UKIP and Labour set to fight Thurrock Council’s tough new rules for newspapers

THURROCK UKIP and Labour have pledged to fight a controversial new communication strategy by Thurrock Council that threatens to “ban” journalists if they break their rules.

On Wednesday night, the Conservative-led council launched the communication strategy for the next three years.

The report claimed that “68% of Thurrock residents get information about their local area from the council including their website” and so the council, described as a “half a billion pound business” by the councillor in charge of the project, cllr Shane Hebb, has “gone to market” with a strategy that focusses on “Digital First, Targeted Messaging and Brand Promotion.

But what has sparked UKIP’s and Labour’s anger is the tough new rules for newspapers.

These new rules include:

1.Only journalists from newspapers that are members of press regulators will be “offered a place in media area at council meeting.

2. A council right of reply to run at the same time as a story is published by a newspaper.

3. Failure to adhere to codes will mean “the council will not engage and recognise the organisation and/or journalist as “media” for a period of time determined by the council”.

UKIP’s Communications Spokesman, Cllr Jack Duffin said: “The Council’s new Communication Strategy laid out at last nights Cabinet meeting looks like it has been modelled on something akin to North Korea.

“It says that if journalists write anything other than glowing praise for the Council then they will ban them. We need an independent and free media to scrutinise the way the Council operates. I hope they see the light and reverse their decision.”

Thurrock Labour has also expressed its dismay. Leader John Kent said: “This is nothing more than a thinly veiled attack on the press and seriously threatens free speech.

“It runs alongside increasing frustrations by my fellow councillors and members of the public in getting answers from the council. We will be fighting this.”

Cllr Shane Hebb defended his new strategy. He said: “Thurrock Council agreed a communications strategy at Cabinet last night (Wednesday 5 April).

“The council recognises the important role the media play in informing the public and in communicating with residents and other stakeholders.

“Thurrock Council is a half-billion pound organisation and as such, has a duty to convey its messages fairly and quickly to residents, to be held to account and inform people about decisions which are being taken, in a way they want to receive it which is increasingly via digital means.

YourThurrock directed cllr Hebb to the guidance from the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) which stated: “We would discourage any system that vetted journalists or restricted reporting to “approved” journalists. Councils should support freedom of the press within the law and not seek to restrict those who may write critical comments….Councils should provide reasonable facilities including a desk”.

Cllr Hebb responded: “The Openness Guide which you have referenced was considered in developing the new strategy. The council actively encourages the attendance of residents, partners and the media at public council meetings, enabling filming, social media commentary and reporting.

“Thurrock Council does not vet people who attend public meetings. The new strategy is simply clarifying how the council will communicate to residents as well as how it works with recognised media organisations, and how the council expects media organisations to work with us in return.”

All council communications comply, and continue to comply fully, with the statutory code on Local Government Publicity which acts to ensure a factual and unbiased approach to all council communications and is in accord with the long established English local authority tradition and practice of neutrality in council communications”.

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