There’s no doubt the New Labour/Tony Blair concept of spin has filtered down to anyone in the news.
The local (acting) assistant sub-director of the British Ditch Federation’s Leaf Moving Sub-committee (Lower Smallwood branch) would probably have a message he wanted to keep us on, and call and complain when we refused to adhere.
Sometimes it’s obvious why – political parties have lines to tow, even at town council level — but at other times less so: why firefighters order people not to speak to the Press after a fire is a mystery. Even Cheshire Fire Brigade’s Press officer claimed not to know the answer this week.
However, scrutiny is important, both from newspapers like us and by members of the public. Without it, there is no accountability for those in power, and even the smallest whiff of power can corrupt some (newspaper editors aside).
The Columbia Journalism Review recently reported on this, citing the case of Maryland’s Kent County News, whose editor Kevin Hemstock took his paper’s watchdog role literally: from his office he could see right down High Street. One day in 2010 he looked out of his window and saw three council members from a nearby town entering a lawyer’s office, and sensed trouble — Maryland law expects council meetings to be held in public, and be publicised in advance.
The Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board later ruled against the nearby town authority for convening in secret without prior notice (to discuss leaky water pipes, as it happens). The issue in hand — water pipes — was above board if not above ground but Mr Hemstock’s actions warned councillors and the community that the paper was watching.
Mr Hemstock has now left, the paper being taken over and less local, and an out-of-state company moved in, planning to build a wind farm with turbines “as tall as the Washington Monument”. Unlike the questionable meeting of three people spotted by an on-the-spot newshound, there was no one around to immediately warn of the impending despoliation.
The Columbia Journalism Review article was making the point that newspaper scrutiny was important and without it towns suffered, but in the absence of an active Press, citizens had a part to play: the turbine plans were eventually unearthed when an anti-turbine group pieced it all together.
Before Mr Hemstock left, his paper had made sure that local councils played by the rules, whether it was the library board’s failure to keep accurate meeting minutes, tackling one member’s chronic absenteeism or keeping an eye on planning.
Mr Hemstock, who runs an antique shop and is an elected member of the town council, says that without an attentive newspaper local governments “think they can run amok”. The Columbia Journalism Review writes that such information gaps are “increasingly the rule”, as news organisations shrink.
We’ve said before that our town councils are getting more responsibility and are coming under greater scrutiny, but it’s possible that some elected officials expect less scrutiny as the local media cuts back. Except for the Chronicle. We’re still as nosey as ever.
People don’t always like it. In recent months our editor has been threatened on social media (admittedly by someone who was all mouth and no trousers) while at least one of our reporters has been subject to offensive comments that go beyond what should be expected.
The efforts to spin a message are becoming universal.
This week we were invited to chat to Cheshire East Council’s new leader Rachel Bailey.
Years ago it would have been us, the council chief and a brew. This week the leader was accompanied by a Press officer and two senior Tories, and when we asked a question about Coun Sam Gardner, the disqualified director who managed to get a Cabinet place, Coun Bailey suddenly remembered she had to be somewhere else and left.
Sandbach town councillors are doubtless annoyed with us for pursuing the plans to redevelop the town’s market hall.
We suspect some people just wanted to push the thing through on the QT but a combination of dogged reporting by us and tip-offs from concerned residents means the council is now holding a fuller consultation.
Fair play to the council: it admits it’s perhaps in error and is asking people to contact it via an advert in the Chronicle this week.
Spending a lot of time in our archives as we do, it’s probably not got a whole lot worse but what has happened is that more information is more available. The Press and public can no longer be fed the morsels those in power want them to get.
Information that only a couple of decades ago would have been impossible to find is now just a few key strokes away. We once spent some frustrating days trying — and failing — to pin down a link between a plot of land and a public official; today it would be unearthed in an hour or two.
The case of Coun Gardner is a good example: a reader makes a complaint in a letter. We fact check it and find the document disqualifying him from being a director. We take the story up from there.
It’s true that with all this information out there, we often don’t have time to trawl through it all but when journalists and non-journalists combine to do the digging about, anything is possible.
The Columbia Journalism Review was looking at towns where citizens replaced the Press but hopefully round here the citizens can work with the Press to shine daylight into the darker corners of local government.