Hold The Front Page, an online site carrying news about the UK regional press, reports that 27% of local newspaper editors have been threatened with advertising blockades by councils and other public bodies because of editorial coverage they did not like, and that 40% of the editors surveyed who had been threatened said that the threats had been carried out.
This is nothing new in Carmarthenshire, where meddling by the county council with the editorial independence of our local newspapers has been going on for years. The most recent known example was the blacklisting by County Hall of the South Wales Guardian (see previous posts such as this) late last year.
The survey conducted by Hold The Front Page was anonymous, something which is if anything more disturbing than the fact that there are a lot of town hall bullies at work, because such is the climate of fear that very few of the victims are willing to speak out.
Just as with playground bullies, the only way the cycle can be broken is if the offending local authorities are named and held to account. Hoping that over-mighty council leaders and chief executives and their PR departments will eventually go away is as naive as it is forlorn.
The peculiar half-secret announcement by Carmarthenshire County Council earlier this week that it wants to set up focus groups next week to consider how the council should "further ensure people in Carmarthenshire have access to high quality, accurate information", tells us how the council's press and PR departments like to see themselves.
The view from County Hall is that it churns out top quality, accurate and reliable information which then gets distorted and misreported by irresponsible elements within the press. That was the original justification for launching the council's newspaper.
Examples of very poor quality council press releases are legion in Carmarthenshire. Sometimes they are just gibberish; sometimes they recycle quotes multiple times as they cobble together "new" stories; and sometimes the claims don't stand up to even cursory examination. Sometimes the "information" being conveyed is simply spin, political propaganda or plain untrue (e.g. the Sainsbury's press release).
A prime example of how little importance is attached to accurate and truthful reporting came shortly after news broke that the South Wales Guardian was being blacklisted.
The council's press office went to work to tell us, with a completely straight face, that the withdrawal of advertising had nothing to do with criticism by the paper of the council. It was purely a commercial decision based on the newspaper's circulation, suggesting for good measure that the paper should stop whining and try to sell more copies.
A couple of months later, advertising with the Guardian quietly resumed, giving the lie to the council's earlier statement. So much for truth, reliability and accuracy.
As the president of the Newspaper Society, Adrian Jeakings told Hold The Front Page:
Local newspapers’ ability to hold authority and the powerful to account
on behalf of their readers underpins local democracy in Britain and we
are in serious danger of seeing this become irreparably damaged.
Let's hope that someone sticks that quote up on the walls of the offices of the Carmarthen Journal and Llanelli Star.