A local council accused of “blacklisting” an independent newspaper over the behaviour of its editor has insisted it is still engaging with the title, despite it being “effectively a one man band”.
Thurrock Council chief executive Lyn Carpenter told Thurrock Independent editor Neil Speight on 3 August that the council would no longer respond to his enquiries “due to repeated breaches of appropriate working practices”.
Speight subsequently published the email, which said communications from him would be “read and placed on file but will not be acknowledged or responded to by the council” and that the policy would only be reviewed on 3 February next year.
Speight also shared an earlier email from the council’s strategic lead for information management, which accused him of “unnecessary, unprofessional and wholly inappropriate” behaviour.
The list of claims against him included publicly critiquing media statements, publishing internal council communications, publishing stories about individual members of council staff, and emailing council officers and councillors “criticising senior managers and the communications team”.
In his article revealing the decision, Speight wrote: “Effectively she is placing a ban on any response by the authority to investigative reporting by the newspaper, with [me] accused of being ‘vexatious’ in pursuit of the council’s accountability to the residents of Thurrock.”
The council today released a statement on the matter for the first time previously, having previously declined requests for comment by saying it has a policy of not commenting on the specifics of individual cases.
It insisted it is still responding to media enquiries from the Thurrock Independent, and that the ban only applies to Speight himself.
However Speight has called the statement “nonsense”, telling Press Gazette: “Effectively I am a one man band here.”
In its statement, Thurrock Council said: “The council continues to engage with the Thurrock Independent and this position has not changed.
“The case being discussed is an issue between the council and an individual, and as such it is our normal policy not to comment.
“As the individual concerned has shared publicly some of the correspondence between the council and himself, we can confirm that the correspondence relates to the individual only and not the Thurrock Independent newspaper.
“This was a decision taken under the council’s agreed Unreasonable Behaviour Procedure, which is in place to deal with unreasonable and unacceptable behaviour by individuals.
“The Thurrock Independent continue to be on the council’s media distribution list, they have received and covered council releases online and also in the most recent editions of the paper. The council also continues to receive and respond to media enquiries from the Thurrock Independent.”
Speight said he receives voluntary part-time help to run the newspaper from Andy Lever, a former communications officer with Thurrock Council and former editor of Thurrock Gazette.
Currently, he said, he is able to ask Lever to send in enquiries for him – but fears they could “ban” him as well.
Earlier this year Thurrock Council complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation over a front page comment piece in the Independent headlined: “Council of secrecy and contempt”, with the sub-headline: “Authority refuses to answer questions about its waste, incompetence and accountability.”
IPSO announced it had not upheld the council’s complaint just days before Carpenter told Speight his enquiries would no longer be answered.
Press Gazette understands another IPSO decision relating to the Thurrock Independent is due to be announced next week.
Speight told Press Gazette: “I have been an editor of a newspaper since 1989 and have dealt with councils up and down the country. I have won many awards for investigative journalism and my newspapers and staff and am, I think, generally well regarded in the industry.
“I haven’t changed one iota at the Thurrock Independent – indeed I have been here editing papers since 2004.”
Speight added he has now received support from more than 20 councillors of all political persuasions who disagree with the council’s blacklisting decision and claim they were not consulted on it.
The Thurrock Independents, the third largest party on the council, issued a statement saying they were “incredibly concerned” by the decision to “blacklist” the newspaper.
Speight also received support from the News Media Association and rival publisher Archant’s group editor for London Michael Adkins, who said the council’s decision was an “outrageous attack on press freedom”.