'We're not Stalinists', retorts council comms figure to Eric Pickles

The National Association of Local Councils (NALC) has distanced itself from media guidance labelled "Stalinist" by Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles.

Eric Pickles: Attacked recent guidance issued by the NALC
Eric Pickles: Attacked recent guidance issued by the NALC

Alan Jones, director of comms for the National Association of Local Councils (NALC), responded to an attack from Pickles yesterday on what the minister claimed was advice NALC issued around press contact with parish councils. 

The information included a case study of media guidance from Sutton Parish Council, which appears to imply that journalists must contact council clerks for permission to interview councillors.

The guidance in the case study also stated that councillors are not permitted to use the title 'councillor' if giving comments in a private capacity.

Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) Secretary Pickles called for what he dubbed "Stalinist guidance" to be withdrawn, stating it "will have a chilling effect on public life" and adding: "We should be championing the independent free press, not trying to suppress it."

However, Jones claimed that the example in question was "not meant as a template" for other councils to follow and said it was "unfortunate that the Secretary of State has got the wrong end of the stick".

"We are publishers and back the content and it is unfortunate it has been misinterpreted. This is not our guidance and it’s not a template, it was just an example of a media policy statement."

Within the Sutton Parish Council media policy, which was published in a chapter on ‘Working with others’ as part of a book released last autumn, it states: 

"The media shall contact the Council's Clerk if they want to (i) interview councillors or staff about its business decision and actions or (ii) obtain a verbal or written statement from the Council about its business decisions and actions."

Rules in the example also state: 

"An interview by the media with councillors or staff in their official capacity about the Council's business decisions and actions requires the Council's prior written consent. In any such interview, the media cannot ask about the personal views of the councillors or staff in their private capacity.

"Councillors and staff cannot communicate their personal views about the council's business, decision and actions, other than the views they hold in their official capacity.

"Councillors must also have prior written consent to talk to journalists and they cannot provide verbal or written statements to the press without consent, according to the policy."

Jones asserted that he had been in contact with DCLG earlier this week to clarify the issue, and said he was "surprised, disappointed and shocked" about the attack.

"They had asked for clarification and we were going to provide it before this happened. 

"We wrote the book to help navigate all the complex red tape and arcane laws because we want [parish councils] to engage even more with the media, public and other groups."

Following the clash, LGcommunications chairman Cormac Smith said that it was "entirely sensible" for organisations to "have clear protocols for how the media should be engaged with".

However, he warned: "It is not for us to 'give permission' to elected members to speak to the media – rather to encourage and facilitate it. It is certainly not for public officials to tell journalists what they can and can't do and who they can and cannot speak to."

In April, six local authorities were sent letters by the DCLG warning that they were in breach of the Publicity Code, which is now enforceable by the Government.

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