THE INTERVIEW: Gagged by overcontrolling district council... Town centre manager forbidden from speaking to the press by ruling Conservatives

county times feb 14

county times feb 14

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By Theo Cronin (first published in the West Sussex Gazette and West Sussex County Times March 27 and 28, 2013, prior to Piazza Italia)

This week I find myself in the embarrassing position of penning a feature interview with no interviewee.

My intended subject, whom I have interviewed on numerous occasions over the past seven years, has been gagged.

As Horsham celebrates Piazza Italia, its largest town centre event this weekend, the town centre manager whose brainchild it was seven years ago has been banned from talking to the press.

The senior HDC officer with a small team, and he would probably say a smaller budget, has grown the three-day spectacular into ‘the South East’s most popular free public event over the Easter period’ - that’s the council’s words, not mine.

But I have no reason to doubt them. Who can forget the glorious vision of nearly a hundred Ferraris gleaming in the Carfax, surrounded by adoring crowds?

Piazza Italia is an event Horsham District Council should be very proud of.

Good Friday 2012 was one of the busiest days the town centre has ever experienced.

But it wasn’t always the case. I remember reporting on the very first Piazza Italia seven years ago and feeling somewhat underwhelmed.

Especially disappointing was the absence of pizza for sale at the Italian market for example, and the dearth of eye candy and other activities on offer.

But I was impressed by the passion and vision of the event’s organiser - the town centre manager. He has worked tirelessly ever since to ensure Piazza Italia is the success the council now boasts far and wide it to be.

Each year I have interviewed this public and senior council officer either before, during or after the event.

And so I expected my interview request last week to be warmly embraced, after all it offered the council additional exposure for their flagship event.

It was an opportunity to explore in detail Piazza Italia’s history, how it came to be, how it has evolved, and more importantly, what the underlying strategy longer term has always been.

With extensive first-hand knowledge of the event I expected my interviewee to masterfully dispel the yearly criticisms that it is a waste of council taxpayers’ money and that the event merely negatively impacts businesses.

To answer he may have expounded on his prescient approach first implemented before the recession to use events to cement a reputation for Horsham as a destination worth travelling to.

But we will never know. My interview was rejected.

Why, I enquired? I want to write a positive piece championing Piazza Italia and the council’s strategy.

But my request had fallen foul of a policy that in my opinion is insidious – one that contaminates and bores to the very core of democratic values and accountability I believe should be sacrosanct.

“It is policy that Cabinet Members speak to the media,” I was informed. Since when?

The County Times is the leading newspaper in the Horsham district – I am its news editor. But this is news I had never encountered before.

The town centre manager role is a senior position in the council, and a public facing one at that.

In all my time as a journalist, I nor any of my colleagues have ever been refused access to a town centre manager – even on the most controversial of topics.

But it is not just this senior officer we are apparently being barred from interviewing – it is all council officers, at a time when morale is already rock bottom as their terms and conditions are subjected to the austerity drive.

Do they no longer trust what their staff might say?

What if we need to clarify a complex point of procedure with a planning application?

In the past we have had access to the relevant planning officer with the expertise necessary to facilitate our enquiry.

Must we now discuss this with a politician in the cabinet, who by definition is an amateur with a party political agenda rather than an impartial officer.

I have also had occasion to discuss matters of a sensitive and legal nature with the council solicitor before.

Must we now await for a cabinet member to be free for comment, on an issue outside of their expertise where a danger of litigation could expose both the local authority and the paper to financial penalties?

Remember too that all Horsham District Council cabinet members are from the same political party - in this case Conservatives.

Is this new policy a shameful attempt to politicise all external communications, just five weeks before county council elections?

Such a policy is more akin to a one-party Third World state masquerading as a democracy – but this is Horsham – a local authority that for the most part can be proud of its dealings with the local media.

But then Britain is fast becoming an increasingly secret society - this policy is little different from their national counterparts’ latest moves to gag the press with new statutory controls under the cover of dealing with the excesses of a couple of tabloid newspapers, whose alleged crimes were already illegal and covered by existing legislation.

For my piece exploring the history of Piazza Italia, I declined the offer to interview the Conservative cabinet member for Communication, Horsham Town and Special Projects, who has been in post a little over one year, and a member of the council for under two.You the readers of the County Times deserve better.

In a statement received this week Helena Croft said: “It is entirely appropriate for elected councillors to be featured in the press about the work of the council and in so doing for the public to understand who exactly is behind making local decisions that affect people’s lives. Sometimes our work with the press involves comment from council officers but in general we seek to publicise elected councillors in news features. Like many councils, the way we handle the media reflects this position.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below or email ct.letters@sussexnewspapers.co.uk

Or contact Theo Cronin | theo.cronin@sussexnewspapers.co.uk | @theocronin | 01403 751 233