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.
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”.
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.