Wednesday 19 December 2012

Black propaganda, blacklisting parking vouchers

This week's South Wales Guardian takes Carmarthenshire County Council to task for the press release issued last week claiming that the decision not to place any more advertising with the paper was taken solely on commercial grounds. Lead article here and editorial here.

The paper notes that the council's statement throws a lot of mud around, alleging that the paper has habitually carried biased and unbalanced stories about the council, but without offering a single example to back up its claims. It also reminds readers that just a few weeks before what appears to be a permanent blacklisting came into force, the manager of the council's press office, Debbie Williams, was caught telling the authority's marketing department to pull advertising because of an article about regeneration work in Ammanford. So much for County Hall's claim that this was a purely commercial decision.

Finally, the paper takes the council to task for its use of very selective circulation figures. It points out that the Guardian has a much higher share of local and regional press readership in its home patch in Ammanford than any other title.

The council's use of circulation figures for the county as a whole was nothing short of dishonest, in other words. That in turn means that by withholding advertising from the Guardian, the council is failing to meet legal requirements to ensure that official notices have the widest possible circulation.

There are other interesting questions about the council's press release last week which ought to make councillors sit up and ask what on earth is happening here.

First, who wrote this attack piece, and who authorised it? If it was the work of the council leader, Kevin Madge, or other members of his Executive Board, you would expect to see their names cropping up in the statement, along with quotes. No names appear in it, which suggests that the statement was put together by officers rather than elected councillors.

But that does not let Kevin Madge off the hook.If he was shown the piece before it went out, why didn't he veto it? If he wasn't shown it, he should be asking why the hell not.

Aficionados of Carmarthenshire's PR machine will have noticed striking similarities between the style and tone of this piece and other classics of the genre, including the notorious Sainsbury's press release. The combination of intemperate bluster, distortion and arrogance point to a common authorship, as does the phrasing.

The Guardian might like to try to establish more about the authorship and authorisation process with a Freedom of Information request. It almost certainly also has a strong case for making a formal complaint to the poor old Public Services Ombudsman.

Another bizarre and worrying aspect of the council's press release was the way in which it goes to town over a car parking voucher scheme.

The voucher scheme itself is almost laughably obscure and petty, but clearly the council's top brass does not think so.

Normally at this time of year shoppers in Carmarthenshire are given a holiday from parking charges in the run-up to Christmas, but this year there is so little money in the kitty that the scheme will run for the week between Christmas and the New Year only.

At its meeting on 5 November the Executive Board of the council approved the new car parking arrangements and also considered proposals from Carmarthen Town Council and the Llanelli Star. The Town Council's proposals were dismissed, but the Llanelli Star's suggestion of free parking vouchers to be distributed with the newspaper gained some traction.

Minutes of the meeting show that the Executive Board decided to run with the Star's scheme, but wanted to cut it back to just 4 hours on 24 December.

I know, I know, but bear with me.

As the council never tires of telling us, waiving car parking charges costs the council lots of money. So who was going to pick up the bill for free Christmas Eve parking? The Executive Board's keenness to limit the scope of the scheme suggests strongly that it is the Council and not the Llanelli Star which is taking the hit.

Now roll forward to last week's meeting of the full council, where several councillors asked about the voucher scheme. Colin Evans (Lab), a member of the Executive Board, told councillors that the scheme was initiated by the Llanelli Star. We wrote to other newspapers about it, he said, but added that this was a newspaper initiative and outside the council's control.

A little later Glynog Davies (Plaid) asked about the voucher scheme and the report on the blacklisting of the South Wales Guardian. This time we got a response from the chief executive himself. "We're not putting vouchers in newspapers", he told councillors. This was a newspaper initiative. As for the Guardian, this could be discussed another time, he purred, almost certainly aware that while councillors were getting worked up about council plans to shut down public conveniences, the Ministry of Truth was about to send out a press release attacking the newspaper.

Councillors may well wonder why, when the voucher scheme had nothing to do with the council, the council was busy promoting it and funding it.

Finally, the thought probably occurred to some of the legal brains in County Hall that if the council was seen to be working with just one newspaper on a discount scheme (a newspaper which just happens to be under the effective editorial control of the council) to the exclusion of others, it might risk falling foul of competition law.

That would explain why the statement issued last week makes such a big deal about the car parking voucher scheme.

The one mystery remaining is why the council found it necessary to be so disingenuous with councillors about the nuts and bolts of the voucher scheme.


Litesout said...

The Carmarthen spin-meisters used to keep their former tame cabinet member happy by inviting him along to CIPR awards nights in Cardiff. Wouldn't be at all surprised to learn if this is still going on under the new regime.

Patricia B said...

This council's arrogance knows no bounds. Their disingenuous, er, dishonest remarks regarding the Guardian newspaper is 'par for the course' when the council come under any form of scrutiny from whatever source. I praise the Guardian's editor for speaking out and asking for whoever wrote the derogatory piece on the newspaper to substantiate their accusations. I hope he persists and gets answers. I too asked the council to substantiate the highly questionable accusations being directed at me, but unlike Mike Lewis I had no way of publicising the accusations, which I would have loved to have done, nor could I publicise the fact that they refused to substantiate them. I then tried getting help from councillors, but found my e.mail address had been blocked (deliberately) which was illegal. I was left totally isolated and had no form of communicating with anyone within the council. Friends came to the rescue and had to deal with matters on my behalf. Shameful behaviour to silence genuine concerns. Good luck to the Guardian, and I hope they get much support.

Delyth Jenkins said...

I know the feeling well!

Emlyn Uwch Cych said...

Despite living in Emlyn Uwch Cych, I bought the South Wales Guardian today.

They deserve the solidarity.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to buy it regularly too, out of principle, even though I am out of the catchment area so to speak.