Monday, December 04, 2006

Fishing with the Echo

Criticising journalists is something I don't enter into lightly I'm becoming increasingly worried, however, by the way in which some Northern Echo journalists are going about their task.

There have been a spate of stories recently which have been been based on Freedom of Information requests made to the Council. The latest was on Saturday, when one reporter "revealed" that the Council spends £10k a year on the Mayor's car. This follows hard on the heels of similar "revelations" about the Council's car park income.

So why the concern? Well, any Echo reporter could simply ask the Council's Communication Unit for the figures and they'd be supplied. After all, the figures are in the public domain, and form part of the Council's budget which is scrutinised then passed every year. Clearly that wouldn't be too "sexy" so journalists have taken to getting the information via FOI requests. This gives the air that somehow the information is secret and has had to be dragged out of the Council.

I've written before about the conspiracy culture which affects some people in the town. This trend in journalism is helping feed it, I'm afraid (unintentionally, I'm sure). If information is refused, then the Echo would be quite right in submitting an FOI, and making a song-and-dance about the outcome.

8 comments:

Mike said...

Running a small car like a Renault Clio costs just over £2500 pounds a year. (Source: http://www.dothelocalmotion.co.uk/CarShare/CarShareIt.htm)

:)

ian holme said...

Nick,
You are quite right, there is a conspiracy culture pervading the borough at present.But this is a direct result of the actions of your council.

On Hurworth school, the pedestrian heart and tesco a number of your colleague and officers have behaved well below the standards expected of them.

It is easy to blame the journalists, but it is the behaviour of your council which is to blame for any culture of mis-trust.

Ian

Darlington Councillor said...

Ian.

Thanks for posting on this. I believe that the Tesco consultation, and the Pedestrian Heart proposals were handled properly - indeed the work listening to the public on Tesco went far beyond what most local authorities would have attempted.

As we have discussed before, I'm sorry that the Hurworth/Eastbourne School process alienated some people particularly in Hurworth. As the Northern Echo itself stated immediately after the matter was resolved, the Council was as much a prisoner of national rules and regulations when it came up with the proposed merger of the two schools.

I don't blame journalists for a culture of conspiracy in the town at present - in a small way I do believe that articles written in this style however will perpetuate any mood which does exist.

Frankly now it's probably Labour's political opponents (and not just in the two main opposition parties) who are desperately trying to keep this mood of cynicism afloat until May. I don't believe they'll be successful.

Ian Holme said...

Hi Nick,
Thanks for allowing my post.
Without going into endless detail, my key points refered to were;

1 -Lack of individual responsibility taken for incompetence in the management of the ped. heart.
2- No major probs with tesco consultation itself, but the 3 year discussion Tesco had with "their friends in darlington" and your leaders farcical position of then coming out against tesco.
3- Re Hurworth, you continue to perpetuate the myth that dbc were following national (dfes) instructions. This has been PROVED to be totally incorrect and the blame must be put at the door of officers stating this position and councillors not questioning it when provided with the evidence.
Your illusion that this issue alienated mainly Hurworth goes a long way to explain why dbc gets so much negative press. The school campaign received huge support from right across the Borough, as evidenced by 5000 signatures gained on a petition held on High Row.

Little of the above has anything to with opposing "labour" as such, much more to do with the current regime behaving so badly, in labours name.
I for one am saddened that whilst many of the current regime are in office, I for one will not have the option of voting labour.

Ian

Darlington Councillor said...

Hi Ian.

I know how strongly you feel about these issues, so thanks again for posting courteously.

(1) The report from Scrutiny regarding the initial problems with Pedestrian Heart (relating mostly to the gas main) made it clear that this was not a matter of individual Cabinet member failings. I won't go over old ground again - suffice it to say that Resources Scrutiny is looking again at Pedestrian Heart (on an all-party basis as before) and it will be interesting to see their conclusions.

(2) The point you make about Tesco is one I've heard repeated widely elsewhere. The dilemma facing the Council was when was the right time to go to the public with full consultation? (By the way, it was well-known by all the political parties in Darlington that the Council was talking to Tesco - it wasn't some kind of State secret).

For example, until May of this year, there was no formal Tesco proposal on which we could have consulted - it was perfectly likely that Tesco were going to walk away from the site. Even in May, the details weren't clear from Tesco themselves. As I've posted earlier on the Churches debate, there were many questions even this Autumn that couldn't be answered because sufficient detail wasn't there. This would have been compounded had consultation started earlier. Maybe our judgement was flawed on when to go out to full consultation - personally I think we got it about right, and avoided a very frustrating, almost meaningless consultation process.

(3) On Hurworth, I was sloppy in my earlier comment - I fully recognise that there was dissatisfaction with the idea of the merger that extended well beyond the borders of Hurworth. I do think that the hub of the opposition did come from the village however. It's probably not wise for me to go into the issue of national guidance vs. local decision making in greater detail - all I can say is that this has been my understanding have followed the process as a Councillor and Cabinet Member.

Best wishes,

Nick.

Ian White said...

Nick as one of the main disatified users of FOI and constantly getting fobbed off see todays Echo (HAS) or townliar.com can I like the Echo not just contact the "councils Communications unit? eliminating the need for DBC to use excuses to deny me what is my legal right?

Ian White
www.townliar.com

Darlington Councillor said...

Thanks, Ian.

Fundamentally, the point I was making in my post was that Owen or any other journalist would have received the same information had they gone to the Communications Unit rather than used the FoI route. By using FoI's (on a story about councillors' travelling expenses for example, and then stating that this had been elicited via FoI's) it gave the impression that Darlington Council is a secretive organisation conspiring to keep the truth away from citizens. This is, of course, a million miles from the truth. I guess that had you been able to ask the Communications Unit questions, they would have given you exactly the same answer that you received through your FoI's.

Unfortunately, the Communications Unit is only staffed up to be able to field journalists' enquiries, and produce our award-winning monthly Town Crier magazine. Questions from residents, are dealt with via the normal officer route. In addition, now everyone has the opportunity to submit an FoI rather than ask an officer or indeed a councillor directly.

Having seen the thread on Town Liar, I would also point out that councillors are not part of the FoI process. Period. For example, sometimes Councillors and residents ask questions of officers regarding transport, and if there are important matters of policy or delivery raised, I am copied in as the Portfolio Member. This never happen with FoI's which are purely factual responses. There is no political "interference".

Trust this helps.

Best wishes,

Nick.

Ian White said...

Nick

I after years now, not months of being refused FOI under various sections, which I feel in most cases are inapropriate to the request, I can only state again that in my experience DBC is a secretive organisation with some matters it would rather "keep mum" a prime example although not FOI would be three years of Tesco talks, or Karen Pembertons severance pakage (my first ban) and following my recent refusal on admin costs, exactly how many people working in the FOI department earn £25 per hour? I rest my case!