We live in interesting times for independent news media. The regional media has been in crisis for years, and councils which used to run their own newspapers have been slapped down by Eric Pickles.
There has been an explosion of local news blogs over the last several years, some of which report on the activities of their local councils. Some Councils don’t like it up ‘em. Here are three incidents from the last week or two.
In Wales Carmarthernshire Council have the police arrest blogger Jacqui Thompson (part 2, video) for daring to try and record a public meeting on a mobile phone. David Allen Green researches the details at the New Statesman, and comes to the conclusion that there may be no basis for such an arrest.
In Nottingham the City Council invoke (pdf) the “vexatious” provisions of the Freedom of Information Act to avoid giving Andy Platt of the local scrutiny blog NCCLols the information he has requested:
In light of your continuing requests for information, Nottingham City Council has reached the decision that the two requests as referenced above are vexatious and in accordance with section 14(1) of the Freedom of Information Act, we are not obliged to comply with these requests. There is no public interest test applicable to the use of section 14.
Andy gives a sharp reply:
NCC has previous form for using my blogging activities against me, you previously attempted to use it against me in my employment tribunal. These continuing efforts are a threat to my freedom of expression and a clear attempt at deflecting criticism.It’s worth a read.
(I’ll return to the NCCLols case in a separate article, since Andy has been pressurised in several different ways).
In the South East, in that part of the country even more conscious of its own identity than South Wales, Thanet, the local authority, Thanet District Council, take a refreshingly direct approach – on Monday this week they just decided to stop sending press releases to bloggers by email:
As you will no doubt be aware, local government in line with the rest of the public sector, is experiencing tough times and resources are becoming increasingly scarce. Thanet District Council is no exception to this. As a result, the council has been looking carefully at how all its resources are used. Following a review of the service offered by the council’s Press Office, it has been agreed that we will be changing our approach in the future to concentrate our resources on the mainstream media.
In light of this, we have reviewed the people that our press releases are being distributed to and, with the availability of RSS feeds, we are now reducing this list to cover mainstream newspapers, radio and TV only, in line with our new approach. As a result, we will be shortly removing you from the press release mailing list.
In future all requests for information from bloggers to Thanet District Council will be dealt with by the Freedom of Information team:
Our latest press releases can all be found at: http://www.thanet.gov.uk/news/latest_press_releases.aspx
If you have any requests for information in the future, please could you send these through firstname.lastname@example.org as any enquiries sent through to the press office in the future will be sent on to this address for actioning.
There are a few slightly obvious questions that could perhaps be asked, especially given the “saving resources” justification for the change:
- How much extra does it cost to have another couple of dozen addresses on an email list?
- Why is it cheaper to process a request through the Freedom of Information office than the Press Office?
- Why are you not interested in locally orientated blogs some of which receive up to 20k page impressions per month?
- Is the delay of several weeks which can happen to FOI Requests anything to do with your decision?
- Are you, by any chance, trying to control the local news?
In Thanet there is more local political news in a small space than I would have thought possible. Their politics are certainly … interesting:
Last year Thanet lost a Conservative Lord Mayor after a conviction for cruelty over the death of a kitten he failed to protect from fleas. (Updated – see comment
Edwin Watt-Ruffell (I kid you not) remains a Councillor.)
Also last year, a very senior Council Officer was reported by the local paper referring to the electorate as “arseholes”.
Thanet folk quizzed by papers and television have shown considerable animosity towards the Turner project.
How little their opinions matter was brought home when I lunched some years ago with a very senior council officer.
“Why,” I asked, “do you think people are so opposed to it?”
He smirked and said: “If you ask a********s, that’s the answer you would expect.”
This arrogance typifies the “we know best” stance that has underpinned the Turner cause since it reared its ugly concrete head 10 years ago.
And in January 2011 there was a major kerfuffle when Labour Councillor Mark Nottingham wrote a 9 page open letter to his Group Leader alleging all sorts of shenanigans in the deselection of himself as a candidate for the 2011 local elections. This brought a steaming reponse in a press release, alleging defamation and all the usual sins; it could easily have drafted by Mr Carter or Mr Fuck.
I’d say that if Thanet District Council didn’t want to have such fruity reporting, then they should focus on the overly-fruity conduct of their Councillors and staff, rather than trying to close down the 0.1% of the public who are actually taking a real interest in what the Council is doing.
One irony is that one of the blogs now closed was created purely from the Council’s Press Releases, and given search engines, blogs and Council Websites, it was likely to have been receiving a lot more attention from the general public than Thanet Council’s own version. It closed two days ago:
As the main content of this blog was Thanet district council Press releases that the council are no longer prepared to send me I have suspended posts to this blog until further notice.
There’s another irony, though. The Council had already tried to control their Councillors, and failed miserably.
Two years ago Thanet District Council tried to bring it’s own Local Councillor bloggers under some sort of control, when the Council published a 6500 word “Thanet District Council Draft/ Blogging Guidance and Protocol“.
The failure of the draft protocol to bring Councillors under control suggests that the latest “shan’t talk to bloggers” strategy has about as much success as an attempt to introduce a nudist beach on the Thames opposite the House of Commons.
Only in Thanet.
Or, as I say, in Wales; or Nottingham; or the Isle of Wight Coroner’s Court; or Nottingham Plan B. And there are plenty of others. It’s worth noting that in the Isle of Wight case, Ventnor blog is as significant a local news site as the local paper, and we should celebrate the Isle of Wight Council who permit reporting and even do their own.
In other words, this is just one more battle in the long war for a civil society with some small degree of transparency. As I say, they still don’t like it up ‘em.
If you want something non-political, try Naked in Thanet (blog, Facebook), which is an excellent photographic project run by Peter Checksfield since 2005, involving photographs of real women taken all over Thanet; it is just what it says on the tin.
Photo credit for Miss Margate 1968: Captain Snaps.