NMA Condemns Local Authority Secrecy

The News Media Association has condemned local authority secrecy as more examples of public institutions avoiding scrutiny and blocking legitimate local newspaper access emerge across the UK.

Recent examples include councils refusing to respond to journalistic enquiries, banning local newspaper journalists from attending meetings and refusing to respond to Freedom of Information requests.

Thurrock Council launched a clampdown on press freedom when its chief executive wrote to the editor of the Thurrock Independent to advise that it would not respond to any communications from the weekly title.

Earlier this year, the Swindon Advertiser’s reporter was barred from a South Swindon Parish Council planning committee meeting on plans to build 400 new homes. Nottinghamshire County Council held a series of cross party meetings in secret to look at setting up a unitary authority for the county.

The Yorkshire Post has been locked in an FOI battle with Sheffield City Council in a bid to make public its official contractual policy for tree replacement work, while Birmingham City Council has rejected a request for a Brexit impact assessment report drafted by the council.

The News Media Association said: “Local authorities which seek to thwart transparency and openness are doing a disservice to the communities they are supposed to represent. By blocking legitimate requests from local newspapers and banning reporters from meetings, councils are contributing to culture of secrecy and undermining local democracy.”

In a leader headlined Secret State published alongside a report by media correspondent Matt Moore on local authority secrecy, The Times cited examples of local authorities attempting to clamp down on transparency and said that voters were being “kept in the dark.”

“In a democracy those who hold public office are accountable to the people. They cannot be effectively held accountable if they refuse to tell the people how they exercise their powers. Recent disturbing cases in local government suggest that Britain’s civic life is secretive beyond any reasonable standard of confidentiality.

“Public institutions are circumventing scrutiny and blocking newspaper coverage for no good reason. This emerging public scandal highlights how closed and attenuated Britain’s municipal political culture is, even in the digital age.

“It is not as if the problem is a recent change in the political climate. The Local Government Act of 2000 was a well-intentioned attempt to streamline decision-making at municipal level by moving from a committee-based system to an executive system. In practice it has tended to concentrate power and encourage secrecy.

“Nobody disputes that in granting contracts councils may have to keep some information confidential. However, our report today suggests that there is instead a culture of aggrandisement and avoidance of public accountability. The role of journalists is to be the eyes and the ears of the public and to tell voters of the decisions that are being made in their name. For that, they need access.”

The NMA campaigned successfully for public and press access to local authority committee meetings during the passage of the Local Government Act 2000.