Rhodri Glyn Thomas, AM for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, has tabled what is known as a "Statement of Opinion" in the Welsh Assembly (here) calling on the Welsh Government under Carwyn Jones to drop proposed changes to the rules which local authorities have to adhere to when road closures and other important traffic announcements are being published.
That does not sound very exciting, but this apparently minor tweaking of legislation could have far reaching consequences for local democracy and press freedom, especially in the hands of authorities such as Carmarthenshire.
What this proposed change means is that in future councils would no longer be under a statutory obligation to publish official highway notices in local newspapers, thereby depriving the struggling local press of significant advertising revenue. Such notices could instead be published in town hall pravdas, such as Carmarthenshire News.
In the last year, Carmarthenshire News has doubled in size, as it now includes material provided by the police, NHS, higher education establishments and other public bodies. Unlike a genuine newspaper, there is not even a pretence of editorial independence or balance. What you get is only what the council leadership wants you to read. You would not guess from this publication that there is a formal opposition to Meryl Gravell in County Hall; the only councillors ever quoted or pictured are from the ruling Independent and Labour groups. There is no letters page, and even if there were you can be sure that no critical letters would ever be published. And contrary to the old adage "No news is good news", you will find nothing but good news in the council rag.
And if that was not bad enough, the stories published are often downright misleading. Recently, for example, Carmarthenshire News ran with a front-page splash which gave the impression that £151 million of investment was about to be poured into schools across the county; schools were named which, while they may appear on a list, are not actually in line for any new money anytime soon. The Chief Constable of Dyfed Powys police was quoted at length in the same issue, giving a very upbeat assessment of what the force is doing under his leadership; but only a couple of weeks before he had appeared before councillors to give dire warnings about cuts in the service. And so it goes on.
Of course, the money which is being poured into this publication is money which would otherwise be spent on advertising in local newspapers, all of which are struggling for survival. Without those newspapers, the council's official mouthpiece would be the only source for council news for the vast majority of people, and as we know, it is not a source to be trusted.
If you think this is an overly pessimistic view, the council's track record will show why we have every reason to worry about the threat to a free press and free speech.
Towards the end of 2009 Carmarthenshire County Council went on the attack against the local press. Chief Executive Mark James made a formal complaint to the publishers of titles such as the Carmarthen Journal and Llanelli Star about what he regarded as negative reporting (i.e. criticism of aspects of what the council was doing). The complaint was followed up with threats that if things did not change, the council would remove much of its advertising spend from them.
The campaign was backed up with an attack in the pages of the council's newspaper, which thundered,
"The Council has recently had to defend this community newspaper against attacks by some local newspapers and some local politicians [a reference to our then MP Adam Price and AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas]. It is not entirely clear why they are so opposed to the Council informing every citizen in the County about what we do....The local authority is legally required to advertise certain items...As a result we have been spending over £150,000 per annum with local newspapers. Obviously, we regularly keep this under review to ensure it is good value for money. We will continue to work with our local newspapers as we believe they are important in any community, but we believe they have a duty to report fairly and in a balanced way."
Apart from the local press and the BBC, which covers only the biggest stories, the only other independent source of council news and comment is blogs such as this and Jacqui Thompson's long-running Carmarthenshire Planning Problems and More. Of course, we lack the resources, limited though they are, of the local press, and we do not aspire to become newspapers. What we do try to do, however, is to investigate what lies beneath some of the headlines.
Mr James is, as readers of this blog will know, currently suing Jacqui Thompson for alleged libels contained in her blog. To give readers an idea why Mr James so dislikes her work, let's take just one of the stories she has covered in recent years and condense it.
Before becoming chief executive of Carmarthenshire, Mr James was chief executive of Boston Borough Council in England. One of the projects he initiated there in 1997 was a very large sports complex now known as the "Princess Royal Sports Arena", a venture which has cost local taxpayers many millions of pounds. Mr James left Boston for Carmarthenshire in 2001, and the sports arena was completed in 2003.
One of the companies which took a leading role in the development was the Simons Group, based not far away in Lincoln.
Subsequently, Mr James appeared in the company's promotional literature as a satisfied customer. Here is what he said,
“Making things happen requires vision, tenacity and sensitivity to the needs of the locality and
that of the occupiers/investors. Simons knows how to do this.
Mark James, Chief Executive, Carmarthenshire County Council
The original can be found here.
In February 2005 we know, thanks to a Freedom of Information request made by Jacqui Thompson, that Mr James accepted hospitality from Simons Group at a rugby match, one of the very few occasions on which he has accepted corporate hospitality.
In 2007 the Audit Commission carried out an investigation into the way in which the Boston project had been carried out, and its conclusions were damning. Among the criticisms made were that the council had not adhered to practices which would generally be considered standard. Contracts had been let without competitive tenders; councillors had not been given full disclosure of the financial terms of some contracts; and some contracts had been let without approval by councillors.
In 2008, the Office of Fair Trading accused Simons Group and a number of other companies in the construction industry of bid rigging to secure contracts from various public sector bodies, including councils. Simons was eventually fined £838,000 for this.
In 2009 Simons Group emerged again to play a leading role in the development of the council's flagship St. Catherine's Walk shopping centre development in Carmarthen.
Of course, there is no doubt a perfectly innocent explanation for all this, apart from that naughty bid rigging bit.
But you will not read anything like that in the pages of Carmarthenshire News, and sadly investigative reporting of that kind is now extremely rare in the local press. What with the threat of loss of advertising revenue and libel writs funded by the taxpayer, it is to South West Wales Media's immense credit that it reports anything remotely critical of the council at all.