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Journalist bites councillor

Once again, Paul Francis hits the nail on the head, this time in a riposte to Paul Carter’s New Year’s gobshite.

KCC leader fires salvo at local press for ‘biased’ reporting: a response

Politicians often think we are out to get them and are working to some kind of hidden agenda. And the word that sometimes gets bandied about is that we are ‘biased’. It is a word that KCC leader Paul Carter used when he fired off a New Year salvo at the local media in general just before departing for a month long break to participate in a vintage car rally to South Africa.

In a piece, which for the most part was a look back over the year, he ended with a short section ‘looking forward’. It began with a pledge that he wished to “improve our relationship with the local press.” This laudable aim was then rather undermined by a series of comments that together amounted to an attack on those that he wished to foster improved relationships with.

The article claimed that ‘some stories have been particularly biased against KCC’ and although he stopped short of specifying which ones, it is pretty clear that he was referring to the controversy surrounding the departure of managing director Katherine Kerswell.

Acknowledging that there had been ‘several high profile issues’ in the last few weeks, he claimed that the media’s ‘constant sniping at KCC ‘impacts on morale for our hard-working staff’ and ‘the consequence will inevitably be a knock-on effect to frontline service delivery.’

If this was intended to be the start of his desire to improve relationships with the media, it was not only misjudged but perverse. Perhaps the most risible comment was his appeal to the media to play stories with a ‘straight bat’ and give ‘credit where credit’s due’ – and to let the public ‘actually decide for themselves’.

This from an organisation that has over the years accrued a reputation for evasiveness and PR spin that might make even Peter Mandleson blush.

Unfortunately for KCC, its own unwillingness to play with a straight bat has contributed to a sense of distrust – which was only made worse by the debacle over departure of managing director Katherine Kerswell. KCC moved heaven and earth to persuade everyone, including its own staff, that nothing was going on when it was common knowledge that discussions were already underway about scrapping her £197,000 post.

Its initial statement responding to media queries was a classic piece of Orwellian double-speak, a contrivance of misinformation that – while strictly accurate –  was as far removed from ‘playing with a straight bat’ as could be imagined. Equally ludicrous was the claim that our ‘constant sniping’ was threatening front line services by damaging morale among staff.

Does KCC, which never lets us forget that it is one of the biggest authorities in the country and the county’s largest employer, expect us not to report job losses and the potential consequences for residents because of the squeeze on public spending – not to mention huge pay-offs for directors on six-figure salaries?   

Nothing has damaged morale at County Hall more than the lamentable way it dealt with events leading up to the decision to scrap Katherine Kerswell’s role. The evidence came in some of the scathing comments posted by staff on its own Intranet site about her departure and reported pay-off, showing that many felt duped by KCC, their own employer.

Uncomfortable though it can be for politicians, our job is to hold them to account for their actions and decisions and ask the questions that the public – as taxpayers – would want answered. It is not to suppress information although you get the sense that KCC sometimes thinks it should be. It is true we are often sceptical – not biased – and if KCC wonders why we are, it really does have its head in the sand far deeper than even we imagine.

Relations between politicians and journalists can often be uneasy ones, characterised by mutual suspicion, a lack of trust and, just occasionally, a touch of paranoia.

Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, January 3 2012

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