Industry leaders have accused councils of “undermining local democracy” after a number of recent disputes between regional newspapers and local authorities which were highlighted on HTFP.
The News Media Association has it out at what it termed a “culture of secrecy” in local government following several recent instance of journalists being denied access or information.
The trade body’s criticisms follow a number of cases which were originally reported on HTFP.
Examples include Thurrock Council’s decision to ignore comment requests from Thurrock Independent editor Neil Speight, Swindon Advertiser reporter Tom Seaward being barred from a South Swindon Parish Council meeting at the request of a property developer’s agent and the Nottingham Post being denied access to a meeting about the planned creation of a so-called “super council”.
The Yorkshire Post’s Freedom of Information battle with Sheffield City Council over the authority’s failure to make public official contractual policy for tree replacement work was also cited, as was Birmingham City Council’s refusal to divulge the details of a Brexit impact report following an FoI request by local democracy reporter Carl Jackson.
In a statement on the cases mentioned, the NMA said: “Local authorities which seek to thwart transparency and openness are doing a disservice to the communities they are supposed to represent.
“By blocking legitimate requests from local newspapers and banning reporters from meetings, councils are contributing to culture of secrecy and undermining local democracy.”
The issue was also highlighted last weekend by national daily The Times in a leader headlined ‘Secret State’ published alongside a report by media correspondent Matt Moore.
It stated: “In a democracy those who hold public office are accountable to the people. They cannot be effectively held accountable if they refuse to tell the people how they exercise their powers. Recent disturbing cases in local government suggest that Britain’s civic life is secretive beyond any reasonable standard of confidentiality.
“Public institutions are circumventing scrutiny and blocking newspaper coverage for no good reason. This emerging public scandal highlights how closed and attenuated Britain’s municipal political culture is, even in the digital age.
“It is not as if the problem is a recent change in the political climate. The Local Government Act of 2000 was a well-intentioned attempt to streamline decision-making at municipal level by moving from a committee-based system to an executive system. In practice it has tended to concentrate power and encourage secrecy.
“Nobody disputes that in granting contracts councils may have to keep some information confidential. However, our report today suggests that there is instead a culture of aggrandisement and avoidance of public accountability. The role of journalists is to be the eyes and the ears of the public and to tell voters of the decisions that are being made in their name. For that, they need access.”