Council backtracks on PCC threats to weekly over ‘hoax’ emails

A council leader who accused his local newspaper of deceiving councillors to obtain a story by sending emails from a fake account has backtracked on threats to report the title to the Press Complaints Commission.

Last month the weekly North Devon Journal reported on how it had sent 91 local councillors an email purporting to be from a constituent asking them to deal with a tree problem.

Several failed to respond to the email despite claiming allowances of up to £360 a year to help them access the internet.

The paper decided to send the emails after it had difficulty reaching councillors to find out whether they had paid their council tax.

Council leader Brian Greenslade was unhappy with what he described as a “hoax” – going so far as drawing analogies with the case of Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse who committed suicide after receiving a prank call from an Australian radio station.

He threatened to report the paper to the PCC, but the council has since said that no further action will be taken.

Greenslade could have made a complaint under Clause 2 of the Editors’ Code of Practice on the use of subterfuge, although the paper said it had a strong public interest defence.

He told Press Gazette: “It is unfortunate that this has cast a shadow on the dedicated and hard work that the councillors do for their community and the local area.

“It is also disappointing that the newspaper concerned felt it appropriate to deceive councillors in order to obtain a story.”

But the paper’s editor Chloe Hubbard (pictured) made a staunch defence of her paper.

“I strongly refute the allegation that we used deceitful tactics in order to highlight a growing issue which is becoming more prevalent as more and more people turn to digital means of communication,” she said.

“It is no different to using a secret shopper to test council efficiencies, which is a tactic North Devon Council use themselves.

“The public have a right to expect their online enquiries to be answered when the public purse is paying for councillors’ internet access. Our report also recognised the fact that many councillors responded swiftly to the enquiry.

“We have not heard from the PCC and would defend the way the investigation was conducted as being in the public interest.

“The overwhelming response we have had from readers has supported the investigation and been very critical of Brian Greenslade’s reaction to the investigation.”

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