Council leader: FoIs are waste of taxpayers' money

  • Essex County Council leader claims papers submit FoIs ‘like confetti
  • Accuses Brentwood Gazette of ‘sensationalism’ in the ‘belief that only bad news sells’
  • Editor urges council to publish all county hall expenditure

The leader of Essex County Council accused one his local papers of ‘lazy investigative journalism’after it used a Freedom of Information request to reveal the authority spent more than £180k on ‘booze, soft drinks and soirees”.

Tory Peter Martin accused the Brentwood Gazette and other local titles of wasting taxpayers’ money by submitting FoIs ‘like confetti’– despite admitting they cost just ‘hundreds of pounds to process”.

In February the Gazette exposed how the council spent £192,613 on free lunches for its 75 elected members in four years, and last week revealed £181,965 of public funds was spent on alcohol and soft drinks during the same period. The information could only be obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

In an email to the paper’s editor Nev Wilson, Martin accused the paper of ‘sensationalism’and indulging in ‘constant attacks’on the council, claiming the paper should start ‘talking up this district and get away from the belief that only bad news sells”.

‘With newspaper circulations plummeting it would increase its readership with this approach,’he added, before conceding that the facts behind the Gazette’s stories were ‘indisputable”.

Martin said the council was now considering publishing the cost of each media FOI it received so taxpayers could see how much the media was costing them.

‘This is not vindictive but to add balance and openness and accountability for what I regard as a lazy form of investigative journalism,’he said.

Martin’s letter was written on behalf of the Essex Conservatives and he signed off his email as “Leader, Conservative Party, Essex County Council”, despite it being sent from fellow county councillor and ex-BBC journalist Kevin Bentley’s work account at the Colchester-based PR firm Mosaic Publicity.

The county hall press office attempted to distance itself from the email and stressed it was written by Martin in a political capacity.

Press Gazette asked the council if it would be publishing the FoI costs figures but had not received a response at the time of publication.

Wilson, whose paper has been shortlisted for paid-for weekly paper of the year at this year’s Regional Press Awards and launched a new edition in Romford yesterday, told Press Gazette: ‘Our very own brand of ‘lazy journalism’ has always upset a certain shower on the borough council.

‘It’s been the stock response to label our reports as ‘lazy journalism’ each time they make uncomfortable reading, so we’re quite familiar with the term.

‘But we all took a break from twiddling our thumbs to scratch our heads when we read Mr Martin’s bizarre riposte to our story exposing the vast amounts spent on free food and drinks at county hall.

‘Even more peculiar was the fact his angry email had first passed under the nose of a former journalist.

‘Mr Martin threatened to publish the cost of processing FoIs to county hall. How about publishing all county hall expenditure? Perhaps then the cost of both can be reduced.’

The Taxpayers Alliance said the amount spent by public bodies in answering FoI requests was minimal when compared to the waste they exposed, pointing out that on average it costs a local authority around just £164 to answer an FoI.

The Gazette noted this was “significantly less than the £181,965 of taxpayers’ money that Essex County Council spent on booze, refreshments and soirees”.

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