January 14 2010

If they win the upcoming general election, the Tories are promising to tighten up the rules on council funded newspapers.
Shadow local government secretary Caroline Spelman says a future Conservative government will review the Local Authority Publication Code with a view to ensure that councils are not exceeding their remit.
"At one time, literature from the town hall was confined to updates about bin collections over Christmas and library opening hours," says Mrs Spelman,"now they have evolved into fully fledged newspapers."
Chief Executive of the Local Government Association (LGA) John Rainsford counters that local authorities have launched their own titles because "local newspapers have abandoned reporting of local political situations."
"They will report on issues like bypasses, housing developments and big planning stuff," he claims, "but the reporting of what the council does and the way it does it has virtually disappeared in regional and local journalism."
Mr Rainsford says that, in the past, local newspapers would "cover meetings and challenge councillors and officers afterwards; they would start editorial campaigns and set debates going."
He is right of course, but much of the blame for the present lack of coverage can be laid at the door of the Cabinet system which leads to the rubber-stamping of officers' recommendation often without any meaningful debate.
Another contributory factor is that local newspapers are run by accountants who prefer to publish local authority press releases (cost-free) as opposed to peering behind the veil to discover what is really going on (expensive).
And another advantage from the bean-counters' viewpoint is that you are unlikely to be sued for publishing what is in effect councils' self-serving propaganda.
In Pembrokeshire,we have not yet arrived at the situation where the county council produces its own newspaper, though it can be argued that, if the local rag can be relied upon to regurgitate the output of the council's press office, the need does not arise.
According to the website http://www.carmarthenplanning.blogspot.com/ things are further advanced across the border in Carmarthenshire where the county council has launched its own community newsletter.
According to carmarthenshireplanning.blogspot a recent edition contained the following offering: "The Council has recently had to defend this community newspaper against attacks by some local newspapers and some local politicians [Adam Price and Rhodri Glyn Thomas Plaid Cymru]. It is not entirely clear why they are so opposed to the Council informing every citizen in the County about what we do....The local authority is legally required to advertise certain items...As a result we have been spending over £150,000 per annum with local newspapers. Obviously, we regularly keep this under review to ensure it is good value for money. We will continue to work with our local newspapers as we believe they are important in any community, but we believe they have a duty to report fairly and in a balanced way. We will encourage them to do this, without fear or favour."
"Some newspapers do not wish to use any “good news” stories and others occasionally change the story so that it has a very negative angle. Often what we read bears little resemblance to what we actually said or did. We accept that newspapers can report as they see fit. This is their right. That does not mean that the Council has to simply accept that our residents will only be given one side or on occasion misleading information."
So newspapers are encouraged to publish without "fear or favour" provided the council considers the reports fair and balanced.
George Orwell would have understood!
Two things interested Old Grumpy.
First, the website claims that the council was threatening to penalise the "negative" Carmarthen Journal by withdrawing public notices adverts (See "Blackmail 24 Dec 2009).
Second, the amount (£150,000) that the council spends with the local press on publishing public notices.
Carmarthenshire County Council (CCC) serves a population more than one-and-a-half times that of Pembrokeshire yet PCC manages to spend over £200,000 with the Western Telegraph, alone
"(Shome mishtake, shurely? Ed)"
Or could the explanation be that Carmarthenshire has three competing newspapers (Llanelli Star, Carmarthen Journal and South Wales Guardian)?
This is an issue that I will be raising at the next meeting of the county council when my notice of motion calling for the Western Telegraph's advertising charges to be referred to the Competition Commission is due to be debated.
For the record the WT charges £11.30 per column centimetre for pubic notices but only £7.50 for other categories of advertising such as property.
In a recent report to council on a related NoM submitted by Cllr Tony Wicox it was stated that the WT "is the only newspaper circulating in the area" and that "Newspaper proprietors are aware that local authorities have a statutory duty to publish public notices in relation to a range of their activities"
The council's explanation for this 50% premium on public notices is that "the law of supply and demand applies", though you don't need a degree in economics to understand that this is a classic example of monopoly pricing.
Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the meeting where the previous NoM was debated but I am reliably informed that the Leader admitted that the WT had the council over a barrel.
If, as I anticipate, the Independent Political Group uses its block vote to reject my NoM, I will refer the matter myself.

