Tuesday 17 July 2012

MP Calls Carmarthenshire Council a 'Dictatorship'

As I have reported countless times on this blog the County Council has a real problem dealing with negative stories in the local press. I'm sure the same goes for the national press too but they're the bigger boys and will not succumb so easily to threats. I raised this issue only the other day (The question of editorial control againToday's Western Mail reports on the latest attempt at 'blackmail' against one of our smaller local papers, the South Wales Guardian. One of the Assistant Chief Executives was clearly tasked with 'glossing over' the leak and coming up with an explanation to minimise the dire message this story illustrates. He has failed. Threats to withdraw advertising from the Carmarthen Journal over the publication of negative stories were widely reported a couple of years ago and slammed by the AM and MP - clearly things are no better. It is curious that reputation management is such a high priority with County Hall that it is prepared, on a regular basis, via financial threats, to control the editorial output of our local papers. Shameful.
Here's the article;

"A county council has been written to by an Assembly member and an MP after evidence emerged that it was appearing to withdraw advertising from a local paper whose coverage of a story it did not like.
Earlier this month Carmarthenshire County Council pulled an advert from the South Wales Guardian - owned by the Newquest Group - in response to a story in which traders expressed concern about possible delays to a regeneration scheme for Ammanford's town centre.
The council's press manager emailed a member of the authority's marketing department stating; Due to the continuing negative publicity by the Guardian and the concerns expressed by all those present at the Ammanford town centre steering group held this week, I do not think we should be placing adverts with them until this issue is resolved, as the group felt the Guardian was not supportive of the town centre which they should be in a local paper.
In a joint letter to council leader, Kevin Madge, MP Jonathan Edwards and AM, Rhodri Glyn Thomas said;

"You will no doubt be aware that a number of members of Ammanford Town Council are themselves traders in this town. As democratically elected members of that town council they have every right to state their opinions and make representations on behalf of their electors. The South Wales Guardian, along with other newspaper publications, has the legitimate right to report the business of that and any other council. The decision by your county council to remove advertising completely undermines the notion of free press - a founding element of any democracy.
We can arrive at no other conclusion than to consider the council's bully boy tactics as an outrageous form of blackmail more benefitting the sort of actions seen in dictatorships"

The council's Assistant Chief Executive, Chris Burns responded "The intention was to meet with the editor next week to discuss concerns that had been raised in the steering group regarding a front page story in the Guardian. In the meantime one single advert was put on hold. We spend quite a lot with the Guardian and there's no intention to stop this advertising. As I understand it the trader's concerns were that the story appeared to suggest that the town was likely to be 'closed for Christmas'. The article concerned was not, I must say, particularly critical of the county council and I cannot see any reason why this would have led to us removing advertising completely"

Cneifwr has blogged on the issue; Called in for a chat - Carmarthenshire and press freedom 


Nospin said...

First they cancelled one advert but I did speak out.

apols to Martin Niemoller

Cneifiwr said...

Sinister is the only word for it. The Editor has been invited in for a chat? Is this Zimbabwe? And in his last sentence Burns appears to hint that there are circumstances in which criticism would lead to a complete loss of advertising.

Anonymous said...

There needs to be radical changes to the senior staff at this council. The rot is well and truly established and serious cleansing needs to take place. The big question is, who is going to take this on?

Anonymous said...

While what the county council is doing is disgraceful, there is a major problem within the county's three newspapers of lazy journalism and continuing demonstrations that they are more interested in selling advertising space than increasing circulation.

Anonymous said...

I'm certainly not a fan of the Carmarthenshire Council administration but I'm not sure why they should be obliged to fund this paper through their advertising.

I don't read the South Wales Guardian and I'm not familiar with this particular issue but some local papers feed the public a constant stream of negativity that often seems designed to convince us that we live in a dreadful world. I happen to think that this has a destructive effect on society.

If the (obviously flawed) Carmarthenshire Council decides to take their business elsewhere I think that is fair enough. Would you give money to a business if you knew the owner and staff hated you? If you chose not to, would you be 'blackmailing' them?

caebrwyn said...

@anon 22.06
Thanks for your comment and understand your point but
the council is a governing body not a private company nor an individual. Local, and indeed national papers should be able to report freely on any matter related to the council, subject only to issues such as data protection. Local papers should be able to investigate and report without fear of being silenced by said governing body. You are correct, the council is not obliged to advertise in the papers but they do and it has given bodies such as Carmarthenshire Council a handy lever with which to exercise editorial control. It is a shame that local papers have become so dependent on funding through advertising, I am sure it is not a situation they welcome.
I, personally would rather read a constant stream of negative reporting, if it is deserved, than sterile press releases aimed to please the top brass at County Hall. Freedom of the independent press from political or government control is a sign of a healthy democracy, not a dreadful world.
As Cneifwr says, sinister is the only word for it.

Cneifiwr said...

Anon @ 22.06 - your comment raises a couple of points which deserve clarification. Councils do have to place their legal notices (road closures, etc.) with local newspapers, but most of their advertising is discretionary.

If you look through the Guardian online, I don't think anyone would consider the paper to be a rabid, council-hating publication. Quite a lot of the reporting of council stories is actually very positive from the council's point of view. The article the council objected to is pretty mild by anyone's standards, too.

The aim of council advertising is surely to ensure that they get information across to local people as effectively as they can. Whether a paper is sometimes critical of the council should play no part in deciding where to place advertising. This is supposed to be a democracy, after all, where people are allowed to have different opinions!

Tessa said...

The Council's Spin (PR) department should have no say at all in how advertising is done. The departments placing the adverts will know the best routes to reach the target audience - and doing this sensibly and properly is making the best use of our - the residents/council taxpayers - resources. That our resources are being used as a tool to control and manipulate the local press rather than achieving the maximum value for every £1 spent is disgraceful, and I would have thought of questionable legality.