by Peter Cook
When did so-called “media departments” of local authorities become so Orwellian and control-freakish?
I’ve always looked on council press officers as fetchers and carriers, employed to get you the correct spelling of a councillor’s name or to put you in touch with people who actually know something.
These days, they seem to see themselves as little Alastair Campbells who want to determine not just what is said, but how it is said and who says it.
A week or so back I had occasion to write a story that put the Medway Archives and Local Studies Centre in a good light.
They had won a nationwide award reflecting the helpfulness and professionalism of staff.
I use the centre a lot and can confirm that staff there are friendly, accommodating, helpful, knowledgeable and prepared to go the extra mile in assisting researchers.
The story, of course, required a quote from someone connected with the MALSC, so I called a senior member of the library staff. We had a pleasant conversation and she gave me just the quote I needed – bubbly, enthusiastic, and informed.
She wanted to run it past the Medway Council media people, more out of courtesy than anything else and, of course, I was fine with that. That was when the Monty Python foot descended, crushing this person’s excellent comments. “They would prefer to do their own story,” she told me.
Well, it was a shame, but no skin off my nose. I did my story, leaving out her quote, but ignoring the media department of course. They don’t tell me what to write.
Eventually, I saw the press release that emanated from this august media department. It was flat, uninspiring, dreary, and looked as if it had been written by someone in the council tax department.
The one thing that struck me was that in included a quote – but from Cllr Howard Doe, who heads up the committee responsible for the MALSC.
It was the usual waffle, probably written by the same person in the media department who compiled the press release. Quotes in press releases are always meaningless and usually made up by a press officer.
Now I have nothing against Cllr Doe, fine upstanding pillar of the community that he is. But what it tells us is that the so-called media department, staffed by highly expensive if lacklustre individuals, is there to promote councillors rather than reflect the work of the council itself.
Remember, you are paying – through your council tax – a lot of money for this department and its propaganda sheet, Medway Matters.
It is also worth remembering that, in the current climate of cuts, Cllr Doe may be the one who has to announce cuts to Medway’s library service. I’m not saying he will, but he might. If that happens, wishy-washy words of commendation to the MALSC will ring very hollow.