Essex local authority says it will blacklist journalists if their stories 'do not reflect the council's position accurately'

A local council has said it will blacklist media organisations that do not accurately reflect its position in news stories.

Thurrock Council in Essex has also ruled that only regulated media outlets will be allowed a place in the “media area” for council meetings while all others will be asked to sit with the public.

Titles including The Guardian, Observer, Financial Times, Evening Standard and Independent are among those not currently signed up to any external press regulator.

The new council strategy, which was agreed at a cabinet meeting last week, also said that a code of practice breach would put journalists on the blacklist “for a period of time determined by the council”.

The policy states: “The council will recognise organisations as ‘media’ who are a member of IPSO or equivalent regulator and comply with the Editor’s Code of Practice. Television and radio broadcasters, such as the BBC, are regulated by Ofcom.

“Any organisation which has membership of such a regulatory framework will be offered a place in the ’media area’ for the benefit of reporting on council meetings. Other media organisations and reporters will be welcome to report from the public area…

“Should a media outlet, or one of its journalists, fail to adhere to the regulator’s code and in particular not reflect the council’s position accurately ensuring a ‘right of reply’, the council will not engage and recognise that organisation and/or journalist as ‘media’ for a period of time determined by the council.”

Defending the move, Cllr Shane Hebb, deputy leader and cabinet member for finance and legal, told Press Gazette: “The council recognises the important role the media play in informing the public and in communicating with residents and other stakeholders.

“Thurrock Council is a half-billion pound organisation and as such, has a duty to convey its messages fairly and quickly to residents, to be held to account and inform people about decisions which are being taken, in a way they want to receive it which is increasingly via digital means.”

On press regulation, a spokesperson added: “The council understands the majority of press have signed up to a regulatory body, and those which you have mentioned that haven’t, have robust processes in place which act in a similar manner – like ombudsmen.

“Most importantly, this means that these organisations work to similar guidance and offer readers a method to complain and actively pursue balanced stories with alternative views.

“All council communications comply, and continue to comply fully, with the statutory code on Local Government Publicity which acts to ensure a factual and unbiased approach to all council communications and is in accord with the long established English local authority tradition and practice of neutrality in council communications.”

Thurrock is covered by hyperlocal website Your Thurrock and Newsquest weekly Thurrock Gazette, which has a circulation of 44,989 mainly free copies according to ABC figures to December 2014.

The Conservative-led council has 18 Tory councillors, 17 UKIP councillors and 14 Labour councillors.

UKIP and Labour have said they will fight the new media strategy, according to Your Thurrock.

UKIP’s communications spokesman, Cllr Jack Duffin told the title: “The Council’s new Communication Strategy laid out at last night’s cabinet meeting looks like it has been modelled on something akin to North Korea.

“It says that if journalists write anything other than glowing praise for the council then they will ban them. We need an independent and free media to scrutinise the way the council operates. I hope they see the light and reverse their decision.”

Local Labour leader John Kent told the title: “This is nothing more than a thinly veiled attack on the press and seriously threatens free speech. It runs alongside increasing frustrations by my fellow councillors and members of the public in getting answers from the council. We will be fighting this.”

Thurrock Council has published a monthly e-newsletter, Thurrock News, since October 2016 which has more than 11,500 subscribers.

According to a Residents Survey carried out by the council, 68 per cent of residents get their news from “local papers”, 39 per cent from “local BBC and ITV news”, 27 per cent from “Your Thurrock” and 24 per cent from “local radio”.

The survey also shows the council’s combined website, publications (including flyers, posters and leaflets) and social media reaches 68 per cent of residents.

Picture: Google Maps

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