Journalists at a weekly paper have been barred from interviewing officers at a local authority and have been told they should only speak to elected members.
The West Sussex County Times has published a critical piece after news editor Theo Cronin was told he was not allowed to interview the town centre manager for a feature about the annual Piazza Italia event in the Horsham.
Instead, he was told he could only speak to a particular Conservative cabinet member at Horsham District Council, despite interviewing the town centre manager about the event for the last seven years.
The Times declined the offer of speaking to the cabinet member and instead of his usual feature interview, Theo wrote a critical piece about the council’s new policy.
The move is the latest in a series of attempts by local authorities to restrict access by journalists which have led to widespread condemnation inside and outside the industry.
In his piece, Theo wrote that the town centre manager had been “gagged” because of a policy which he said “contaminates and bores to the very core of democratic values and accountability I believe should be sacrosanct”.
Theo wrote: “‘It is policy that Cabinet Members speak to the media,’ I was informed. Since when? This is news I had never encountered before.
“The town centre manager role is a senior position in the council, and a public facing one at that.
“In all my time as a journalist, I nor any of my colleagues have ever been refused access to a town centre manager – even on the most controversial of topics.
“But it is not just this senior officer we are apparently being barred from interviewing – it is all council officers, at a time when morale is already rock bottom as their terms and conditions are subjected to the austerity drive.”
He raised concerns that the move would prevent journalists from speaking to a planning officer about a complex application or to discuss sensitive legal matters with a council solicitor.
County Times editor Gary Shipton told HTFP: “It is extraordinary that the council should have done this and to us it is an indication of an ever more secretive and controlled society.
“Our position is clear. We accept that not all officers have a legitimate reason to speak to the press and nor is it appropriate for officers who are allowed to talk to the press to speak about anything, but it is about getting a balance.
“This is a really important issue and we will resist very vigorously anything that deprives the public of their right to know, especially in councils that they elect.”
A statement given to the paper by councillor Helena Croft, cabinet member for Communication, Horsham Town and Special Projects, said: “It is entirely appropriate for elected councillors to be featured in the press about the work of the council and in so doing for the public to understand who exactly is behind making local decisions that affect people’s lives.
“Sometimes our work with the press involves comment from council officers but in general we seek to publicise elected ouncillors in news features. Like many councils, the way we handle the media reflects this position.”