AddThis SmartLayers

Council to ignore weekly’s enquiries after editor’s ‘vexatious’ requests

A council’s chief executive says the authority will no longer respond to enquiries from a weekly newspaper due to what she has claimed are “vexatious and unreasonable” requests from its editor.

Thurrock Council CEO Lyn Carpenter has confirmed to Thurrock Independent editor Neil Speight that any communications sent by the paper will “not by acknowledged or responded to” by the authority.

The council had previously warned Neil in May that it was considering the move due to what it claimed was “wholly inappropriate” behaviour.

Incidents to which the authority objected included “publicly critiquing media statements”, “focusing stories on individual members of council staff enabling them to be identified” and “emailing junior officers directly” rather than using the council’s communications team.

The enforcement of the blackout threat comes a week after the Independent Press Standards Organisation announced it had cleared the Independent of wrongdoing over a front page editorial about which the council had complained.

In the editorial, published in January, the Independent had called the authority a “council of secrecy and contempt” and further claimed that it “treats the media with contempt”.

The front page editorial which prompted the council's complaint to IPSO

The front page editorial which prompted the council’s complaint to IPSO

In her communication informing Neil of the council’s new policy, Ms Carpenter said the arrangement would be reviewed on 3 February 2019.

She wrote: “The council will no longer respond to you due to repeated breaches of appropriate working practices. This was previously notified to you back on 15 May 2018. Communications you send in will be read and placed on file but will no be acknowledged or responded to by the council.”

Said Neil: “Quite frankly I thought there was nothing left that Thurrock Council under the current administration could do to surprise me, but then again it appears I have underestimated Ms Carpenter’s passion for secrecy and the absolute contempt she appears to have for democracy and the residents of Thurrock as she seeks to hide failings of the authority under her guidance.

“I have edited newspapers in Thurrock since 2004 and myself and the several chief executives who proceeded Ms Carpenter – and the council and group leaders of all political persuasions – have always got on and recognised that there will be times when we have to agree to disagree and move on, but Ms Carpenter is the champion of autocracy and she appears to brook no challenge to her power.

“This ruling from her directly to myself is shocking – what will be all the more shocking is if the elected representatives of Thurrock Council do not immediately respond by forcing her to revoke it. I cannot believe that senior councillors have been consulted about this decision and approved her actions, but if that is so, shame on them too.

“There can be no place for a council that will not bear a challenge to its workings, nor one that deems it cannot be held accountable.”

Although the council’s complaint to IPSO was not upheld, the watchdog did raise some concerns in its ruling about the way in which the Independent communicated with the council.

But it also found the Independent had not received responses to several questions it had asked in time for a print deadline, and was entitled to express its own editorial position on the matter.

Neil added: “I thought the recent IPSO judgement might have brought Ms Carpenter to her senses but it appears to have tipped her over the edge. How fit she is to run this council I leave to others to judge, but I would hope 49 councillors will stand as one and challenge this affront to democracy.

“I have nothing to hide from, nor be ashamed of as editor of this newspaper and with this story I publish the correspondence referred to in February and my response then to the council.

“I shall step back and watch matters evolve but I can assure all the residents of Thurrock that my newspaper will continue to challenge Thurrock Council where appropriate and we will continue to operate with the guidelines of IPSO, which the council says is its expected standard of journalistic practice – a standard IPSO itself says we have adhered to.

“In January, when I branded the council one of secrecy and contempt I asked what it had to hide. Given Ms Carpenter’s actions today, I have to repeat that question.”

HTFP has approached Thurrock Council for further comment.

10 comments

You can follow all replies to this entry through the comments feed.
  • August 8, 2018 at 10:01 am
    Permalink

    A fascinating trade-off in which at present the council seems to hold all the cards. It raises an interesting point. Is any council legally obliged to answer to a newspaper?

    Report this comment

    Like this comment(7)
  • August 8, 2018 at 10:35 am
    Permalink

    Good on you Neil. Keep up the excellent work.

    Report this comment

    Like this comment(11)
  • August 8, 2018 at 11:16 am
    Permalink

    Actually, it’s not ‘shocking’ at all, because it seems to be happening all over the place these days. A great many local authorities and organisations aim for tightest level of control achievable, and don’t take kindly to proper scrutiny. Equally, there are plenty of authorities that follow best practice and enjoy a good, if occasionally tempestuous, relationship with their local media. I would want to know a little more detail about this, but on the face of it the local authority is playing with fire.

