Thursday 3 April 2014

Malcolm Tucker in a Frock - the Ministry of Spin under the spotlight

The subject of Carmarthenshire County Council's relationship with the press came up at a meeting of the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee at its meeting on 24 March as councillors were presented with a document headed "Press and Media Protocol".

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."
For most journalists there is no good or bad news - just news, but if you have built into your charter a black and white view of the world in which there are "good" and "bad" news stories, it follows that the news needs to be managed and coverage monitored.

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.


Anonymous said...

Have just posted this to Jacquie's blog - Pickles cracking down on councils using publicity politically:

Anonymous said...

They need to wake up to the facts:
That this is no longer the Victorian era where the citizens are duly grateful for the wise counsel and munificent decisions taken by the good and great aldermen.
That not everything the Most Expensive Chief Executive in Wales and his legal team say is necessarily so (as the Council so well knows, to its considerable financial and reputational cost).
That the public have a right to know where their taxes are being spent, and under what conditions.
That the public expects greater transparency, not less.
That "making hard decisions" in "good faith" will not absolve poor decision-making.

Anonymous said...

As long as Mark James is returning officer, I will not be voting in the European Elections in May. I think the whole situation is a farce! Haven't they thought of the consequences if Gloucester Police find there is a case to answer?

Anonymous said...

I have heard of many making the same comment!

Anonymous said...

The Returning Officer is only a figurehead for a whole lot of other people who do the real work of keeping the electoral role up to date, do the paperwork for elections, count, etc. Really, the money paid to James ought to be shared out amongst these people ( some being council officers doing their day jobs, others earning extra on the side by being counters, supervisors at polling stations etc).

But please vote: it does no harm to him if you don't vote and voting is something precious which we should use.

Anonymous said...

I know what you're saying but maybe it's the only way to get the powers to be to take notice of public feeling because they aren't taking much notice of the public at the moment.