Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has described new guidelines issued to parish councils which appear to forbid councillors from speaking to journalists without official consent as "Stalinist".
The "media policy" from the National Association of Local Councils appears to suggest that journalists should contact the "Council Clerk" rather than a councillor directly. It also appears to require journalists to obtain written consent from the clerk if they wish to interview a councillor.
The document (which was sent to Press Gazette by the Department of Communities and Local Government) uses Sutton Parish Council has an example of the sort of media policy local councils should adopt.
In that document, it says – under the heading 'legal restrictions":
The council, its councillors and staff cannot disclose information which is confidential or where disclosure of information is prohibited by law."
The document also says:
The media shall contact the Council's Clerk if they want to (i) interview councillors or staff about its business decision and actions or (ii) obtain a verbal of or written statement from the Council about its business decisions and actions."
It also states:
An interview by the media with councillors or staff in their official capacity about the Council's business decisions and actions requires the Council's prior written consent. In any such interview, the media cannot ask about the personal views of the councillors or staff in their private capacity.
Councillors and staff cannot communicate their personal views about the council's business, decision and actions, other than the views they hold in their official capacity.
Councillors must also have prior written consent to talk to journalists and they cannot provide verbal or written statements to the press without consent, according to the policy."
Additionally, councillors may not use the title "councillor" when giving comments in a private capacity.
According to the Department for Communities and Local Government councillors who break the rules could be investigated and disciplined.
Pickles said today he is writing to the NALC and telling parish councillors to ignore the policy.
“Freedom of speech is a vital part of local democracy. Councillors must be able to challenge waste and inefficiency, and should not have to get permission from state officials to speak to the press,” he wrote.
“I am concerned that this Stalinist guidance will have a chilling effect on public life. I am making clear its contents are utterly opposed by the Government and it should be withdrawn immediately. We should be championing the independent free press, not trying to suppress it.”
Press Gazette has asked the NALC for a comment and for further clarification about the guidelines.