When the Council released its Media Strategy in 2017 one section was of particular concern to those who value the freedom of the press, and the important role journalists play in the scrutiny of local government.
‘Should a media outlet, or one of its journalists, fail to adhere to the regulator’s code and in particular reflect the council’s position accurately ensuring a ‘right to reply’, the Council will not engage and recognise that organisation and/or journalist as ‘media’ for a period of time determined by the Council.’
Thurrock Independents Party Leader, Cllr Luke Spillman said: “This was a chilling section within the document raising fears that Thurrock Council would essentially ‘black list’ any media organisation which dared to ask tough questions, challenge or editorialise on any issue that could be of potential embarrassment to the Thurrock Council and the Conservative Administration.
“A year on and it would appear such fears are increasingly justified. Certain news outlets appear to have been marginalised and all but ‘black listed’ by the Council. Some have been openly criticised by the Leader of the Council, who has also publicly stated that journalists are asking too many questions. We have an entirely unacceptable situation of simple press enquiries going days and weeks before a reply from Thurrock Council. Sometimes enquiries go entirely unanswered and there is a feeling from some journalists that they are being treated with contempt by Thurrock Council.
“One could argue that they are now experiencing the level of service that many residents receive when they deal with certain departments. This defensive and aggressive posture from the Thurrock Council is not new. It is a common approach to how some departments manage demand and deal with complaints. I have always argued that if the council spent as much time learning from these complaints, as it does in finding ways to excuse or deny poor performance, then we would have the best local authority in the country.
“Thurrock Council’s unhealthy approach to the media really does matter. Local media play such an important role in the scrutiny of policy and performance. A Council open to constructive criticism, which is reflective, will improve. A Council viewing questions regarding performance with contempt will not improve. It will continue to make the same mistakes and deliver the same poor levels of performance.
“At present Thurrock Council’s approach to the media looks extremely worrying. The focus appears to be on controlling the narrative and protecting the Council’s reputation rather than improving performance. I call on Thurrock Council to sit down with all the journalists in the borough and try to rebuild the professional respect between journalists and the council that has been so badly damaged in recent months.”
After several requests over two years for the Council to address the way it deals with media, Thurrock Independents Deputy Leader, Cllr Jack Duffin has managed to secure agreement that the Editors of all the local media will be invited to speak at the upcoming Corporate Overview & Scrutiny Committee on Tuesday 4th September to give evidence based on their interactions with the Council’s Communications Team.