    Report this comment

    Like this comment(12)
  • August 8, 2018 at 11:36 am
    Permalink

    A key problem is that because so many papers have cut back on staff there is little time to cover councils/courts properly and to cultivate contacts who learn to take the rough with the smooth. I can just hear non-journalist bosses saying “contacts? Who are they?” The result is that certain council bosses think they can treat papers at arms length.

    Report this comment

    Like this comment(16)
  • August 8, 2018 at 12:12 pm
    Permalink

    So will the Independent continue to publish their press releases? I wonder…..

    Report this comment

    Like this comment(10)
  • August 8, 2018 at 2:18 pm
    Permalink

    Interesting that it’s the highly-paid and unelected CEO who has raised her head above the parapet and not the leader of the council – as normally happens in my neck of the woods.
    Waiting for six hours for a two-para response on a lead from a council press officer that says dilddly-squat is part and parcel of the game now. And gods forbid that we attempt to speak to a councillor direct – hell hath no fury like a press officer scorned!
    Still, we must be doing a good job as the yellow team think we’re biased to the blue team and the blue team thinks we’re biased to the yellow team (whereas I, of course, distrust all politicos, all of the time).
    Accountability is a concept that councillors and non-elected mandarins seem to have forgotten. Methinks it’s time for a wake up call all round.

    Report this comment

    Like this comment(19)
  • August 8, 2018 at 4:30 pm
    Permalink

    The council’s behaviour here is utterly ludicrous and if the councillors do not overturn this decision unanimously then they are an utter disgrace.

    Having read the council’s full letter explaining why it refuses to engage with Speight (which Speight has helpfully published in full on his website), the only complaint which holds any water at all is that he apparently lost his temper at an election count – but even that seems reasonable when you hear that the press had been ordered to work from an area where the results weren’t audible and had been asking all night to be moved.

    The council’s other complaints were that Speight:
    -Named council officers responsible for certain decisions (so what?)
    -Contacted council officers to request information (so what?)
    -Copied councillors in on emails to council officers (so what?)
    -Published correspondence between council officers and councillors (so what?)

    That’s all just good journalism.

    The council is making itself a laughing stock with this ridiculous course of action. Speight, apart from firing off a swear word at an election count, is totally in the right.

    Report this comment

    Like this comment(25)
  • August 8, 2018 at 10:17 pm
    Permalink

    TwisV, sorry, but it’s not that straight-forward.

    1. There are only a handful of senior officers within an authority who can make decisions without councillor approval and, yes, these people should be held to account. However, these decisions will usually be made with an over-arching political mandate. Good journalism would require a named comment from the council leader/portfolio-holder too.

    2. It depends which officers were contacted and for what information. It’s no good getting incorrect information from a junior officer who may not be aware of the whole picture, organisationally or politically. That would be poor journalism.

    3. Copying in councillors isn’t really a problem but it’s like the press office copying in the editor on every email they send to the newsdesk. It’s unnecessary and undermines the individuals concerned when, really, you need to build relationships for good journalism.

    4. Same as above, it’s usually unnecessary and undermining. You’d have to be quite specific on your FoI to get the detail you need so it would suggest some sort of personal issue on the newspaper’s side. The exception being if it raised a genuine issue of political bias or scandal involving an officer.

    From my own experience, I’ve seen relatively junior council officers get way above their station and forget the political will of their authority when dealing with the press. They take things personally and the red mist descends. It’s often most evident on social media.

    However, I’ve also seen journalists relentlessly bash their local council at every opportunity, even when they don’t really deserve it.

    The comments from both sides are as spiteful as each other and both need to draw a line under it now, but I doubt that’ll happen.

    Your Thurrock’s local democracy reporter must be having a right laugh at all of this :)

    Report this comment

    Like this comment(6)
  • August 9, 2018 at 9:36 am
    Permalink

    If they’re anything like our nearby Local Democracy Reporters, they’ll be too busy copy & pasting three-day-old council press releases and writing new intros on them.

    Report this comment

    Like this comment(6)