Sunday 9 December 2012

Press censorship - how the Carmarthen Journal was muzzled

One of the recurring themes of this blog since it began just over 18 months ago has been the issue of press freedom in Carmarthenshire, and the county council's obsession with news management and public relations. There have been instances of bullying and intimidation of the press by other Welsh local authorities, such as Cardiff City Council in the past, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Carmarthenshire remains in a league of its own, and a picture is beginning to emerge of systematic and wholesale interference by the local authority in the running of our newspapers. Information has now come to light from several reliable sources who have witnessed the extent of the council's control at very close quarters.

A couple of days ago this blog reported on the council's latest attempts to bring one small local newspaper, the South Wales Guardian, into line by withholding advertising. There have been at least two such attacks on that newspaper this year.

A much bigger target has been the titles published by Northcliffe Media, until recently a division of the Daily Mail and General Trust. The newspapers include the Carmarthen Journal, Llanelli Star and South Wales Evening Post, and together they account for the bulk of local press readership in Carmarthenshire.

This process began more than ten years ago when the new regime, as it was then, formed the view that the local press was "anti-council" and that something needed to be done about it. Soon departmental meetings were being told that some of the troublemakers had been "sorted".

The next step came with the launch of the council's own newspaper, the "Community News" (forerunner of today's bloated "Carmarthenshire News"). For the first couple of years the Carmarthen Journal naively agreed to distribute copies tucked inside its own newspaper, but the council newspaper was steadily beefed up and the arrangement ended as it became clear that the council was bent on producing an alternative to independent local newspapers. As the finances of the local press deteriorated, the council newspaper began draining advertising revenue away from local newspapers, although despite repeated freedom of information requests, the true extent of the council's spend on its newspaper remains shrouded in secrecy.

In what now looks like the last golden age of the Carmarthen Journal, the paper came under the editorship of Robert Lloyd (April 2006 to October 2008). The newspaper has been through five editors in just ten years.  Robert Lloyd did what most local newspapers had always done, and reported on the activities of the council, warts and all. The newspaper gave a voice to local readers, and sometimes the paper ran opinion pieces which were critical of aspects of what the council was doing.

Unfortunately, the rise in the council's ambitions was matched by the decline in the fortunes of the local press, and Robert Lloyd and successive editors have found themselves under pressure to cut costs and protect revenue while coming under attack from the council. The council discovered that a much more effective approach was to bypass editors and go straight to the proprietors who were much more concerned about their bottom line than airy-fairy notions of press freedom.

Certainly the council took its "concerns" to Northcliffe Media towards the end of 2009, and it may well have done so on earlier occasions. Before it did that, the council fired another shot across the bows of the press when it unveiled plans for "Carmarthen TV", which was intended to be the next phase in the creation of a multi-media propaganda platform. The channel, which still lingers in a dark and dusty corner of the internet, carried interviews with the chief executive and other council bigwigs, along with films promoting council schemes. Carmarthen TV turned out to be a complete flop, but it may have had its uses in driving home to  newspaper executives the seriousness of the council's intentions.

Possibly to the surprise of the council, the showdown with Northcliffe was successful, and the formula of docility = advertising revenue was established. The bullies had got away with it. What followed was an uneasy year and a half of generally good behaviour by the paper and its sister publications, with occasional lapses.

The crunch came in mid-2011 with the arrest of blogger Jacqui Thompson for trying to film part of a council meeting on her mobile phone. The story and its immediate aftermath was reported by the Carmarthen Journal in depth, and for a couple of weeks it seemed that the newspaper had rediscovered its former voice.

What happened next is something we can only speculate about, but clearly there was another dramatic intervention, and the newspaper found itself put into "special measures". If Northcliffe wanted any more advertising from the council, the Carmarthen Journal would have to submit itself to the sort of interference and control normally associated with military juntas, Soviet "people's democracies" and dictatorships.

Since advertising revenue from the council was roughly the same as the paper's entire wages bill, the Journal, which has weathered more than 200 years, faced a stark choice between going down with its journalistic integrity intact and all hands on board, or bending its knee to the council.

