Gagging For It

The relationship between journalists and politicians has always been a two way street. Each needs the other in order to put across their message or to hold decision makers to account. And on the whole it works very well – as long as each has an understanding of the others’ limitations.

Yet the relationship becomes more complicated when a happy partnership becomes a threesome. Particularly when the third party suggests that it is they who make the decisions rather than the other two.

OK, it’s time to stop talking in riddles. This week’s East Midlands Politics Show was less balanced than it might have been. Not because of the journalists or the politicians, but because of press officers.

Was the Politics Show gagged by a press officer?

Now on the whole, press officers are facilitators. Fixers. Friends, even. Conventional protocol says that it’s polite to firstly ask a press officer for an interviewee. But on occasion, there may be reasons for going straight to the source of a story.

This week, the Politics Show was running a story about three schools in North Nottinghamshire which had been due to become academies suddenly being brought back into the control of Nottinghamshire County Council. Apparently, concerns had been raised over the guarantees of certain bills or insurance being paid in the event of the projects hitting problems. It’s a pretty juicy story.
But even though the relevant Cabinet Member for Education had agreed to an interview, to appear on the programme, and to answer questions, he was suddenly unable to do so. The reason? A press officer told the show that it was they who decided who could and could not appear on the programme.
Quite rightly, the presenter broadcast this information at the start of the segment, before going on to interview the Labour MP for Bassetlaw, John Mann.
It’s by no means the first time that a press officer has stepped in to try and stop… ahem, correct… a story before it is broadcast. And what’s wrong with that? After all, they’re just doing their job – to protect the corporate objectives and integrity of their organisation.
But surely it is the politicians who ultimately make the decisions? They’re the ones we elect and therefore the ones who are accountable to the tax payer. So for a politician – who wants to be open and transparent with the electorate – to be advised by a press officer that they can’t do an interview that’s already been agreed, looks less than open and transparent.
The Politics Show was told that there were legal matters involved in the story, which of course any good journalist would have checked out prior to broadcast. Yet aside from this, was there any real reason why the councillor shouldn’t have appeared?
Feel free to add your comments and join in the debate.

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