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Regional daily reveals cost of council’s attempt to gag media

North West Evening Mail editor James HigginsA council spent £12,000 of taxpayers’ money attempting to ban the media from reporting the death of a baby, a regional daily has revealed.

Cumbria County Council initially claimed it had incurred just £780 of legal costs in its bid to secure a court order to prevent reporting of the death of 13-month old Poppi Worthington.

Now the Cumbria-based North West Evening Mail has used the Freedom of Information Act to establish the true costs of the legal battle.

It published the £12,200 figure in yesterday’s edition alonsgide an editorial criticising the council for what it called “a poor show of openness.”

Earlier this year, High Court judge Peter Jackson ruled that – on the balance of probabilities – 48-year-old Paul Worthington “perpetrated a penetrative assault” on his daughter before she died.

Mr Worthington, who denies any wrongdoing, was arrested in August 2013 and questioned on suspicion of sexual assault but was not charged with any offence.

Evening Mail editor James Higgins, pictured, said: “The case of Poppi is a sensitive one and the apparent attempt on the part of the council to be clever with its response to our request for information was rather distasteful.

“It was clear they had chosen, when faced with the original Evening Mail FoI, to play semantics with the wording of the question, thus deliberately withholding information which, in the spirit of transparency, should have been made public.”

Reporter Caroline Barber, who filed the FoI request, added: “Even after the communications department admitted the full cost associated with the order was more than £780, they refused to provide the exact sum when asked – stating they would only answer under a second FoI to put the query on ‘an official footing’.

“This shows a deliberate and continued disregard for transparency and openness by the authority which we were determined to overturn.”

In a statement, Cumbria County Council said: “Cumbria County Council’s only intention throughout this process has been to protect the identity of Poppi’s siblings.

“We immediately acknowledged to the court that our original application for a Reporting Restriction Order (RRO) in July 2014 was too wide ranging and we accepted the judge’s decision to narrow its scope. The judge was clear that an RRO was necessary to protect Poppi’s siblings from being identified, which would harm them.

“The original Freedom of Information request from the North West Evening Mail asked for costs related to this application. This cost was around £700.

“The subsequent Freedom of Information request asked for the total of all and any legal and administrative costs incurred by Cumbria County Council in relation to the RRO from July 2014 to date, this cost was £12,200.

“Of that total cost, 94pc related to the council being legally represented at a single day appeal hearing in London brought by the legal representatives of Poppi’s siblings, who were seeking to prevent relaxation of restrictions on media reporting.

“At the hearing the council was supportive of allowing the media greater freedom to report the case.”

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  • May 13, 2016 at 9:51 am

    So pleased that real journalism still exists. Full marks to the Mail, its editor and staff for holding out against those who want to keep us all in the dark.

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