On Thursday night I went to the Municipal Journal Local Government Awards at the Park Lane Hilton. Don't worry. No Hammersmith and Fulham Council Taxpayers were harmed in order to pay for my dinner. The MJ let me in for free as I write an occasional column for them. (But if you're a Council Taxpayer in Harrow then as Bjorge Lillelien would say "you took one Helluva beating.")
The awards were presented by Tony Blair's former spin doctor Alastair Campbell. I was wondering what he did these days. The answer he attempts to eke out a crust as a "turn" on the after dinner circuit – a poor man's Jeffrey Archer. Campbell scarcely mentioned local government in his speech – it is not a subject he has ever shown much interest in or knowledge of apart from his spirited efforts to make Frank Dobson the Mayor of London. Instead Campbell gave a party political broadcast.
At one stage he complained that Education Secretary Michael Gove "has never praised a high achieving state school." I responded by shouting "rubbish" and have subsequently challenged Campbell via my Twitter with a few examples – just from my own borough – of Gove offering the most emphatic praise for high performing state schools. Doubtless given Campbell's concern for truth and integrity he will wish to apologise to the Secretary of State for Education at the earliest opportunity.
But Campbell's main theme was a reprise of his whining about the Daily Mail (whose online version I regularly write for.) As the newspaper has run lots of critical stories about local councils and about Campbell I suppose Campbell saw the opportunity to turn the event into some kind of therapy session. His demand that the Daily Mail should be closed down met with an underwhelming response. But I suppose the murderers of Stephen Lawrence would have agreed with him.
For Campbell, a former Mirror hack who has since developed a high minded contempt for press freedom, there are probably several newspapers he would like closed. Perhaps everything except the Mirror. But in the manner of a school bully (albeit it one who no longer has any power) he likes to focus his attack.
However even if few at the dinner would wish the Daily Mail to be closed down there would be no shortage agreeing with the lazy label that it is "anti local government." But it is not "anti local government" to challenge particular local councils are particular things they are doing. Exposing political correctness preventing children being placed for adoption is not "anti local government." Or health and safety absurdities frustrating community activities. Or basic services like weekly in collections not being provided. Or money being wasted on "non jobs".
Often I follow up these stories on this blog asking the Council concerned further queries. Overwhelmingly, though not always, I find the Daily Mail reports to be accurate in their details and well chosen as themes for campaigning journalism.
At the Reform local government conference the other day I heard Cllr Alan Rudge from Birmingham talk about the time he spent vetting any request to recruit a new post reflecting on how it could be justified if the Daily Mail challenged it. Good. Transparency, accountability and robust scrutiny are critical to good local government. The Daily Mail makes a tremendous contribution in this regard and it should be celebrated by all who believe in good local government.