Tuesday 2 October 2012

The smoking guns in County Hall

The infamous press release recently issued by Carmarthenshire County Council in collaboration with Sainsbury's has been described variously as misleading, blatant lies, an abuse of power, defamatory and a misuse of public resources.

The council has shown what it thinks by leaving the press release in place on its website.

Members of the public who have written in to complain about this may have expected to receive a reply from the council's Press Office or the Chief Executive's department, which is where the Press Office resides. Given the political nature of the attack, they may have half-expected a response from the Leader himself or the ironically named Democratic Services department. For those worried about the planning aspects or the disturbingly close relationship between the council and J Sainsbury plc revealed in the joint statement, a response from the Planning Department may have been in order.

However, when it comes to dealing with spin, complaints about misleading statements and political propaganda, the department tasked with responding is, believe it or not, the council's Service Improvement office. For a council which recently published a report stating that complaints to its Education Department fell by 563% last year, while cross departmental complaints fell by a mere 329%, this tells us something about what the council means by Service Improvement.

It is worth reproducing the reply to one recent complaint in full:

"As I am sure you will be aware, the work of officers of the Council, is determined primarily by Members of the Council, in particular, those members who are in control politically.  In this case, Cllr Madge as leader of the Council, leads on Administration and has chosen his Executive Board in accordance with the Council’s Constitution and legislative requirements.

On occasion, press releases are prepared by officers of the press team at the behest of departments and sent out.  However, the majority of press releases would be requested by Executive Members and would relate to their portfolios or the Council generally.  This is one such occasion. The Press Office issues around 1500 press releases each year. Most of them are straightforward and simply relate to events or services that we provide.

The Leader of the Council is quite entitled, to make comment on what he perceives to be against the interests of the Council or County. It is very clear that the press release expresses the opinions of the Leader. These are major developments concerning many hundreds of jobs which also have a direct bearing on projects that are important to the Council, including school facilities or health and social care facilities, and it therefore does seem appropriate that the Council could issue a statement as to the impact of the delay or loss of the investment."

There is so much wrong with this response, quite apart from the peculiar punctuation, that it is difficult to know where to start, but here goes:

1. "It is very clear that the press release expresses the opinions of the Leader". 

Here are the opening paragraphs of the press release:

"Plaid Cymru’s AM and MP are trying to stop a £60million investment with the creation of around 1,200 jobs in the Tywi and Gwendraeth Valleys, it has been revealed.

MP Jonathan Edwards and Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM have asked for the Sainsbury’s planning applications to be called in, which has now jeopardised the developments which mean major investment in Carmarthenshire".

And so it chunters on for two more paragraphs. The Council Leader, Kevin Madge, does not make an appearance until the fifth paragraph, when he begins by saying that he was shocked to hear that the MP and AM had asked the Government to call the plans in (something which we now know is not true).

Kev gets two paragraphs to himself, before the baton is handed to a spokesman for Sainsbury's, who is given the remaining 4 paragraphs.

2. "Opinions"

The press release is laden with details about the proposed development, the value of the project and (spurious) claims about the number of jobs to be created, all of which Jonathan Edwards and Rhodri Glyn Thomas are "deliberately trying to sabotage".

Is that opinion and fair comment? Or does the piece dress itself up as a statement of facts?

Here is a handy definition of fair comment: 

Opinion which is based upon correctly stated facts and does not allege dishonourable motives on the part of the target of the comment.

3. To what extent did the release reflect the Council's views?

Here the officer who penned the response tries to have it both ways. It was a statement of opinion by the Council Leader, but at the same time it was appropriate for the Council to issue a statement on the impact of the call-in decision.
Jonathan Edwards hit the nail on the head when he said in a recent statement that the political neutrality of [council] staff had been compromised.

As Plaid and possibly the Ombudsman for Public Services seek to get to the bottom of what happened here, the paper trail leading up to the publication of this press release will be very interesting.

Who was involved in writing it (we can be pretty sure that it was not Kev), who had sight of it before publication, and who approved it?

There may well be several smoking guns in this case.


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