Working with the news media
Guidance on how we work with the news media
Council employees are made aware of the strict rules on impartiality and publicity that apply in their work as officers (as opposed to private capacity). In short, they are not allowed to enter into any form of communication that supports or promotes, or may be interpreted as supporting or promoting, the political views of any councillor or group of councillors.
This requirement applies at all times in relation to their duties as public servants. It is, however, especially important during an election period. Neither the public nor councillors could be expected to have confidence in officers of any grade who damaged the impartiality of council staff as a whole.
There is a standing instruction that council employees must clear any communication with the media through the Council's Communications Unit. This applies to speaking engagements, announcements or even simple responses to media questions.
We make clear before national and local elections that local councils and their representatives are governed by national legislation and codes of practice. This ensures council communications support and promotes only council policy and not politicians or political parties.
As an indication of the importance of these issues, a press protocol has been incorporated into the council’s constitution which is published on our intranet. It sets out the roles of officers and councillors and who can speak on behalf of the council. Again, this makes plain the need to always go through the Communications Unit.
The Council's Communications Unit works within a number of codes of practice and legislation including:
- The Local Government Act 1986
- Code of Practice on Local Authority Publicity
- Defamation legislation
- Copyright and Data Protection legislation
- Code of Practice on Access to Government Information
- Race Relations Amendment Act
- Disability Discrimination Act
- Press Complaints Commission Code of Practice
- Freedom of Information Act
The Local Government Act 1986 and Code of Practice on Local Authority Publicity are the most important. This is especially the case in relation to election periods.
These are the main points it makes:
- Do not undertake proactive publicity of candidates and other politicians involved directly in the election
- Avoid wherever possible publicity that deals with locally controversial issues. But where this cannot be avoided, for example because the public needs to be informed of some essential change in vital services delivery, the issue must be presented simply, fairly and of course impartially. Opposing points of view should be represented
- Avoid publicity that reports views, proposals or recommendations in such a way that identifies them with individual members or groups of members
- Respond to events and legitimate service enquiries provided that the answers given are factual and not party political
- Comment in an emergency where there is a genuine need for a member level response to an important event outside the council's control
- A local authority shall not publish (or assist others to publish) material that, in the whole or part, appears to be designed to affect public support of a political party
The code is clear that individual councillors should only receive publicity support if it is:
- Relevant to their position and responsibilities within the council
- Does not personalise the issues or promote personal image making
- Is not capable of being portrayed as party political
- Does not attack the policies or opinions of other parties, groups or individuals
Key aspects of the press protocol are:
- Members will not discuss with or disclose confidential or exempt information to the media
- Members will not use the media to criticise officers unfairly, make personal attacks on them or undermine respect for them
- All council news releases and publicity will come from the Communications Unit
- All party political news releases issued by Group Leaders, Chairs, Group Spokespeople or individual members should state clearly that the release has been issued by that person not on behalf of the council. Council officers should not be quoted in party political press releases
All media enquiries should be referred to the Council's Communications Unit before any comment is given. Council officers will not discuss council business with the press without prior permission from their service head and the Media and PR Team. This includes speaking, writing or giving interviews to the media.
No employee should ever:
- Publicise confidential information gained in the course of their work
- Maliciously undermine the council by adverse or negative comments
- Take personal issues concerning their employment to the media
- Bring the council into disrepute by the extremity of their views
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