We’ll lose honesty by asking councillors to mind Ps and Qs

Part of me quite likes the fact that our first citizen chided his fellow councillors the other day for their language and behaviour in a meeting.

On the one hand, it is nice to know that the Lord Mayor, councillor Denver Tolley sees his role as more than simply ceremonial and is prepared to take such a stand.

However, I suspect he has his work cut out in trying to stop elected members in the council chamber from “airing their dirty linen in public”, as he put it.

In other words – preventing them from speaking their minds in the presence of Her Majesty’s press.

Apparently, councillor Tolley was annoyed and embarrassed at the way in which some of his colleagues were conducting themselves and their outspoken criticism of council officers.

The Lord Mayor didn’t appreciate hearing planning officers described as “worse than tadpoles” at negotiating funding from developers.

Mr Tolley is quite right to be annoyed – it’s an awful slight against tadpoles.

You see, the language of the council chamber may be colloquial, ill-judged or misinformed at times.
But it has been this way in Stoke-on-Trent for the 20 years that I have been a journalist.

At least they are flagging up issues that matter to the taxpayers of our city rather than trying to score points like our Honourable Friends on either side of the House of Commons.

We can quibble about the calibre of local councillors until the cows come home but there is something refreshingly honest about an elected member venting his or her spleen in the presence of the media.

Granted, some are playing to the gallery, but many are simply attempting to articulate their frustrations, and the concerns of the people in their ward, against a local authority where for many years senior officers have been a law unto themselves.

The Lord Mayor’s attempt to sanitise debate in the council chamber has echoes of wider efforts by the public sector to control the flow of information to the press and media in the mistaken belief that they can somehow dictate the news agenda.

This is because some councillors and council staff feel that local newspapers – like the one employing yours truly – treat them unfairly and only report bad news.

It is rubbish, of course – a misconception built up over time among people who aren’t very good at handling criticism.

The truth was borne out by the city council’s own audit of The Sentinel’s coverage a couple of years ago which stated that more than 70 per cent of articles were either positive or neutral towards the authority and its services. Argument settled then.

However, this doesn’t prevent nonsensical edicts being delivered to my colleagues here at Sentinel HQ. Such as the one earlier this month which told our reporters they were no longer allowed to telephone cabinet members directly and had to go through the council’s Press Office.

“Control-freakery beyond belief” was how councillor Mike Barnes described the policy. He’s spot on.

When will the powers-that-be realise that they can’t gag councillors and they can’t prevent local papers from championing the communities they serve?

Surely it is part of the job of a councillor to communicate with taxpayers and, by the same token, it is the job of the local press to challenge, inform and educate their readership.

To that end, how pleased I was to read that the new Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has pledged a crackdown on council-funded free newspapers and magazines.

He slammed “town hall Pravdas” as he called them – labelling council newsletters “propaganda on the rates dressed up as local reporting”.

Too right. I should know – I worked as a cub reporter writing for the city council’s own newspaper for five years and let me say that is remarkable how you can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Thankfully, most taxpayers see straight through the spin and the soft soap routine peddled by such publications.

The fact is, ordinary people rely on local journalists – independent of party politics and free of red tape – to tell them the bad news when it needs telling.

Just as they rely on their councillors to speak their minds without fear of censorship by other politicians or interference from suits in the Press Office.

Eminent British publisher Lord Northcliffe once wrote: “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.”

Amen to that.

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