Will the National Association of Local Councils' guidance to town and parish councillors not to talk to journalists without prior consent have a chilling effect on public life? Eleanor Hoggart, assistant practice director of Legal Services Lincolnshire, and a one-time parish councillor herself, looks at the lessons for local authorities.
Pickles concerned over councils' approach to media, LNB News 19/06/2014 25
Guardian, 19 June 2014: The Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, has voiced his concerns over a media policy issued by the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) advising town and parish councillors not to speak to journalists without prior consent from the local authority clerk. Mr Pickles believes the policy could have a chilling effect on public life.
Is central government's response to the NALC guidelines justified?
What NALC has issued is only guidance – it is just a suggestion. NALC covers a vast range of councils, from the very tiny – with only seven-to-nine people meeting once a month in a village hall – to the enormous, such as Blackpool, which has a substantial budget and a permanent staff.
However, regardless of the size of the individual bodies, NALC fully recognises that the vast majority of parish councils are well equipped to take their own decisions, and I am positive that most of these do not feel it is inappropriate to be offered advice on how best to respond to media enquiries. Political parties don't think twice about offering guidance to their ministers, so it is disappointing to see NALC so disparaged for what they have attempted to do here.
In issuing the guidance, NALC is seeking to advise on the best way for local councils and authorities to develop their media strategy. So few people really know how they should go about raising the profile of the work they do – posting the minutes of the parish council meeting on the local noticeboard is no longer enough. NALC is right to encourage local councils to raise their profile and to offer assistance on how best to harness the benefits of tools such as social media.
What NALC is not doing is saying that one media strategy will suit all local councils and authorities, but simply that when a council has made a decision and a spokesperson is talking to the press, they must be aware that they are doing so as councillors and not as a lay person.
Parish councils are one branch of politics that gets very little support, so NALC is right to suggest these guidelines. NALC is not saying that all media communications must go through the chairman. If that was the case, then objections would be perfectly valid. Rather, the guidelines have been issued simply to get parish councillors thinking about media issues so they know how to avoid the inevitable pitfalls as and when it becomes necessary.
The reaction to the publication of the guidelines from the Communities Secretary is disproportionate. Referring to the guidelines as 'Stalinist' is really not very helpful.
To what extent does central government policy affect local media strategy?
It is not improper for central government to have a view on how local authorities use the media in relation to council papers. There is a dichotomy here – throughout local authorities, the principle of localism, of getting on with it, is very strong, but at the same time, no one in local government is going to knock the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) for having an interest in what we do.
The government does of course have a strongly-held view that politics should be left to the politicians, but among parish councils there is no political agenda. Government's interest in relation to this sphere is more in line with offering assistance to keep parish councils out of the media bear pit, suggesting a framework within which to operate rather than prescribing a set of rules by which councils must abide.
What should local authorities consider when constructing a media policy?
Local authorities' media policy needs to be practical for them – there is no 'one size fits all' solution –and most parish councils are capable of designing this for themselves. However, I suspect that only bigger councils will consider constructing a media policy and actually do something about it.
What are the challenges in creating such a policy?
Local councils need to want to engage with the media, so primarily they should have an interest in and understanding of what they are doing. Often, many communities at the parish council level don't understand what the council is actually doing. So at ground level, it is important to define how councils want to put their message across. With NALC's assistance, many parishes are now getting better at this.
Are media risks a key priority for local authorities and councils?
They can be. Just because a council may be small, it doesn't mean that decisions taken won't cause a stir locally and be of interest to the local media. Parish councils put a lot of emphasis on their localism, and it is important that some thought is given to how they this is played out in the public arena.
How should breaches of an internal policy be dealt with?
There is no suggestion of any sanctions being levied here. If a councillor is routinely trying to undermine the local authority in the media – which they are entitled to do – it will be dealt with locally. Local authorities are in control of their own discipline, and it is hard to imagine a situation occurring in which a councillor would be referred back to central government to be dealt with.
Eleanor Hoggart is assistant practice director of Legal Services Lincolnshire and LLG SAA Lead on Monitoring Officers + Governance. She was interviewed by Jane Crinnion.
The views expressed by LexisNexis’ Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor.
Originally published in Lexis®Library.