Thursday 4 June 2015

The End

This blog has been going for four years, and as just about any blogger will tell you, it wasn't meant to last this long.

For most of those four years, blogging has been a source of endless fascination, but I have felt for some time that it is time to move on, and earlier this year I set the general election as a target. That and the surprise change of administration on Carmarthenshire County Council seem to be as good a time as any to bring the blog to a close.

Whether the blog made any difference, I don't know, but I have tried to highlight some injustices and the dire state of local democracy in Carmarthenshire.

Earlier this year a large group of people gathered for the unveiling of a plaque in Llangennech recalling the life and work of Eileen Beasley. Eileen took on local government stupidity and obstinacy and eventually won, and it is perhaps no coincidence that this blog has regularly featured several other Carmarthenshire women, each very different, who have paid a high price for their bravery and determination.

Delyth Jenkins and the other whistleblowers deserve our support because any of us could one day end up being victims of the abuse that they have been fighting to expose.

A very different case has been that of Trisha Breckman and her partner. Trisha is a formidable fighter, and she has been subjected to harassment, humiliation and injustice on a frightening scale. Her fight is still going on, but there is hope that at last a corner may be about to be turned. In the final analysis her campaign is about making sure that we live by the rule of law, and that the law has to be applied without fear or favour.

Someone else who is hardly flavour of the month in County Hall is Cllr Siân Caiach, a full fledged member of the Awkward Squad if ever there was. Whether you agree with her or not, she is always worth listening to.

And finally, there is Jacqui Thompson. Jacqui was the victim of a miscarriage of justice, and perhaps one day the truth will come out about how this case was manipulated. The real Jacqui Thompson is about as far from the mythical beast created by County Hall as you can get.

Another frequent theme of this blog has been press freedom. The arrival on the scene of the Carmarthenshire Herald and its sister paper in Llanelli is a very positive development, and although the additional competition may feel painful to existing local titles, it will result in a much livelier local press and perhaps turn the tide of declining readership of local papers.

Welsh blogging has suffered some notable losses in the last few years, but there are plenty of first class writers out there covering all sorts of different subjects. In English the gold standards are Carmarthenshire Planning Problems and More, Old Grumpy, Jacob Williams, Jac o' the North, Oggy Bloggy Ogwr and Borthlas, who always has some eminently sensible observations to make on politics. John Dixon is a real loss to Welsh politics, and I hope he can be persuaded to take the plunge again.

Even more encouraging is the range and standard of blogs in Welsh, with some truly brilliant writing.  BlogMenai, Yr Hogyn o Rachub and Glyn Adda are particular favourites, and Cai Larsen's reporting and analysis of Irish politics is a uniquely valuable contribution.

Bloggers are often regarded as the poor cousins of "real" journalism, but these three, all very different, are often at least as good as any of the highly paid Fleet Street columnists.

But it's not all politics, and other favourites include Lowri Cooke Haf on film, television and the arts, while for anyone interested in gardening there is the beautiful and often lyrical Ar Asgwrn y Graig.

So a new chapter is about to begin, and it's time to tackle another project which has been simmering away on the backburner for too long.

Many thanks to all you readers and contributors, even the hostile ones.

Diolch yn fawr i bob un ohonoch chi.

Monday 1 June 2015

How to avoid negative PR

At the end of the day after doing all those difficult decisions, and when the ostriches came home to roost, Kevin Madge did for words what Roundup does to vegetation, and so one of the great ironies of his stint as leader of Carmarthenshire County Council was that he was a very accomplished user of the council's spin and PR machine.

Shortly after becoming leader, he spent two whole days closeted with the manager of the press office, and what we got was a marriage made in heaven.

Of course, it did not all start with Kevin Madge because Mark and Meryl had spent years building up the council's spin machine and bullying the local press, but all that work bore fruit in the reign of King Kev, including:
  • Blacklisting the South Wales Guardian for a mildly critical piece about roadworks.
  • An unprecedented series of attacks on the Wales Audit Office of which the North Korean Ministry of Information would have been proud.
  • An anonymous attack on opposition budget proposals in the pages of the Carmarthen Journal.
  • The infamous Sainsbury's press release claiming that Jonathan Edwards MP and Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM had sabotaged a planned supermarket development. That one earned Kev a ticking off by the Ombudsman for Public Services.
  • Claims that it would cost more to produce an annual A4 council information sheet than it does to produce the council's all-colour 40-odd page propaganda sheet six times a year (now scaled back to just 4 editions).
  • Endless press releases and photo opportunities featuring Kev and others wearing hard hats under banner headlines announcing that £x millions of pounds had been invested in this or that.
Meryl Gravell has never missed an opportunity for self-promotion either, and recently popped up at Glangwili Mansion, a luxury 5-star bed and breakfast establishment which she had given £10,000 to build a barbecue hut, so that guests would not have to leave the grounds in the evening and spend money on meals in other local establishments.

The old-fashioned idea that tourism should benefit the wider local economy is obviously, well, old-fashioned.

Glangwili Mansion sets out to cater for a better class of visitor, and so the closest most locals will get to it is the website, featuring Southfork-style photographs of the glamorous owners and a helicopter on the lawn. And all written in breathless, superlative English with not a word about the Welsh language or any suggestion that Wales is anything other than a slightly more hilly version of Hertfordshire.

As for Mark James, no other council chief executive in Wales ever had anything like the cultivated media exposure he has enjoyed - not even Bryn Parry-Jones who was a shy and retiring wallflower by comparison.

The Plaid group on the council has frequently been critical of the way in which the press office operated and the huge waste involved, and the press office has been noticeably quieter of late.

Carmarthenshire nevertheless maintains one of the largest press and PR operations in Wales, and is far better resourced than any of the local papers, and yet its output is tiny by comparison with what a single hack on a local rag is expected to churn out.

For the most part, its daily quota recently has been a handful of stories announcing that someone has been fined for dog fouling, while someone else has been fined for dropping a fag end, with a couple of local interest stories about local businesses thrown in, including one on Caws Teifi Cheese, which the press office helpfully tells us is based in Ceredigion, Wales - as opposed to Ceredigion in Sussex, presumably.

Just about all of these stories will appear as space fillers in local papers, so why we need a council "Newsroom" with its own online presence and a printed "newspaper" is a question which needs to be addressed by the new administration.

Carmarthenshire News is now produced in collaboration with other public sector bodies, such as Hywel Dda Health Board, Coleg Sir Gâr and Trinity St. Davids, all of which are under serious financial pressure. How Coleg Sir Gâr can justify spending money on this publication while having to cut staff and courses is something they might like to explain to students and staff.

But back to PR. Labour-led Kirklees Council in Yorkshire (that's in England, press office readers) recently found itself making headlines in the national press for firing 30 park keepers while maintaining a 40-strong PR department.

That's the sort of PR that PR staff are employed to prevent hitting the headlines.

Here is one council service the public would happily see cut.