Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles has opposed “Stalinist” rules which speak to bar councillors from speaking to the press without the permission of state officials.

The Government is taking action in response to new guidance issued by the National Association of Local Councils to all parish councils. The new “media policy” which councils are asked to formally adopt seeks to bar contact with journalists.

It asserts:

  • All journalists must contact the Council Clerk and may not contact councillors directly.
  • Any contact by councillors with journalists requires the Council’s prior written consent.
  • Councillors cannot provide verbal or written statements to the media as a councillor without the written consent.
  • Councillors are not permitted to use the title “councillor” if giving comments in a private capacity.

Parish councils are asked to adopt this council into their constitution and standards rules, meaning councillors could be investigated and disciplined if they do not obey.

Mr Pickles is writing to the National Association of Local Councils to call for the immediate withdrawal of this guidance.

He says:

“Freedom of speech is a vital part of local democracy. Councillors must be able to challenge waste and inefficiency, and should not have to get permission from state officials to speak to the press.

“I am concerned that this Stalinist guidance will have a chilling effect on public life. I am making clear its contents are utterly opposed by the Government and it should be withdrawn immediately. We should be championing the independent free press, not trying to suppress it.”

The NALC says:

“We want our 9,000 parish councils to have more dealings with the media. Councils are doing a brilliant job improving their area and we want the media to report that… It does not bar councillors from speaking to the media but explains the legal framework that governs them”

Yet that response is completely disingenuous – the guidance is clearly about restricting contact with the media.

If this “media policy” is embedded in a Council’s standing orders, then it will end up being part of the Councillors’ Code of Conduct which councillors must follow of face a “standards” investigation.

My advice to those parish and town councils that believe in freedom would be to bin the guidance – and cancel their sub to the NALC. The subscription might only be a couple of hundred pounds – but money that could surely be better than spent on cleaning village ponds or repairing village clocks than on seeking to impose such an odious restriction on the free speech of those seeking to serve their community.