'Hush-hush system let Doncaster scandal to go unreported'

Comment: Morrison is a senior lecturer in journalism at Kingston University. Here he talks about his study – Spin, smoke-filled rooms, and the decline of council reporting by local newspapers: the slow demise of town hall transparency – and asks if town hall reporting really is defunct.

Not so long ago, the most humdrum council sub-committees could generate notepads full of potential stories for canny cub reporters.

While town hall debates were rarely dynamite, there was a sense that, if it could be staffed, no local authority meeting should be missed – from the monthly musings of a sleepy parish council to full gatherings of major unitary authorities.

As daily papers battled to fill dozens of overnight pages, with many publishing several district editions, local government provided their most reliable source of copy.

How times have changed. In ten short years, most town-halls have been downgraded from arenas of rigorous (if occasionally turgid) argument to supine talking-shops in which all but the most tenacious overview and scrutiny committee kowtows to the diktats of a Westminster-style cabinet.

The Local Government Act 2000 ushered in a new leadership regime for all councils representing populations of 85,000 or more – giving them the choice of an executive leader drawn from the biggest party or a mayor elected directly by local voters at the same time as the full council.

Whichever option they chose authorities ended up with a localised version of cabinet government and a new form of elective dictatorship gave the biggest parties disproportionate sway over their own ‘backbench’ councillors, opposition groupings, and, more importantly, the voting public.

Of greatest concern to journalists has not been the increased concentration of power but the means the LGA2000 gave cabinets to formulate – and largely determine – policy in secret.

Only decisions affecting two or more electoral wards need be debated by cabinets in public and only then if they are to be resolved by a vote of its whole membership.

Matters over which leaders or mayors delegate executive powers to individual portfolio-holders (or, in some cases, unelected officers) need not be discussed publicly at all.

As my research confirms, a decade on there is widespread frustration about the culture of cabinet decision-making. When asked about its impact on their work, editor after editor criticised their local councils as secretive, with several commenting that, despite nominally meeting in public, cabinets appeared to routinely take decisions privately beforehand. Hardly surprising that, as a Press Association survey found last year, two-thirds of local newspapers are devoting fewer staff and less time to chasing council stories than in 1999. Even in an age when burgeoning web operations mean there’s more space than ever to be ‘filled’, the prospect of returning empty-handed from a meeting means it’s simply not worth staffing it.

Apologists for Tony Blair’s reforms argue (as did he on unveiling them) that change was necessary to speed up drawn-out council decision-making processes. Besides, they add, councils never have been all that transparent.

As someone who reported from various council chambers during stints on three local papers in the late 1990s, I beg to differ. Back then, however pernickety debates might have been, there was a real sense that senior councillors and officers were being held accountable. Sub-committees could effectively kill off misguided planning applications or school catchment proposals at the earliest stage, and both committees and full council would bring impetuous leaderships to heel by bouncing ill-conceived policies back to earlier stages of the process (House of Lords-style) for a rethink.

Today most items are steamrollered through full council meetings (House of Commons-style) after largely being sewn up beforehand. And it was a hush-hush cabinet system which allowed the Doncaster child welfare scandal to go unreported – to ordinary councillors, let alone the public – until a dogged weekly, the Doncaster Free Press, decoded a jargon-laden Audit Commission report and exposed it.

How ironic that, at a time when we’ve never been more in need of vigilant local papers, stepping in to fill the void in council coverage should be not an independent press but a swathe of propaganda sheets published by authorities themselves. These ersatz newspapers – whose insidious influence is frequently highlighted in Press Gazette – are contributing to the further decline of many commercial titles by competing for paid advertising, and poaching experienced NCTJ-trained journalists on generous taxpayer-funded salaries.

In response to Freedom of Information Act requests, East End Life (distributed weekly to 81,000 homes in Tower Hamlets) revealed it pays new recruits £31,152, while Hammersmith and Fulham’s H&F News offers starting salaries of £33,994. Entry-level wages on commercial titles still hover around £12,000.

But is town hall reporting really defunct? Not necessarily. With public sector cuts imminent, already there are signs that council publications could be among the first luxuries to go: Boris has scrapped his, as has Kent County Council and the paper-knives are out in both Doncaster and Tower Hamlets.

Meanwhile, PA and Trinity Mirror are fine-tuning a new council-reporting pilot scheme, and the Surrey Comet is collaborating with Kingston University’s NCTJ trainees on hyper-local online coverage. Others are using webcams to relay council proceedings direct from the chamber.

Somewhere in this melee – combining new technologies with dog-eared contacts books in the service of good old-fashioned news-values – there’s a role for our traditional fourth estate.

* James Morrison will be a speaker at Press Gazette’s Local Heroes 2010: Future of local news conference on 14 May.

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