It seems that Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson is in hot water for breaching the ministerial code by neglecting to blow the whistle on his wife's failure to declare an interest with regard to her role in raising finance for a restaurant owned by a friend.
Interestingly, there is a similar requirement in the Code of Conduct that applies to local councillors in Wales.
Paragraph 6(1)(c) of the Code informs members that they "must report to the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales and to your authority's monitoring officer any conduct by another member which you reasonably believe breaches this code of conduct".
When the Code was revised a couple of years ago, this provision was dropped from the English version but retained in Wales.
The purpose of the rule, presumably, is to avoid the operation of the old pals' act where members turn a bind eye to the misdeeds of their fellow councillors.
As I have pointed out previously, this is a piece of legal nonsense because it can lead to a situation where not only is the member who fails to report in breach of the Code, but also any member who fails to report the failure to report and so ad infinitum.
While the principle behind the rule is to be applauded, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is merely a bit of window dressing designed to convince the public that their elected representatives are expected to always act in the public interest.
The get-out is to be found in the words "reasonably believe" which is an entirely subjective test i.e nobody can ever know for certain what someone else reasonably believes.
And the proof of the pudding is in the eating because, as far as I am aware, nobody has ever been brought to book under this provision, though you would have to be be completely naive to believe that no member had ever imitated the three wise monkeys when faced with what they considered to be a colleague's breach of the code.
Perhaps what is required is something along the lines of the definition of those with whom a member has a "close personal association" as someone "who a reasonable member of the public might think that you would be prepared to favour or disadvantage."
So, members would be required to report the matter if "a reasonable member of the public might conclude there had been a breach of the code"


They think its all over

Economic forecasters say that UK GDP grew 0.3% in the fourth quarter of 2009 which means that the recession is over.
However, anyone who takes this to mean that hard times are behind us is surely mistaken.
First the almost 5% fall in output during 2008-2009 is already baked into the cake and any improvement will be from this new low base.
Second, the turnaround is largely the result in the massive amount of taxpayers' cash pumped into the system through quantitative easing.
At some time this will have to be reversed and it is difficult to see how this might be achieve without sending the economy into reverse - the so-called W shaped recession.
As Société Générale noted this week in a research paper: "Removing the stimulus will involve pain; lower growth, higher unemployment and political unpopularity. But policy-makers don't like lower growth, higher unemployment and political unpopularity. They enacted the stimulus in the first place to avoid it! At what point will they decide they do want lower growth, higher unemployment and political unpopularity?
"Given the choice, they won't, ever. So it will be imposed on them (and therefore us) by a suddenly less generous bond market via a government funding crisis."
That I'm afraid is nearer the truth than the guff spouted by politicians of all parties with an eye on the next election.

The bottle of champers has turned up.
I am grateful for all the e-mails on this subject but its discovery puts paid to all those conspiracy theorists who suggested that Grumpette had slurped the bubbly and then made up the story about it being mislaid to cover her tracks.
And the suggestion by a Mr M Fair that it might be found in the bottom of a drawer underneath by my vast collection of England grand slam sweaters was surely not intended to be helpful.
However, if Mr Fair, or anyone else, fancies a bottle of merlot on the result of the upcoming match at Twickers I will be more than happy to accommodate them.
And to anyone tempted to repeat the scurrilous rumour that England will be performing the Haka before the match all I will say is Shane Howarth.
And if that doesn't silence them I'll throw in Brett Sinkinson for good measure.
If they still persist I will point out that Western Samoa's successes on the rugby field have been achieved in spite of most of their top players being poached by the All Blacks.
Just imagine what might have happened if the whole of Samoa had turned up, AND they had been able to field their best team.
And it is that time of year when I can't resist reminding my Celtic cousins that, of the four home nations, only England have never been beaten by Italy.

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