:43 am
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    And I agree with Toni, his hair is quite splendid.

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  • March 8, 2011 at 11:06 am
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    I wish our council would do this. It would make stories so much simpler if we knew we could just write ‘The council refused to comment’ at the end!

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  • March 8, 2011 at 11:09 am
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    Once most press officers were there to assist journalists and few of them still do. Most however are gatekeepers, writers of press releases for churnalists and there to make sure everyone is singing from the same hymnsheet. Some councils even stop their councillors from talking to the press – give ’em hell. These people deserved to be cut out – police and council press officers

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  • March 8, 2011 at 11:40 am
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    I don’t think councils can stop councillors talking to the press. Maybe Steve is talking about Cabinet members, who are increasingly only quoted via press offices or political assistants. If this council is going to give a stock “no comment” answer to press inquiries, you really have to ask what will their press officers be doing? The Star should send back all press releases with a note saying they will not be used.

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  • March 8, 2011 at 11:45 am
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    Ha! Ha!Ha!Ha!Ha!Ha!Ha!Ha!Ha!Ha!Ha!Ha!Ha!Ha!Ha!Ha!Ha!Ha!Ha!Ha!Ha!Ha!Ha!Ha!Ha! Suffolk Council. You are either run by simpletons or have been very badly advised. Either way, I along with many other journalists intend to spend a great deal of time over the next 12 months investigating and exposing the very worst corruption, mismanagement, and abuse of power going on within your organisation. My message to anyone who wants to help (especially those excellent, hard working council staff who do their best to serve the public each day) is help us expose the jokers in the pack. Please email news_pix@hotmail.com Really looking forward to the ‘no comment’ responses from SCC. Yeah right!

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  • March 8, 2011 at 12:00 pm
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    Perhaps the huge fall in Council advertising we are experiencing and will experience will embolden Editors to challenge some of these ridiculous PR departments. To an extent understandable corporate restraint when they were filling our advertising coffers but now the silver lining is that this resrtiction is removed.

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  • March 8, 2011 at 1:52 pm
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    Andrea Hill looks a bit of a sort- would she consider an appearance in the Daily Sport as Britain’s first topless council chief executive and giving us all a life coaching session? If so, I’ll put our local government correspondent Randy Feelgood in touch with the nerds at Suffolk County Hall. Well done Nigel Pickover!!

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  • March 8, 2011 at 2:03 pm
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    Well done for splashing it all over the front – I wish my paper would do the same with Warwickshire Police, which has comfortably the worst press office I’ve ever dealt with in my life.

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  • March 8, 2011 at 2:08 pm
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    Weird people. But I bet the ban won’t last long. As soon as there’s some guff they want to crow about, meeting their tin can recycling targets or similar nonsense, they’ll be back.

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  • March 8, 2011 at 2:38 pm
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    Andrea Hill seems to have forgotten that she’s a public servant and should be accountable to the people of Suffolk for her actions. Anyhow, couldn’t she have paid the £12,000 out of her ludicrously inflated £218,000-a-year salary? On second thoughts why doesn’t she send me five grand I’ll give her some tips on how to live quite comfortably on a fraction of that amount. Downsizing a bit just might improve her temperament!

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  • March 8, 2011 at 4:17 pm
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    I’ve known Geats for 25 years, and his hair has always been splendid – as have his stories about local councils. As a former hack now working in PR it pains me to see Pr so badly handled as this. For all we know there may be a perfectly reasonable explanation for the coaching sessions, and if there was, that should have been explained. It is sad to see PRO’s complain about the “tone” of a story as well. Sadly, that’s one of the unwritten rules about PR. You get paid more, but journalists are still allowed to get up your nose, and as long as the facts are correct you are not allowed to complain about it.

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  • March 8, 2011 at 4:42 pm
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    Re: John – I think we should have a press office-off, you pit Warks Police against my Cambs Police and we’ll see who’s worse! Abysmal behaviour from Suffolk CC, glad their ineptitude has been justly chronicled in the Star.

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  • March 10, 2011 at 9:43 am
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    Local authority press officers are told what to do and say so I’d go easy on the SPO. The problem lies squarely with the Chief Exec who’s clearly so far up her own a**e that she can no-longer see reality!!!

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  • March 11, 2011 at 3:20 pm
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    Judging by the comments on this story all newspaper journalists should pull a blanket ban on publicity seeking press releases issued by councils and stick to the news. The way I see it, there would be no need for a press officer and the councillors and council officers could then speak directly to the press (as happened at a council on a patch where I used to work) and it was brilliant for both sides. Councils got decent opportunities to give info on stories being written by journalists rather than have a line taken out of a full quote, and in some instances as happened to me, the journalists get a better story having been fully briefed by a senior officer or councillor. Maybe public authorities who are slashing their budgets should sack off the press/media/communications officers all together and give us a rea dialogue with people making decisions! Better to do that than cut a well used service they provide to residents as is happening all over the country.

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