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Press office snubs reporter in ‘Turkeygate’ row

A council press office is refusing to speak to a weekly reporter in a row over whether a councillor likened local residents to turkeys.

Medway Messenger journalist Chris Hunter was involved in a dispute with Medway Council’s press office over his reporting of a council tax increase.

He has now been told that he cannot communicate with press officers by phone or in person but can only use email, although the ban does not apply to other journalists in the KM Group.

The dispute came about after the authority announced it was putting up council tax by 1.99pc, therefore avoiding a referendum which would have been needed to increase it by more than 2pc.

When Chris asked finance chief Cllr Alan Jarrett why he had avoided the 2pc rise, he replied that: “The reality is that turkeys don’t vote for Christmas”.

In his article about the council tax rise, Chris wrote: “How much favour Cllr Jarrett will win for likening the average Medway taxpayer to a bird bred en masse for the festive table is yet to be seen.”

But the council’s press office took exception to the analogy and published a lengthy rebuttal of more than 600 words on its own ‘For the Record’ web page, which was set up to hit back at media coverage it does not like.

Messenger editor Bob Bounds has since branded it the strangest complaint to a newspaper he has ever seen.

The council’s news and digital manager John Staples wrote: “If the newspaper thought its interpretation was correct then, if the same logic was applied, it would be fair to assume that if their reporter was told it is ‘raining cats and dogs outside’ they would presumably look out of the window and expect to see cats and dogs actually falling from the sky.

“Similarly, if that person, when making a comparison about something in particular, said it’s ‘like watching paint dry’ then their reporter would presumably assume that the person … had actually previously watched paint drying in order to enable them to make such a contrast. Similar things could be said about counting sheep.

“The council’s press office has asked that the reporter who wrote this story now only communicates with the council by email rather than on the phone or face-to-face.

“The press office has asked for this so it can keep a paper trail of all communication with him in case further inaccuracies are ever reported. The council’s press office is keen to point out that this is not something it will be doing with any other journalist from the KM Group as it finds they are usually fair and accurate in their reporting.”

Bob responded: “I don’t think I’ve ever come across a stranger complaint or reaction. I’ve offered a right of reply but the council prefer to use its grandiose, taxpayer-funded For the Record webpage. I think it’s safe to say we’ve more readers.

“The interpretation was perfectly fair but we accept the council’s right to dispute that. I suspect that Cllr Jarrett regrets using the ‘turkey’ analogy and this is mere back-pedalling.

“In any case it’s a crude assumption on his part that people of Medway would react ‘turkey-like’ if they were given the opportunity to vote for a tax increase to preserve local services.”

14 comments

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  • February 13, 2014 at 9:46 am
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    Astounding.

    ‘The press office has asked for this so it can keep a paper trail of all communication with him in case further inaccuracies are ever reported…’

    Is it me, or is that libellous?

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  • February 13, 2014 at 9:57 am
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    I can’t see what Chris has done wrong. This council, (as they say in common parlance), should “have a word with itself”. Coun Jarrett is not complaining of being misquoted, so what’s the problem? Grow up, Medway mandarins!!

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  • February 13, 2014 at 12:00 pm
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    Nasty and vindictive.

    Do that bunch in the press office actually get paid to sit around writing stuff like this…

    “The press office is keen to point out that this is not something it will be doing with any other journalist from the KM Group as it finds they are usually fair and accurate in their reporting.”

    A very thinly-veiled attempt at getting someone the sack.

    Charming.

    What a fabulous use of taxpayers’ money.

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  • February 13, 2014 at 12:44 pm
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    Petty little people in petty little jobs

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  • February 13, 2014 at 2:05 pm
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    Sounds like the council are talking gobblidigook which I suspect is their second language 😉

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  • February 13, 2014 at 4:06 pm
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    Ridiculous overreaction by the council, but I don’t understand the original report. The councillor was explaining why the councillors had voted in a certain way and said “turkeys don’t vote for Christmas”. If we take him literally, he’s calling the councillors turkeys isn’t he? “if we voted for it, we would have been punished. We didn’t want to be like turkeys voting for Christmas”. He’s not calling voters turkeys.

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  • February 13, 2014 at 4:26 pm
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    I’m with Slang King on this one. It’s a story that could do with some digging into the issues as to why a council feels the need to put up council tax rather than take a government bribe, that will mean tax rises of 4 or 5 per cent next year.

    The newspaper should be trying to explain some of the intricacies of local government, rather than merely go headline hunting. Inform as well as entertain.

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  • February 14, 2014 at 1:47 am
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    I have to agree with Slang King and Gone Fishin here. As a former reporter (and various other roles upwards from there) who is now a press officer, I can sympathise with both sides. Also: narky comments about press officers having “petty little jobs” or being “enemies of democracy” don’t really stand up. Any of us could point to petty reporters or imagine how life would be very often much more difficult for reporters if press officers didn’t exist.

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  • February 14, 2014 at 12:23 pm
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    Slang King, Cllr Jarrett was referring to those who would vote in a potential referendum on council tax, i.e. the electorate

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  • February 14, 2014 at 2:18 pm
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    Fair enough Chris. It was confusingly worded by HTFP: **When Chris asked finance chief Cllr Alan Jarrett why he had avoided the 2pc rise, he replied that: “The reality is that turkeys don’t vote for Christmas”.**

    Made it sound like he was being asked why he hadn’t voted to hold a referendum.

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  • February 14, 2014 at 4:51 pm
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    Surely the reference to turkeys not voting for Christmas relates to the fact that a rise of 2 per cent or over would have triggered a referendum, with the councillor suggesting, quite reasonably, that the odds were that local taxpayers would then have voted against its implementation?

    Seems like a fair comment by the councillor and an equally fair report by the journalist.

    Press officers may well, in many cases, be petty little people in petty little jobs, but they certainly don’t usually earn petty little salaries. Rather more than the average reporter I suspect.

    We have to remember that they are employed by people (councillors and council officials) who only want to see favourable items reported in the media.

    I was a member for a few years of a Standards Committee (until the current government abolished such things). I attended a conference of members of standards committees (mainly councillors) and was horrified by the virtriol directed at the media.

    When I stood up and said a free press was a far greater safeguard for democracy than any standards body I was, perhaps not surprisingly, virtually howled down.

    On reflection, the fact that so many council officials and elected representatives hate and fear a conscientious press is surely a proof that the media is, by and large, still doing a good job?

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  • February 18, 2014 at 6:52 pm
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    Why does the council need to raise council tax at all? It clearly has plenty of money to waste if its self-serving website is anything to go by. I can’t believe any of its taxpayers actually look at it.

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