Liverpool City Council has been labelled ‘barking mad’after it took the controversial decision of apparently banning council staff, including press officers, from speaking to the city’s two biggest newspapers.
The directive came from chief executive Ged Fitzgerald and Labour council leader Joe Anderson, who has also reportedly banned his Labour councillors from speaking with the Liverpool Echo and the Liverppol Daily Post.
The row erupted after the papers were leaked legal advice to the council from Tony Blair’s wife, Cherie Booth QC, relating to the appointment of David McElhinney as acting chief executive in July 2010.
McElhinney was previously the head of a £70m-a-year joint venture with Liverpool City Council, leading to conflict of interest allegations.
Around two weeks ago the Trinity Mirror-owned papers were handed leaked documents in which Booth allegedly advised that McElhinney should be placed on gardening leave, in a story headlined “City did not follow QC’s key advice on CEO role”.
But the Labour-dominated council claimed it received a second piece of legal advice from Booth with which it fully complied and which did not include the gardening leave recommendation.
In a statement the council claimed it could not tolerate a situation where it was ‘considered either acceptable or appropriate to steal documents and to pass them on to the press”, adding: ‘The council and the city face far too many other challenges than to have to deal with salacious, speculative stories masquerading as in the public interest.”
The council insisted it was trying to build an ‘open and transparent’organisation but said stories designed to ‘bring down the reputation of the city and the council are not accepted and need to be challenged”.
In a joint statement the editor of the Echo, Alistair Machray, and the editor of the Daily Post, Mark Thomas, said the first they heard the about the second piece of advice was after the article was published.
“Had he told us about it in his initial statement it would have been in our story,’they said.
“Indeed, we still await and would welcome evidence that this second document exists, given that nobody from the council has been in a position to confirm it to us.”
They added added: “To behave in this way while calling us bullies has caused some amusement here in Old Hall Street.
“He [Anderson] clearly doesn’t like criticism, but we think it is rather a shame that he is taking this story and his personal anger over it out on the city he has been elected to represent.”
The leader of council’s opposition Liberal Democrat group, Councillor Paula Keaveney, described Anderson and Fitzgerald’s edict as ‘barking mad’and ‘ridiculous”.
‘Only two things happen when a decision like this is made,’said Keaveney, a former journalist who now works as a public relations lecturer.
‘Firstly, the messages that the council need to get out don’t get out, which isn’t in the interests of the ruling council.
‘Secondly, it’s a really good way of making people take interest in the opposition. It’s counter-productive on lots of levels.”
Keaveney said it also runs counter to the principles of ‘democracy, Freedom of Information and openness”.
‘Nobody likes leaks, and if you’re in power it’s annoying, but this is just a massive, massive overreaction… I really can’t understand why, on this occasion, all the cannons have gone off.”
The Liverpool Echo reported on an email from Anderson leaked to the paper in which he reportedly said that all Labour councillors and council officials, including the press office, are not to talk to either the Echo or Post.
A council spokesperson told Press Gazette that it had ‘withdrawn cooperation’and is no longer ‘working proactively’with either paper, but would still handle enquiries from journalists and give statements where necessary.