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countering the spin and providing the balance



Fylde's SpinMistressOn several occasions recently, the Commissar has produced misleading figures for things.

He has told the media the new Town Hall will cost £5million when the actual cost is £6 million plus VAT (totalling almost £7 million).

He said Fylde's Government Grant had been cut by £600,000. This turned out to be an incomplete story because other Government grants had been increased by more, giving an overall increase for next year.

He also said Concessionary Travel would cost an extra £300,000 but forgot to mention the £275,000 extra grant from Government toward it, and savings elsewhere that mean next year OAP travel is expected to cost less than it did this year.

With such incomplete or inaccurate information being released to the media, we thought it was time to look at how Fylde now spreads its word to see if we can work out where it is going wrong.

In former days, when Fylde was run properly, it had officers doing jobs you could understand and people you could recognise. They took responsibility for their actions, and were accountable to both the Council and the public for what they and their departments did.

It had Councillors who (mostly at least) regarded themselves as accountable for the priorities of the Council on which they served, and for the behaviour and performance of the officers they appointed.

Certainly, we never heard a Councillor refer to a decision the Council had made as one 'they' had made. It was always a decision 'we' had made.

Today, its hard to find anyone not on the Cabinet who feels they are part of the decision making process of Fylde Council. It's all "they did", or "they said". Such is the alienation and disaster that the Cabinet system has brought.

Previously, both officers and Members spoke directly with the media. In the case of officers, it was usually on behalf of their departments, and in the case of Elected Members, it was of their part on the Council.

But when the Politburo Cabinet usurped the power of the Council, things changed.

To make themselves the kingpins, they had to take control of the information management so they could control and limit what others knew.

They went further, and took control of the information going out of the Council as well as its internal distribution.

They introduced a 'Media Policy'

Part of the logic for doing this, (according to FBC) is that: "Research by MORI has found residents often cite the local media as a key influence on their perceptions of the Council. Therefore, effective media management is an essential role in protecting and enhancing our reputation. This policy is set out to enhance and protect the reputation of the council and all its stakeholders and applies to both employees and members."

We can certainly see protecting and enhancing (twice) in that introduction to the policy.

What we don't read is anything about truth, completeness, or accuracy of information.

Initially, Fylde spent money on appointing its own Communications Officer, but now they have outsourced this to Blackpool Council, and a hired hand from Blackpool's spin unit now does the job. Most often, it's a lady (xxx)* (pictured left taking notes at the last Council meeting) who does the actual spinning.

So in some ways she is our main spinstress.

Fylde's Media Policy says her job is:

- To positively promote the Council, its services, facilities and agreed corporate objectives;

- To respond quickly to all media enquiries within the policies of the Council;

- To ensure that the integrity of the Authority is maintained and the rights to privacy of staff are protected;

- To keep records of all media contact including details of any responses issued to the media and the source of all information released.

Again we're heavy into promotion and protection, and light on things like truth, completeness and accuracy.

Whilst the Leader, Deputy Leader and the other brief holders, are the main official spokespersons on matters concerning their area or brief, other Elected Members are encouraged to refer all non-political media enquiries that relate to Council policy or procedures to the Communications Officer in order that he/she may liaise with official spokespersons to generate a response.

That's a polite way of saying 'Keep your trap shut and leave it to (xxx)*'.

This ensures the official line is followed, and Councillors who do not hold an official position may only comment in a personal capacity. They cannot now speak on behalf of the Council on which they serve.

Council employees are no longer allowed to speak to the media about Council related issues unless this is done in direct liaison with the Communications Officer.

Another feature of the policy is that wherever possible, Councillors, rather than officers, are to be quoted in 'proactive' press releases.

That gives Councillors the credit for positive spin.

The policy does however say that all quotes will be checked with the Member(s) concerned.

So when a press release is written for the Commissar, he should be given the chance to check what he is going to say before the words are actually put in his mouth.

So if she or whoever is doing their job (and we've no reason to doubt that) it doesn't look as though (xxx)* is at fault for the mis-information emanating from the Commissar.

What this all adds up to is an organisation desperate to manipulate its image, to control information, and manage news.

It is an organisation that believes publicity is the same as achievement.

And from the way the Commissar is misquoting figures, it's no wonder that truth and completeness don't figure highly in its importance stakes.

Dated:  13 March 2008

UPDATE 11 April 2008
(xxx)* A personal name has been removed on request. We are happy to do this and to apologise if its inclusion caused any embarrassment to the person concerned.


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