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Democracy reporter faced “hostile” questioning over meeting attendance

Lucy AshtonA local democracy reporter has shared her disappointment after “hostile” council officers questioned why she was covering a meeting without first informing the authority’s press office.

Lucy Ashton, local democracy reporter for Sheffield daily The Star and the BBC, was quizzed by Sheffield City Council officers as to why its press office had not been informed she would be attending the meeting.

The public meeting had been publicised by the council and concerned a masterplan to regenerate Gleadless, a large housing estate in Sheffield, but Lucy was challenged about her attendance after she arrived.

A director at the authority told Lucy she wasn’t aware she would be coming to the meeting, held at the John O’Gaunt pub, in Gleadless, because the press office hadn’t informed her.

Lucy, pictured, told HTFP: “She said it was unusual as their protocol was for the press office to flag up if any of the media were attending events.

“As I was interviewing an urban designer, a second council officer came up, interrupted my interview, and again asked why they hadn’t been informed I was attending.

“This officer then said they couldn’t provide me with a council comment as everything had to go through the press office. I didn’t actually want a council comment, I wanted to speak to residents.

“The officer then started talking about the meeting before panicking and pleading for me not to quote them. I must stress that the council press office were not aware of any of this and have since said journalists are obviously welcome at all public meetings. They are speaking to officers about it.”

Lucy posted about her experience at Tuesday’s meeting on Twitter, and she says councillors from across the political spectrum have since described her treatment as a “disgrace”.

She added: “What’s most disappointing is the council is very keen to hear residents’ views on this masterplan yet it was quite a hostile reaction to a local journalist.

“As a local democracy reporter, my stories appear on a newswire for the Sheffield Star, the BBC and hundreds of other media outlets so it would have been a perfect opportunity for the council to get a positive message out to thousands of people.”

A spokesperson for Sheffield City Council said: “We welcome media scrutiny of the work of Sheffield City Council, and the local democracy roles are a great addition to this.

“Our press team has discussed what happened with the journalist in question today. We all want the same thing: to get the views of the people of Sheffield, and share information.

“We will learn from this incident and work together to ensure the media feel welcome our public events.”

8 comments

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  • September 20, 2018 at 9:46 am
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    It looks at first glance as if some officers need media training. This was a PUBLIC meeting, we are told.

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  • September 20, 2018 at 12:52 pm
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    Another example – (it seems to be the same for the police in many cases), where there is now a terrified reaction from public officials if they see an untethered journalist not being corralled by a protective and smothering Press officer.

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  • September 21, 2018 at 9:12 am
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    Council hiding behind a press office. What happened to open democracy. Did the officials question any member of the public? The Press is there on behalf of the public.

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  • September 21, 2018 at 11:12 am
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    Expect to see a lot more of this – it’s the price we’re going to have to pay for not having enough journalists to send to cover things. Top marks for standing up to this nonsense, though. Press offices are becoming increasingly more arrogant, controlling and ill-informed about what their role ought to be. Monstering reporters isn’t part of it. Ever.

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  • September 21, 2018 at 12:52 pm
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    Okay, so she doesn’t need permission to attend a public meeting or to speak with members of the public. It’s also clear that the council officers here need some training.

    However, as a local democracy reporter, why on earth wouldn’t you contact the press office to get hold of an official spokesperson on this issue? Surely that’s part of the job?

    The media has a job to do and so does the press office. If you work with them and build relationships, you will get far more from them. If you go go down this paranoid route of ‘they tried to stop me doing this, they were hostile’ it’s the only story you’ll ever get!

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  • September 21, 2018 at 6:11 pm
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    Oliver, in a career now approaching four decades I’ve never felt the need to tell press officers where I’m going or what I’m doing. And yes, I’ve had decent professional relationships with many of them. “Getting far more from them” is a contradiction in terms with almost all of today’s press offices – sorry, comms departments. And that says it all, they are not there to co-operate with the media, they are there to tell the story the way they see it. Or rather, the way they want us to see it.

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  • September 21, 2018 at 7:37 pm
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    sorry Oliver. not with you on that. Priority is to get some good quotes from public and meeting. Press office statements are bland and boring. I cannot see why a reporter should inform a press officer of attendance. If all local democracy reporters do is rewrite press releases they are a waste of money. This one was at least trying to do a half-decent job.

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  • September 24, 2018 at 1:21 pm
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    Paul, you sum up the job perfectly. The press office wants to tell the story one way and it’s a journalist’s job to unpick it. But you can’t unpick it if you don’t ask for it!

    paperboy, I’m not suggesting that reporters shouldn’t speak with the public to get something with a little more substance but the press office has a role in this too which you can’t ignore. This is ‘local democracy’ after all and, as an impartial local journalist, demonstrating balance is a necessity. Often, the bland generic responses from a council press office really show up how out-of-touch some councillors can be with their constituents on issues such as this.

    My main point was really why the reporter felt the need to shout about this issue on Twitter when, clearly, it was a mistake by the officers. If it keeps happening, then yes by all means take them to task but don’t be so keen to burn those bridges.

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