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Council reporting: ‘a pillar of democracy’

Geoff Helisma |

A recent study commissioned by the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA), State of the Regions Report: Availability of Local News and Information, analyses and emphasises the importance of reporting about local government issues.

“Local journalism matters,” page 1 of the report states. “The work done by journalists employed by regional media is not replicated elsewhere.”

The Public Interest Journalism Initiative (PIJI), which carried out the study, says “public interest journalism reports the information the public is entitled to know and holds authority to account”.

“It is a vital pillar of Australian democracy,” its website states.

Local government is the closest government to the people and, as such, the type of government – both elected and operational – that has the best opportunity to work strategically and directly with its local communities.

The Independent has been covering Clarence Valley Council (CVC) and its interaction with the community since CVC was established in 2004, however, the council’s protocols for answering the media’s question changed in 2014.

Up until then directors were directly available by phone to take enquiries.

Generally, CVC has since required media enquiries to be lodged via email (this is also the case when making enquiries to state and federal bureaucracies and elected representatives), interviews are rarely granted and specific questions are regularly met with overarching statements in return emails.

Last week, the Independent published the story, Worrying decline in local news (as released by ALGA), which discussed the “sharp and worrying decline in the amount of local news available in Australia”.

In a media statement, the report’s lead author, Associate Professor Margaret Simons, said: “Most concerning from PIJI’s point of view is the impact on local communities’ access to information and the [reduction of] scrutiny of local institutions….

“These are the tenets of democracy, which is ultimately what suffers when citizens no longer have access to objective, accurate and relevant information on which to make decisions.”

The Independent asked her: ‘On that basis, while I understand your analysis focuses on fewer journalists reporting on local government as a result of changes in the media landscape, our newspaper often receives non-specific answers to direct questions: how can we compel local governments to be more transparent in answering questions in the community’s interest?’

“That’s a good question,” Assoc Prof Simons said. “The truth is we can’t compel them to answer questions.

“Certainly, over the last 30 years there has been a trend towards councillors and senior council staff being told that they shouldn’t talk to media – all queries have to go through media professionals, PR people, and … in some cases it’s very difficult to get council to comment on anything at all, others are quite helpful and cooperative with the media, so it’s a mixed picture.

“But when you get one that is obstructive, it’s very hard to get [information] out of local government; I think it’s short-sighted media management, to take that approach.”

The Independent spoke with CVC’s general manager, Ashley Lindsay, about how CVC interacts with the media.

Independent: What is your opinion regarding Assoc Prof Simons’ above statements, when applying them to CVC?

Ashley Lindsay: “In my opinion Assoc Prof Simons is right.

“One of the key issues that I recognised when I was first appointed to the position of general manager is that council and, in particular, the general manager’s relationship with the Clarence Valley community and local media was broken.

“I have worked hard over the last two years to mend those relationships.

“I am always available for the media whether it is the local print media, TV, the ABC or community radio.

I: While acknowledging that most enquiries to state and federal government entities are also made via email, can you please explain why this is the case at CVC?

AL: “Our reason for seeking questions from the media via email through our communications officer is to ensure that we have appropriate control over our messaging.

“Clarence Valley Council is a large organisation; and before the appointment of our communications officer we really didn’t have that control in place or the expertise of a media professional.

I: The rise of digital social media platforms, where citizens specifically discuss CVC issues, has interfered with the traditional mainstream media.

The outcomes of these online discussions often distort the facts, which can influence citizens’ decision making and participation in social, economic and democratic processes.

This phenomenon, combined with barriers to genuine media enquiry, can result in the media ‘becoming more partisan and selective, and increasingly controlled and manipulated by those who have the skills and interest to do so’, the PIJI report observes. ‘This, in turn, is likely to lead to less social cohesion.’

Isn’t cooperating with the mainstream media an opportunity to, at least, put the facts into the public domain to combat this phenomenon?

AL: “Yes I agree. See my response above. As I have stated previously, I am and will always be available to answer questions from the Independent.”

Mr Lindsay said he would make himself available for further discussion, if necessary, following an initial enquiry.