From that point on, it was made clear to the Journal's reporters that any copy which contained criticism of the council would not be published. Reporters often found their copy extensively re-written to make it acceptable to County Hall. From time to time the council also seems to have submitted its own copy for publication, such as the re-hash of the 6 month-old CSSIW report on residential care which coincided with the BBC's documentary on the Delyth Jenkins case.

Mrs Jenkins has pointed out that she was contacted by a reporter from the Journal at the time, and provided him with documents relating to her case. Needless to say, the resulting story did not get past the red pencils.

Reporters from the Journal who were used to dealing with local authority press offices elsewhere were in for a rude awakening when they had to speak to County Hall. There was an atmosphere of menace, obstructiveness, intimidation, and vindictiveness towards people who for whatever reason had upset the council. Reporters were told by the council's Ministry of Truth not to follow up certain leads, and questioned closely why they wanted this or that piece of information.

One reporter who had submitted a freedom of information request relating to the pay of senior officers was called in to be told that one of the senior officers subject to the request had called the editor in person and "suggested" that the request be withdrawn. It was, for fear of the consequences.

The editor probably thought that the letters page was safe from council interference, and a letter from Mrs Lesley Williams was published in February of this year complaining about the use of public money to fund the chief executive's libel indemnity.

One of the then senior councillors wrote in the following week. He ignored the issue of the libel indemnity and attacked Mrs Williams for her role in a planning dispute years earlier about the St Catherine's Walk shopping precinct. Readers were genuinely outraged, but there followed a letter from the chief executive himself, again attacking Mrs Williams, and the correspondence was closed by order, leaving the last word with the chief executive.

Shortly afterwards, various other stories were spiked by order on the grounds that they were "political" and therefore not suitable for publication in the run-up to the council elections in May.

Whether this regime is still in place after the recent change of ownership at Northcliffe is not clear, but the  double-page spread "interview" with the chief executive a couple of weeks ago suggests that so far nothing has changed.

While the Leveson report has thrown the spotlight on victimisation of people by the tabloid press, we should also spare a few minutes to ask what protection is given to the press and other news media when over-mighty arms of government or business tycoons decide to gun for them. We can sympathise with the aims of Hacked Off, but we also need to remember that the press and media organisations can be victims too.  Just think of Sir James Goldsmith and Private Eye; Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and the BBC as well as our own local bullies.


Ap William said...

These are very serious allegations. One accepts that the regional press is foremost a commercial operation but the wilful suppression of information in the manner described here is alarming. Such instances flag up the key difference between the freedom of the press which has been greatly discussed of late and the independence of the media which is apparently under threat in Carmarthenshire.

Delyth Jenkins said...

Maybe they were yelled at to 'back off a bit!'

Lesley Williams said...

An excellent - if spine-chilling - account of the influence being exerted over a venerable and honourable local press. I can testify to the fact that I have been refused the right of reply to several personal attacks on me and unfortunately, the neutering of the press is leading to a decline in circulation as many people don't bother to buy local papers any more because they no longer report any contentious issues.

Cneifiwr said...

Anna, many thanks for the interesting comment. Bearing in mind Carmarthenshire's near-win in last year's Private Eye Legal Bully of the Year Awards, I think we'd better keep that one to ourselves.

Anna Mosity said...

Cneifiwr - fair point! Wouldn't want to get you distracted with legal cases!
I am sure there are many people in Llanelli that could give you more details on that one if you want them.

Anonymous said...

Good article. Is there a case for an alternative community newspaper that would reach beyond the blogosphere and tell the truth about this awful council?

Anonymous said...

The ombudsman has just arrived in County Hall to question the Press Office about the Sainsbury's debacle.Would love to be a fly on the wall

Delyth Jenkins said...

8 months on and I still haven't had my paperwork returned from the Journal office.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the Ombudsman has several things on the agenda. He might want to know why he seems to be so regularly undermined by the Council.