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Council publications: Why fix something that isn't broken?

20 March 2014

Alex Cunningham MP

If ever an issue is going to get the blood boiling in the body of a journalist - even when they haven't been in main stream journalism for more than half their life - it is the idea that someone wants to interfere with the message they want to deliver to their readers.

And so it was for me when I first heard of the Local Government Secretary's ambitions to install himself as "Editor in Chief" for all council publications.

I spent many happy years as a journalist writing for the local and regional media. Even when working in the communications industry for a blue chip company, I was never exposed to any real interference - certainly nothing anywhere near the level Eric Pickles envisages.

Likewise, in my 20 years as a Cleveland County Councillor and then Stockton-on-Tees Borough Councillor, I never saw the abuse of power through publications that the Secretary of State appears to be so terrified of.

So as a former journalist and councillor, it will come as no surprise that I have particular concerns about Clause 39 of the Local Audit and Accountability Act, which gives the Secretary of State the power to direct local authorities to comply with a specific code of conduct relating to their publicity materials.

When Royal Assent was granted in January, Eric Pickles succeeded in granting himself editorial oversight of Local Government Inc., prescribing the right to intervene carte blanche irrespective of whether he believes the local authority to be complying with the code of practice.

And so there is no mistake, Clause 39 applies across the entire spectrum of local authority publicity material from the city to the parish. This includes the newspapers - such as the quarterly Stockton News in my constituency – delivered to so many residents around the country to keep them informed about services and what is going on in their local authority area; posters advertising the many events, schemes and projects that local authorities promote for the benefit of their citizens; and the social media updates that local authorities provide to make sure that residents have up-to-date information.

Just how the Secretary of State plans to monitor the thousands of communications emanating from councils across the country each and every day remains a mystery. To do so in a consistent fashion would require an army of Twitter monitors, Facebook spies and online assessors to ensure his authority remains unchallenged, though I sincerely hope that such an Orwellian system will not be deployed in the policing of this new media landscape.

As far as I can see, the provisions of the Act are entirely disproportionate and represent a stubbornly heavy-handed response to a problem of which the Government has identified only one example. And even in this instance, the local authority involved has denied any accusation of contravening the Government's current code of recommended practice.

Like all ethical journalists, I agree that any political bias is unacceptable in local authority publicity, where the code of conduct requires objectivity, even-handedness and appropriateness. This much is surely beyond contention. And it is with this in mind that the Government has been encouraged to take action in cases where possible breaches are identified to ensure neutrality and fairness.

But we now know that the Government failed to even write to the local authority in question about their particular publication. Nor, interestingly, have they contacted a single local authority to express concern about potential breaches of the code since coming to power in May 2010.

Assuming the Government is competently implementing the current code of practice, we must take from this that councils aren't breaking existing recommendations. And I must therefore query the conviction with which the Secretary of State truly believes that a breach has been committed. All of which begs the question: why fix something that isn't broken?

When we look at these factors closely, the context of the Secretary of State's power-grab politics becomes abundantly clear. Coupled with a Lobbying Act that limits the campaigning of third sector and voluntary organisations, it appears that the unpopularity of the Government's policies has begun to sink in. The Secretary of State is now heading a damage limitation mission, controlling how local authorities communicate the politically toxic effects of the Government's policies with their communities.

And as if this wasn't extreme enough, not only does Clause 39 grant the Secretary of State the ability to determine when and how local authorities can publish communications to local residents, but also control over the language and phraseology they are permitted to use.

Ministers have already made clear their intention to prevent local authorities from sharing information or commenting on the impact of Government policy if they disapprove of the message, which would inevitably have the effect of gagging councils on contentious policy areas. Perhaps, then, the Government will rid the public of the Bedroom Tax after all, though changing the description won't improve the devastating effects his policies are having on some of our most vulnerable people.

The irony of this move, coming so soon after the intense debates on the topic of press regulation and the need to remove the risk of political interference and maintain the sanctity of free speech, will not be wasted on many. Indeed, I am minded to ask the Secretary of State whether his reformulated role would be compliant with the spirit of the Royal Charter in providing the public with better protection from press abuses while upholding the freedom of expression that is so central to our democracy.

Perhaps, with this in mind, the Secretary of State's new role would be better described as "Censor in Chief".

Tags: , council publications, eric pickles, pr, local newspapers, local government, ethics, government uk