Thurrock Council to ban publications not signed up with regulator

By Matt Abbott | 11th Apr 2017

Thurrock Council’s new communications strategy has been described as ‘something akin to North Korea’ after proposing to ban non-regulated press from their media gallery.

The Council’s announcement, which forms part of their Communication Strategy 2017-20, states that ‘the council will recognise organisations as ‘media’ who are are a member of the Independent Press Standards Association (IPSO) or equivalent regulator and comply with the Editor’s Code of Practice’.

According to Your Thurrock, a hyperlocal online newspaper run by Michael Casey, the move has stirred controversy with UKIP and Labour councillors.

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

The councillor added: “We need an independent and free media to scrutinise the way the Council operates. I hope they see the light and reverse their decision.”

The Council, which describes itself as a half-billion pound organisation, stresses in the report that it recognises the important role the media play in informing the public.

However, what it fails to do is recognise the important role that citizen journalists and hyperlocal community publishers – the vast majority of which are not signed up to any press regulator – play in delivering this service.

Your Thurrock only recently became a member of Impress, the only regulator that has been recognised under the Royal Charter.

Your Thurrock represents one-half of the media comprehensively covering Thurrock, and its council meetings, the other half being the Thurrock Gazette, a Newsquest title regulated by IPSO.

This decision, therefore, could easily have disenfranchised 10,000 members of the public (daily visitors to the Your Thurrock website) from valuable council information had Michael not signed up with Impress.

What is troubling here is not the consequences this decision has in Thurrock, but elsewhere.

If other councils around the country take Thurrock’s lead and ban publications because they are not regulated, hundreds of hyperlocal publishers would be left, quite literally, out in the cold.

Whether by force – through the implementation of Section 40 – or by coercion, hyperlocals would be pressured to sign-up to a regulator that has yet to prove itself, and which they can ill-afford.

There are many titles not currently regulated by IPSO or Impress including The Guardian and Observer, The Independent, and the FT. It would be interesting to see if reporters from any of these publications would be permitted to attend Thurrock Council meetings.

In 2015 the Centre for Community Journalism and Nesta produced a report on UK hyperlocal media and community journalism. The report showed that over 80 per cent of hyperlocals regularly covered council meetings or discussions.

This coverage consistently contributes to civic discourse and dissemination of information in the public interest; holding authority to account and using open data to act as armchair auditors.

This creation of civic, cultural and community benefit, that was once the remit of traditional media, would not exist if access to council meetings was restricted to regulated publishers only.

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

The proposed strategy flies in the face of guidance from the Department of Communities and Local Government which states: ‘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…’

Michael Casey said: “Thurrock got away with it. It remains to be seen if other towns and other hyperlocals will.”

Other proposed changes to Thurrock Council’s communication strategy include punitive measures to media that ‘fail to adhere’ to the codes, or in particular, ‘not reflect the council’s position accurately’.

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