Cumbria County Council FoI answer reveals PR plan to 'kill' story about £700-a-day spin doctor

A council which tried to “kill” a newspaper story about the employment of a £700-a-day spin doctor has declined to apologise after its actions were revealed under the Freedom of Information Act.

In October, the North West Evening Mail reported that Cumbria County Council had employed communications and reputation specialist Mark Fletcher-Brown at the same time as cutting 1,800 staff due to budget cuts.

Reporter Caroline Barber requested details of Fletcher-Brown’s employment via an FoI request, which she reported in the Evening Mail.

Internal emails showed council staff’s attempts to block media criticism.

When asked by Press Gazette if the council would apologise for its actions, it said it had “nothing to add” to its original statement.

In one uncovered message, head of communications Sara Turnbull wrote that stories on Fletcher-Brown’s employment were the “last thing we need re. timing just prior to a budget”.

She said: “I’ve suggested to Mark [Fletcher-Brown] that before we issue anything I’d like to see if I can kill the story. Mark wanted me to check that you are OK with this as a tactic.”

Dawn Roberts, assistant director of policy and performance, replied: “Yes, we would like to be able to kill it.”

Barber said: “The council say that they are ‘open and honest’ when we ask them questions but the series of emails suggests that this is not the case.

“These emails show that there are tactics used to spin decisions to the tax payer about their money, and tactics used to stop us [at the North East Evening Mail] reporting stories that they personally don’t like.”

“You don’t think Cumbria council should have to worry about its reputation, especially when strained taxpayers money on services.”

Since publication, Barber said, the Evening Mail has had “no feedback at all from the council”.

“The statement was not apologetic – the council are standing by their practice,” she added.

Further clarification questions asked to the council were refused, and Barber was told to submit another FoI request.

Barber’s initial FoI request asked for all details about Fletcher-Brown’s contract’s tender, expenses, and for correspondence details – but was refused on the grounds that it would take too long to process.

Barber then resubmitted her questions in separate requests.

Fletcher-Brown’s messages were redacted, with his external appointment supposedly raising issues of copyright.

The Council defended the appointment, saying that Fletcher-Brown had achieved £500,000 of savings in his reshaping of its communications team.

A spokesman said: “When responding to questions from the press and public, we have carefully reviewed and released all the documents and information that commercial and legal restrictions would allow.”

Cumbria County Council had 5,000 staff before cuts began, and is expected to reduce spending by £214m before 2018.

Fletcher-Brown has now left Cumbria County Council.

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