Tuesday 10 January 2012

Award winning PR

The BBC and other mainstream, serious media in Britain do on the whole a very good job when it comes to reporting foreign affairs - having lived and worked in a number of countries and endured many hours of stiflingly dull news broadcasts on the minutiae of Swedish labour relations, Swiss tax developments, etc., I can vouch for that personally. Lately the spotlight has fallen on Putin's perverse idea of democracy and even, if a little belatedly, the subversion of democracy by the ruling right-wing regime in Hungary (Cameron's new buddies, incidentally).

Sadly rather less attention is paid to our own home-grown Putins in places like Carmarthenshire which is showing ever-increasing contempt for the niceties of reliable and fair reporting of facts, democracy and the difference between public resources and political propaganda.

A couple of years back the council, led in this instance by its chief executive Mark James, CBE, launched an assault on the local press with threats to withdraw lucrative advertising contracts unless they stopped "negative" reporting of council stories. To show that it meant business, the council beefed up its Pravda-like "newspaper", and the local papers, struggling for survival, were brought to heel.

To be fair, the local press has become a little braver of late, with some good coverage of, for example, the arrest of Caebrwyn for filming part of a council meeting, but other more controversial stories on the council's love affair with fundamentalist Christian groups have been spiked.

Seasoned Carmarthen watchers have known for a long time now how unreliable a guide the official minutes of its meetings are. Inconvenient and uncomfortable facts are simply wiped from the record, and just recently there has been some blatantly political manipulation of the record, with detailed reporting in the minutes of attacks made by councillors on Cllr Sian Caiach for opposing plans for a new school in Llanelli and no mention at all of what she said or why she opposed the plans.

During the last few months the council has published a series of reports outlining proposals for budget cuts and a 4% increase in council tax for the next financial year. The proposals aim to cut £8 million from spending in 2012-13, and would hit just about everyone in the county. Some of the proposed savings were little more than wishful thinking, being dependent on unlikely increases in revenue, while others involved the closure of care facilities, staffing cuts, slashing budgets for road and bridge maintenance, road safety, etc.

At the same time, the council published proposals for its capital budgets for the next three years, including generous provision for upgrades and maintenance of the council's vast stock of office buildings.

Not singled out for cuts were any of the council's own pet projects, its PR department, the appalling Carmarthenshire News or utterly wasteful spending on external consultants, agency staff and private detectives. That would be too close to home.

The finances of the Carmarthenshire News are, if anything, even less believable than much of its editorial content. The council would have us believe that the rag is almost self-funding, presumably because it now depends on the PR budgets of Dyfed Powys Police, the NHS, various colleges and other public bodies. There is next to no private sector advertising.

The "newspaper" is produced on glossy paper in full colour by the council's PR department, which won a couple of awards last year. The council loves to boast about its awards, almost all of which are dished out by quangos and incestuous, self-appointed bodies, and you have to wonder how stupendously awful the competition must have been for the Carmarthenshire's Ministry of Truth to come out on top.

The PR department has long been the source of an endless stream of self-congratulatory press releases and stories on the council's triumphs and successes. It has also been used to attack opponents of the ruling junta.

Its latest foray was an amazingly partisan attack on opposition councillors for daring to criticise the proposed budget cuts. In true Putin style, various members of the ruling junta lined up to attack their critics in the piece, which was put out to "stop idle speculation and unhelpful comments to the press." Of course, no space could be found to quote anyone who disagreed with them.

Cllr Terry Davies (if there were awards for smugness, he would be a runaway winner) even managed to claim that Carmarthenshire's school dinners were "regarded widely as the best in Wales for offering fresh, locally produced quality food." Bollocks, Cllr Davies. Go and have a look at what they offer in Ceredigion.

Bizarrely, the story was pulled from the council's website within hours of publication, but thanks to the ever-vigilant Caebrwyn you can read it in full here.

If there is a change in the council's administration in May, the PR department should be the first of the sacred cows for the chop. Not just to save money, but because you cannot believe a word they say.

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