Thursday 6 December 2012
A newspaper and a council: David and Goliath
Sometimes you get a feeling that something is missing, but you can't quite put your finger on it. Observant readers of the South Wales Guardian may have had that nagging feeling for the last three months, because in all that time Carmarthenshire County Council has not placed a single advertisement with the paper, not since the paper ran a piece which was critical of the council's infamous Sainsbury's press release. That was back at the beginning of September.
Back in July of this year the manager of the council's notorious press office, Debbie Williams, e-mailed colleagues in the council's marketing department suggesting that the council should cease placing adverts with the paper "until this issue is resolved" following a very mildly critical piece about a regeneration project in Ammanford. Notice the chilling use of words there. In plain terms, the suggestion was that the newspaper should be made to toe the line and stop printing stories and comment pieces that the council leadership does not like.
Because Carmarthenshire County Council sees itself as a big, important local authority we need not only a chief executive, but two assistant chief executives. Neither of their salaries is disclosed in the council's most recent statement of accounts, probably thanks to the use of a loophole in reporting requirements, but it is reasonable to assume that they are buried among the 23 individuals who were being paid more than £85,000 per annum (readers may be surprised to learn that in this time of cuts, the number of top earners in County Hall has been rising).
One of these two assistant chief executives, Chris Burns, was wheeled out to offer an explanation and some soothing words:
The intention was to meet with the editor next week to discuss concerns that had been raised in the steering group regarding a front page story in the Guardian. In the meantime one single advert was put on hold. We spend quite a lot with the Guardian and there's no intention to stop this advertising. As I understand it the trader's concerns were that the story appeared to suggest that the town was likely to be 'closed for Christmas'. The article concerned was not, I must say, particularly critical of the county council and I cannot see any reason why this would have led to us removing advertising completely.
That was in July. It would be interesting to hear what Mr Burns has to say now.
Local authorities are required by law to publish certain types of notice (e.g. road closures) in the press, and they also have large discretionary advertising and marketing budgets which can be used to promote events and provide residents with useful information on council services, etc. For most if not all of our struggling local newspapers, this revenue is desperately needed, so by denying the Guardian advertising revenue, the council is certainly aware of the possible consequences.
But it is not just the newspaper which is being punished here. Carmarthenshire has a high proportion of elderly people, people on low incomes and people in remote rural locations who do not have access to the internet. For many of them, especially the elderly who still loyally buy and read local newspapers, publications such as the Guardian are their main source of information about the council and its services.
Since its spat with the council back in July, the Guardian has, to its immense credit, continued to publish stories which the council will not have liked, and in many cases these were stories which you could not read anywhere else.
In the case of the rival and much larger Carmarthen Journal the list of major local stories which have gone unreported in the last two years grows ever longer. If the council doesn't like it, the Journal won't print it. At its worst, the Journal was almost certainly guilty of colluding with the council's Ministry of Truth when it ran "spoiler" stories to detract from scandals which were being reported elsewhere. The most glaring example of that was in the aftermath of the BBC's documentary on the Delyth Jenkins case when the Journal ran a re-hashed summary of a CSSIW report on social care provision praising the council.
More recently the paper seems to have adopted tactics similar to those used in countries with oppressive regimes where criticism is of the subtle, between the lines kind.
It would be futile for a lone blogger to call for a boycott of the Journal, but the knowledge that the newspaper is being censored makes it soiled goods. Almost as worrying is the Journal's aggressive stance towards its competitors. Since the paper re-launched its local editions, it is clearly going for smaller rivals, such as the Tivyside Advertiser, with a marked increase in its coverage of news in the south of Ceredigion. Strangely, the paper has no qualms about criticising Ceredigion County Council.
Competition is great sometimes, but the thought that the compliant and censored Journal might kill off a smaller rival has to be of concern to everyone who cares about a free local press.
So what can be done? The Journal has recently come under new ownership, and it remains to be seen what the new proprietors will do with the paper and its sister publications. But now is as good a time as any to try to stop this bullying and intimidation of our newspapers.
We can write to our councillors, although in many cases I would not bother wasting ink and paper. We can write to MPs and Assembly Members, and Rhodri Glyn Thomas for one is certain to give public concerns a sympathetic hearing. We could try writing to the new proprietors of the Carmarthen Journal. But perhaps the most effective thing would be for someone like Rhodri Glyn Thomas to offer his good offices to bring together the various press interests in Carmarthenshire. They can either all hang together or hang one by one, as at present.
The council, whatever its other failings, is not stupid. In the end, the council needs the local press to get its message and information across, as much as the papers need the revenue. The council's own wretched propaganda rag is no substitute.
So call the council's bluff and tell the town hall dictators to get back in their box.
Posted by Cneifiwr at 14:30