Echo reviews letters policy after council 'manipulation'

Echo: “got to be cleverer than spinners”

South Wales Echo editor Alastair Milburn has ordered a review of how his letters page is monitored after discovering a campaign to manipulate it in favour of Cardiff’s mayor.

A letter, sent by mistake to the Echo, revealed that a council officer had composed a letter and sent it to a Labour Party supporter asking him to sign it and send it to the Viewpoints page of the newspaper.

In a covering note, Mike Doel, chief corporate support officer, told Bill Kohnstamm, a frequent correspondent to the Echo, that “we intend a ‘series’ of similar issues, getting the message across that the LM [Lord Mayor] can’t be blamed for everything.”

Milburn and political and business editor Phillip Nifield confronted the mayor, Russell Goodway, and Doel with the letters. Nifield accused the council of “a blatant attempt” to “manipulate the letters page”.

Doel replied: “Well, all right. Bill rang us and said he would like to send something in and said could we draft something? We helped him, yes. What can I say? You have got it there.”

Goodway denied any knowledge of the letters or of a campaign and promised it would not happen again.

When Kohnstamm was confronted he denied all knowledge of the correspondence and being part of the campaign.

In a comment piece, the paper said that Doel, as a council officer, was meant to be a neutral, apolitical figure. “Nowhere in his job description does it say he should write absurd letters to the Echo on behalf of the ‘LM’ and suggest that a local Labour supporter send it to us, passing it off as his own views.”

Cardiff Council chief executive Byron Davies has since visited the Echo office to talk about what has now been dubbed “Echogate” by opposing political parties.

Milburn believes the incident has ramifications not only for the Echo but for the letters pages of newspapers across the country.

“I announced in yesterday’s paper that I am carrying out a review of how we check the authenticity of our correspondents,” he said.

“I don’t know how many newspapers these days phone back correspondents to check their authenticity. We have got to be cleverer than the spinners who are using this sort of device. We are asking for our correspondents to be transparent and if they have a political motive or agenda, to state it.”

By Jean Morgan

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