Wednesday 14 March 2012

More (unpublished) letters to the editor

For the dwindling band of readers of local newspapers, the letters pages are one of the main draws. There are the regular letter writers - some barking mad; some pompous (readers of the Carmarthen Journal will be all too familiar with the oeuvre of Sir Eric Howells CBE); some bigoted; some so badly written that they are magically mysterious; and a few that glisten like pearls in the pig trough.

Never a week passes without at least one, and usually several, letters banging on about wind turbines. We get toe curling poems and thank you letters from stranded motorists or little old ladies who were helped by good Samaritans in their hour of need. Then there are letters from councillors, some of which present such a distorted view of the world that they are almost an art form. So it was that we had Cllr Stephen James, a prominent Independent who also happens to be a Conservative Party activist, claiming that the Independents are not a political group at all, just like-minded individuals. A vote last year to prevent closure of care homes in Llanelli proved this, he said, neglecting to mention that he and almost all of his fellow Independents had voted in favour of closure.

About a month ago Mrs Lesley Williams wrote in to the Journal to protest against the indemnity given to chief executive Mark James to pursue his libel action against blogger Jacqui Thompson. The following week, a letter appeared from Cllr Clive Scourfield, a senior Independent, attacking Mrs Williams and questioning her role in a campaign a few years back to force changes in the council's plans for the St Catherine's Walk shopping centre in Carmarthen.

Cllr Scourfield's letter accused Mrs Williams of leading a campaign which had cost the council £2 million. Needless to say, he did not give any evidence for this, and his letter had the presumably desired effect of diverting questioning of the council's decision to give Mr James an indemnity to a debate about the ins and outs of the St Catherine's Walk saga, while seeking to undermine Mrs Williams' credibility.

Letters then poured in to the Journal defending Mrs Williams and her role in the controversy over St Catherine's Walk.

Next we had a letter from chief executive Mark James himself under the heading "Setting the Record Straight". No mention of the indemnity, of course, but another attack on Mrs Williams. She had cost the council £2 million because of delays to the project, he claimed, adding that it was well-known that she "had a problem with the council". Again, no evidence of how this figure of £2 million was arrived at.

Unsurprisingly, Mrs Williams (who is a prominent member of Carmarthen's Civic Society) wrote to the editor once more to correct what she says are inaccuracies in Mr James's letter, and others wrote in the same vein. Another reader wrote a letter pointing out that readers should not forget that the whole debate had been sparked by the council's decision to give Mr James a blank cheque to fight a libel case, and that Messrs Scourfield and James had been using diversionary tactics to ensure that there was no discussion of the indemnity.

At this point the editor of the newspaper ruled that she would not be taking any more letters on the subject, and that she wished to draw a line under the matter, thereby leaving the last word with Mr James and his attack on the integrity of Mrs Williams.

Of course, editors have to take decisions all the time about what to put in and what to leave out of their papers, but in the case of the Carmarthen Journal there are good reasons for suspecting that some decisions about what goes into the paper are taken elsewhere.

As this blog reminded readers recently, back in 2009 the council flexed its muscles and warned the local press about "negative" reporting. The warning was coupled with a strong hint that if the press did not change its tune, advertising revenue from the council might be, ahem, affected.

Observant readers of the Carmarthen Journal noticed that not long afterwards there were changes to senior personnel on the editorial staff, and the papers became rather less questioning of what was happening in County Hall. Perhaps it was all a coincidence.

There was a small flicker of a return to the bad old ways of the past about a year ago when the Carmarthen Journal ran a series of reports on the arrest of Jacqui Thompson for filming a council meeting and other controversies in the council chamber. But things went quiet again, and later in 2011 while other newspapers, including Wales on Sunday and Private Eye were reporting on Towy Community Church and its links with Mercy Ministries, the Carmarthen Journal fell silent. In fact while other newspapers were reporting on the church's exotic friends, the Journal was heavily promoting a toy appeal run by Cllr Pam Palmer under which various evangelical churches, including Towy Community Church, were tasked with distributing toys collected by the police, NHS and other public bodies.

Shortly after that we had the strange case of the campaign against the closure of the county's two museums. Although the closure had been proposed by the council, senior councillors, notably our old friend Pam Palmer, jumped on the bandwagon and wrapped themselves in the flag to claim that they had saved the museums (small print, for the time being). A class of children from a primary school were reported to be very concerned about the proposed closure, even though Pam had already announced a "rescue", and the Carmarthen Journal ran a story with a picture of concerned looking tots. Shortly after that, the Journal followed this shining example of campaigning journalism with another piece, complete with picture, announcing that nice old Councillor Gwynne Wooldridge (one of Pam's colleagues on the Executive Board) had popped down to the school to listen to the children's concerns about the council's budgetary outlook and fiscal planning (let it never be said that education standards in Wales are slipping).

Make of that what you will, but let's return to the Letters Page. Of course newspaper editors have the right to decide which letters go in, and which don't, and they will sometimes call time on a debate in the letters columns. In the case of the Carmarthen Journal, however, no line has been drawn under the endless wind turbine saga, and poems about daffodils and twittering birds are positively encouraged.

This week we have two letters defending the ruling Independent-Labour administration and attacking Plaid Cymru. One of the contributors seems to be getting a letter into the paper every week. There is, of course, another letter about wind turbines, but not a word about the libel indemnity, and Mrs Williams' response to the attack made on her by the chief executive has not been published.

As things stand, the letters pages in a local newspaper are an important public forum; in fact in many ways they are the only forum local people have to express their views and concerns. The decision to close discussion on the row sparked by Mrs Williams' letter, giving the last word to the council's chief executive and leaving us with another attack on her integrity, is nothing short of a disgrace.

For that reason, this blog will do what it can to ensure that there is at least one small platform for public debate on important local issues.

If you have been ignored by the Carmarthen Journal or wish to have a letter published on a matter relating to Carmarthenshire County Council, you can send it to the following e-mail address:

Normal rules will apply. Letters must not be libellous or abusive. You may write in Welsh or English, and you may ask for your name to be withheld. Addresses will not be published. And if the editor of the Carmarthen Journal, the chief executive or any councillors wish to write, they can be assured of a fair hearing too.

1 comment:

Tessa said...

Thank you for your offer to publish the letters that the CJ won't. I used to write regularly - ahh!, back in the good old Robert Lloyd days, when I was part of the Carmarthenshire Ratepayers' Association - but got fed up with the effort of putting pen to paper (or keystrokes to email) when they were no longer published. And I always kept them really brief, too. You're right - these days the tedious and loony ramblings of various, not even justifying a speed-read, get plenty of space.