Thurrock Council have recently announced they will ‘blacklist media organisations that do not accurately reflect its position in news stories’: Essex local authority says it will blacklist journalists if their stories ‘do not reflect the council’s position accurately’ – http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/essex-local-authority-says-it-will-blacklist-journalists-if-their-stories-do-not-reflect-the-councils-position-accurately/ They also announced that only regulated media outlets will be allowed a place in the ‘media area’ for council meetings while others will be required to sit with the public.
It may come as a surprise that titles not currently signed up to any press regulator include The Guardian, Observer, Financial Times, Evening Standard and Independent. Given the amount of new development planned for Thurrock as part of their regeneration strategy, it’s not inconceivable that one of these ‘unregulated’ titles would want to send a journalist down to cover a council meeting. They would find themselves sitting with the public while the poodles from Newsquest titles such as the Echo and Thurrock Gazette would be getting a warm welcome in the ‘media area’. The Echo and Gazette are currently regulated by the Independent Press Standards Organisation.
From our own experience, getting answers from Thurrock Council hasn’t always been as easy a process as it could be. As with many other local authorities, the default mode tends to be ‘keep it secret’ if there’s no statutory obligation to tell residents what’s going on and how their money is being spent. In an ideal world, the default should be transparency on council dealings ranging from policy setting and implementation through to being more open as to how our money is being spent.
Unfortunately we don’t live in an ideal world which is why we need a free media to hold local authorities to account. It doesn’t help when local media outlets such as the Echo and Thurrock Gazette operate with the minimum number of trained journalists they can get away with using so the owners, Newsquest can continue to rake in money for their shareholders. The problem is that when local news outlets operate with low staffing levels, they tend to slap up press releases from local councils with little in the way of questioning. As for investigative journalism…forget it!
So, we have a situation where Thurrock Council think they can get away with manipulating the news agenda to suit their own ends… This will be achieved by relegation to the ‘naughty bench’ in the public gallery of any reporters who may be asking too many awkward questions or holding the feet of the council over the fire to get at the truth that residents have the right to know. The council need a sharp reminder that they are are supposed to be our servants, not our masters!