Local newspaper editors say public bodies becoming more secretive

Local newspaper editors believe public bodies are becoming more secretive, according to a survey conducted by the Newspaper Society for Local Newspaper Week, which ran from 10-16 May 2010.

Nearly 80 per cent of local newspaper editors believe public bodies such as the local council, police or health authority are becoming more secretive, according to an NS survey.

Just 10 per cent of editors from weekly and daily titles said getting information from public bodies had become easier in recent years while 13 per cent said it was neither harder nor easier.

The online survey of local newspaper editors was conducted by the NS for Local Newspaper Week which this year is themed Your Voice.

It found that more than a third (35 per cent) of editors had experienced having a reporter prevented from attending a public meeting or prevented from reporting details from it. 

Eighty-two per cent of those who had encountered these obstructions had challenged them and more than two thirds (67 per cent) of those challenges were successful.

In the past year, the average local newspaper submitted 16 FoI requests and in 81 per cent of cases, the information requested was successfully obtained.

A recent paper by James Morrison, senior lecturer in journalism at Kingston University, also concluded that council decision making has become more secretive.

While Whitehall has been trumpeting its moves to improve monitoring of waste managers and care home owners, the machinery of local government in the here and now – short, the way political decisions affecting tomorrow’s services are being taken – has become ever more opaque.

Morrison highlights the Local Government Act 2000 which led to the introduction of Westminster-style cabinets and executives and the appointment of political assistants modeled on ministerial special advisers:

The combined effect of these twin developments has been to maximise the ability of council cabinets/executives to take policy decisions in secret, while minimising that of the press, public, or indeed councillors shorn of ‘frontbench’ roles to scrutinise or challenge their actions. Meetings of council committees and the full council – once energetic arenas for public debate and knife-edge votes on controversial issues (not to mention sources of lively news copy) – have been reduced to little more than a rubber-stamp…With council meetings downgraded to the status of talking-shops, it’s little wonder that today’s local newspaper editors – faced with ever-tighter budgets and 24-hour deadlines for their web operations – are voting with their feet and ceasing to cover them.”

The paper quotes one response from a Yorkshire based paper:

We have experience of cabinets meeting both in public and privately. Our experience has been that the LGA has made councils more secretive and less open. The idea of cabinet responsibility has made it harder to question decisions and we have to rely on FOI more than I would like. For instance, ten years ago only the largest councils had press offices to field questions. Smaller district councils gave direct access to senior officers. This is no longer the case.

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