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Town Hall Secrecy Blamed for Decline in Local Democracy

Council decision-making is more secretive today than ever, making it increasingly difficult for the press or public to scrutinise the workings of local government and thereby undermining local democracy.

That is the conclusion of a paper given by James Morrison, senior lecturer in journalism at Kingston University, to the 60th Political Studies Association Annual Conference in Edinburgh recently.

Despite a “blizzard of legislation” aimed at improving the appearance of local service accountability, “council decision-making in many areas… is more secretive today than in the past,” Morrison says in his paper: ‘Spin, smoke-filled rooms, and the decline of council reporting by local newspapers: the slow demise of town hall transparency’.

He points to the Local Government Act 2000 which led to the introduction of Westminster-style council cabinets and executives and the appointment of political assistants modelled on ministerial special advisors.

Local newspaper editors, the Newspaper Society and the Campaign for Freedom of Information campaigned successfully during the passage of the Act against the Government’s original intention that the new cabinets should be under no obligation to meet in public at all – reversing long-standing public rights of access to traditional council and committee meetings. The legislation was amended to require cabinets to meet in public for discussion of key decisions. But as the paper points out, a loophole identified by the CFOI in 2001 can still be exploited which enables private cabinet discussions of decisions which have been delegated to individual cabinet members.

The combined effect has been to maximise councils’ ability “to take policy decisions in secret, while minimising that of the press, public or indeed councillors shorn of ‘frontbench’ roles, to scrutinise or challenge their actions.”

The paper highlights the recent scandal about child protection procedures in Doncaster which was “exposed only after a tenacious local newspaper, the Doncaster Free Press, doggedly followed a trail starting with a reference to ‘deep-rooted’ issues around its services for children and young people in an otherwise routine Audit Commission CPA report.”

A series of follow-up stories eventually led to the newspaper’s revelation nine months later about a serious case review involving a ten-month-old baby. Six further serious case reviews emerged, the town’s elected mayor was accused of presiding over a ‘culture of secrecy’ and he eventually resigned.

“While the story did eventually get out – through the efforts of the local press – how much sooner might it have been exposed if the case reviews had been discussed more openly in council meetings?” asks Morrison.

His paper argues that the spread of cabinet government has in fact acted as a disincentive to the local media. “Meetings of council committees and the full council – once energetic arenas for public debate and knife-edge votes on controversial issues (not to mention sources of lively news copy) – have been reduced to little more than a rubber-stamp… With council meetings downgraded to the status of talking-shops, it’s little wonder that today’s local newspaper editors – faced with ever-tighter budgets and 24-hour deadlines for their web operations – are voting with their feet and ceasing to cover them.”

It draws on existing research, including a 2009 Press Association survey of local newspapers which found that nearly two-thirds of titles were using fewer local government resources – from press releases to meeting papers – than ten years previously, and more than one in five were employing fewer council reporters.

“One of the most common reasons given for newspapers’ failure to attend meetings routinely was the fact that, with the advent of cabinet government, many newsworthy decisions are no longer made in public,” says Morrison. “After all, why send a reporter who could otherwise be providing vital copy for the web and overnight editions out of the office to report from a meeting at which little of value is being debated or voted on – and anything that is will merely be rubber-stamped, having been all-but decided on in the privacy of the cabinet room beforehand?”

The paper presents new evidence including his own survey of local newspaper journalists and editors. This confirms the impact of the LGA 2000 on their ability to keep tabs on council decisions, although the view from many respondents was that “most commercial newspapers were savvy enough to overcome barriers to scrutinising the workings of their council.”

Council-funded publications are exacerbating the problem, according to Morrison. His research, including evidence from the Newspaper Society and FOI requests, demonstrates “the genuine threat some commercial newspapers are facing as a result of the competitive recruitment, advertising, and editorial policies adopted by a new generation of professionally produced, council-funded publications,” such as East End Life (Tower Hamlets), Greenwich Time, Hackney Today and H&F News (Hammersmith & Fulham).

While some local authorities such as Doncaster have axed their expensive “council propaganda” sheets, others such as Tower Hamlets continue to publish despite repeated calls to close down the weekly East End Life and save the council £670,000 a year.

“Just as more and more local authority publications are starting to look like ‘real’ newspapers, so, too, is the content of some titles mimicking that of the traditional press,” says Morrison. “Set alongside professional-looking production values, this can add to the impression in the minds of less media-savvy consumers that they are reading a genuine newspaper, rather than a council PR bulletin.”

All this means that “the most prevalent interpretation of many councils’ policy decisions and their effectiveness is the inherently one-sided, invariably positive, yet increasingly journalistic output flowing from their own spin machines.”

Morrison concludes that local authority accountability is being jeopardised “primarily because of a succession of recent changes to the way in which councils conduct their business.” But he believes that new initiatives from the local press do give some cause for optimism that thorough and objective reporting of council issues will continue into the future.

Notes:

  • James Morrison will also be speaking at the Press Gazette Local Heroes Conference during Local Newspaper Week on 14 May.
  • The Newspaper Society is conducting an Editors Survey for Local Newspaper Week (10-16 May) which examines local newspapers’ coverage of courts, councils and other public bodies.

For further information please contact Lynne Anderson on 020 763 27421 or lynne_anderson@newspapersoc.org.uk.

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