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Reporter rebuked for contacting council officer instead of off-patch PR firm

John Elworthy 1An editor has hit back after one of his reporters was rebuked for contacting a council officer directly instead of the authority’s press office – which is run by a firm based more than 60 miles off-patch.

John Elworthy, who edits the Cambs Times, Wisbech Standard and Ely Standard, has spoken out after being told by East Cambridgeshire District Council that its officers are “not authorised to speak to the press” either on or off the record.

The Ely-based council’s communications operation is outsourced to a firm called Prominent PR, based 66 miles away in Felixstowe, Suffolk.

John claims reporter Clare Butler had attempted to contact the company several times with a clarifying question over a story about food hygiene ratings.  But after “several calls” to the firm she decided to email the council’s environmental services department – prompting a senior environmental health officer to respond and “make it clear that such approaches are not to be made.”

In his email, the officer added: “Officers of the council are not authorised to speak to the press and all enquiries have to be directed through either our comms team or, if appropriate, through our Freedom of Information address.”

The response prompted John, pictured, publish a series of posts on Twitter criticising the council’s policy.

Speaking to HTFP, he added: “My view remains that councils ought to still to be able to field routine questions from established media but it seems not. For a senior officer to suggest a simple – but very important question – cannot be answered unless I use the comms team or submit a FoI is quite honestly ridiculous.

“It seems we are not the only ones in trouble for trying to establish contact with officers from the council – we’ve written recently about Simon Harries, a newly elected Lib Dem councillor at East Cambs who tried to make contact with officers over a local issue but ended up being reported by officers for harassment. I saw his emails and he was simply trying to do his job – i.e. get someone to take note of his complaint.

“He told me at the weekend the complaint against him had been dropped but he felt the issue we had ‘sounds creepily like the problem I had. That has been dropped by the way, but I have given them notice that I want to see reforms.'”

“Over the years I have rarely experienced such a problem: the comms team at Cambridgeshire County Council for instance have also been willing to allow the press to speak to officers for background and on the record too.

“It is not as if we don’t enjoy good relations with East Cambs Council – they are the co sponsors of the Ely Standard Business Awards which are happening at Ely Cathedral later this week. And we give them excellent coverage on their work. But on this I do believe changed attitudes are required. I’m planning to speak to the council leader and to see if a new protocol can be established. I’m not brimming with optimism.”

Jo Brooks, operations director at East Cambridgeshire District Council, said: “Our communications team are there to support journalists with their enquiries and provide an efficient service which works for both the media and the council.

“When an enquiry is raised, the communications team work alongside the relevant departments to collate the details required and provide an informative response. In this instance, all the information which was available at the time was shared with the journalist by our communications team.

“We are open and transparent and have always had an excellent working relationship with the media. Unfortunately due to the nature of the enquiry and the process of announcing of a food standards rating, it was not possible for the press officer to provide exactly what the journalist required at that time. The council officer was also unable to add anything further.

“We advise our departments that media enquiries should be directed to our communications team to ensure that they are dealt with effectively and in a timely manner.”


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  • September 18, 2019 at 9:37 am

    It’s a mad, mad, world as somebody famous once said.
    Hope the East Cambs public were told how much trouble the paper were put to.
    Also perhaps HTFP story might have used the phrase John ‘said’ rather than ‘claims’ when he was talking about reporter Clare’s sensible efforts to get the council to actually respond.

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  • September 18, 2019 at 11:02 am

    Run a few stories without a council comment (where it is possible) and I’m sure the stance will change. But, yes, ludicrous a factual clarification cannot be cleared up by officers.

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  • September 18, 2019 at 11:21 am

    All too typical of today when public servants are now the self-appointed public’s masters and too many papers are content to be their happy clappy chappies! Full marks to John and co for trying to make a difference, although I expect our ‘leaders’ will carry on regardless in the way that has seen them turn parking attendants and park keepers into ‘civil enforcement officers’ in quasi-military uniforms with nasty looking holsters that contain a camera – luckily!

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  • September 20, 2019 at 10:45 am

    A pity but in the end it depends on how thorough and quick the outside firm is in responding. Send them a set of detailed questions about the topic, tightly worded, so that the council cannot dodge giving a clear answer.

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  • September 20, 2019 at 10:47 am

    Also direct clear queries to chairmen of relevant committee or get other councillors to join in.

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  • September 24, 2019 at 9:13 am

    Makes a good point. Pity his grammar is not good. Days ARE ,John. After all you are an editor!

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  • September 24, 2019 at 3:53 pm

    How much do the ratepayers have to fork out to get a sanitised answer from Prominent PR to a legitimate question? In other words, how much is the council paying a year to have an unnecessary ‘middleman’ field questions which could be fielded by officers for nothing? How much has it cost council taxpayers since this daft system was introduced.
    Put that figure next to list of services that have been lost – and what they cost – during austerity and readers might conclude that the councillors are spending their money very wisely.

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