Despite cuts to just about everything else, this particular "service" remains pretty much intact, and operates on a scale which would be the envy of the press and PR outfits of quite a few of the smaller member states of the United Nations.
One of the key functions of the press officers is to deal with questions from media organisations, and a high proportion of those will come from the local press. To put things into context, there are far more press officers in County Hall than there are journalists working on any of the local papers.
In addition to dealing with queries from newspapers and other media organisations, the press office says that it churns out around 2,000 press releases a year. There are around 250 working days a year, so that works out at about 8 press releases per day.
The protocol distinguishes between three types of news story. Press releases
- "Promote ‘good news’ stories- for example the opening of a new facility such as a school or success at securing grant aid.
- Deal with a potentially negative news story - for example closure of facilities or an increase in Council Tax.
- Provide public information - for example disruptions due to bad weather, public protection information or forthcoming events."
Journalists sometimes have to be warned off reporting stories which might show you in a less than positive light. Editors have to be cajoled and threatened when they step out of line. If they persist, you may have to complain to the proprietors and seek to have the offending individual removed. Valuable advertising revenue may be withheld or doled out as circumstances dictate, and newspapers which behave themselves can be rewarded with preferential access to information.
|Fair and balanced
All of this takes up a lot of effort, energy and resources, and the holy grail is "fair and balanced" coverage. Left to its own devices this process ends up with the sort of press people in Eastern Europe used to enjoy in which harvests were always bountiful and industrial production targets always smashed, even if the supermarket shelves were empty.
When politicians and civil servants start deciding what is a fair and balanced press, you can be sure that the end result will be anything but fair or balanced.
The council's press and media protocol is also very hot on reminding staff that they must not say anything which may bring the council, its officers or members into disrepute. Fair enough, but completely lost on the Press Office is the irony that in recent years, and earlier this year in particular, it was the Press Office which did more to bring the council into disrepute than anything else, with a stream of toxic press releases spewing out of County Hall like radioactive emissions from Chernobyl.
It is probably no coincidence that the Ministry of Spin and News Management has been very quiet since the chief executive stepped down from his duties in February. Attacks on critics, opposition politicians and the Wales Audit Office have stopped, and the daily output now consists of stories about bug hotels, literary festivals, keep fit initiatives and the like.
Whether we need such a Rolls Royce service to tell us about 90 year-olds using the Carmarthen Leisure Centre or a kids' Zumbathon to raise money for Help for Heroes is another matter. The same is true of the bi-monthly council newspaper with its regular crop of pics of Cllr Colin Evans posing in a hard hat and fluorescent jacket.
In neighbouring Ceredigion the county council survives with a much more modest press office, and the last press release on the council's website is dated 1 November 2013. No bumper council newspaper there.
But back to the meeting of the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee on 24 March where one of the assistant chief executives announced that there were "weaknesses in the system" before proposing a cross-party group to examine the council's press and media protocol.
Despite not being a member of the committee, Cllr Pam Palmer (Ind) was on hand to try to steady the ship. As someone who has been at the forefront of efforts over the years to remove democratic accountability and transparency from the council's constitution and as the leading opponent of filming council meetings, it is perhaps not surprising that press and media should be a part of her Executive Board portfolio (along with undercover surveillance).
As the committee members prepared to vote on a proposal to review the council's press and media operations, Pam called out to remind everyone of the need to put pressure on the local press to ensure that it remained "fair and balanced".
Fortunately her warning went unheeded, and Carmarthenshire's answer to Malcolm Tucker and Alastair Campbell will now come under the spotlight.