SALFORD COUNCIL ON TRIAL
LYING RABBIS? AXES TO GRIND? INEPT OFFICERS? BIAS? HAZEL BLEARS AND IRAQ?
In an hour long hearing on Tuesday, Salford Council's Cabinet members decided to defer the decision on the Salford Star's appeal against the rejection of its funding applications.
Officers of the Council had written reports stating that the Salford Star did not meet the Council's criteria for funding publications because it was `overtly political' and `not balanced'.
"We've not been provided with the written evidence of examples of political bias" said Council Leader, John Merry "What I want to do is to defer the decision until I've got written evidence of whether it meets the criteria or not. I don't think that on the basis of the evidence I've got before me that I can make a decision. I've not got the evidence in front of me one way or the other…"
Salford Council devolves £3.06 per head of population back to eight community committees around the city, which can decide how to spend the funding. Money is given to all sorts of good community projects, from local football teams to dance groups. However, in 2007, when the Salford Star applied to these committees for funding, the constitution for devolved funding was re-written just for `publications' which had to meet new criteria.
The Council decided then that the Star didn't meet the criteria and the funding application was ripped up. In March this year the Salford Star applied again to three of the community committees – Ordsall and Langworthy, East Salford and Claremont and Weaste.
The report by Council officers to these committees stated that, while none of the Salford Star's content breached the libel laws, the Salford Star is "overtly political in nature" and "cannot be seen to take a balanced approach".
Salford Star's case for appealing was that there was never any definition of `overtly political' provided, and that the method of rejecting the magazine's funding application was based on subjective views of Council officers, particularly as the Executive Summary of the report recommending that the magazine should be "not supported" stated that the Salford Star "tends to criticise authority, in particular singling out Salford City Council and individual councillors for criticism".
The Salford Star's opening statement:
"We're not political, we do take a balanced approach and we regard the whole process by which the community committees were swayed into refusing our application was biased, incorrect and disgusting… Salford councillors don't want to hear criticism, don't want to hear the community's voices and don't want to see independent objective journalism…"
Under questioning, Sue Lightup, The Council's Strategic Director for Community Health and Social Care, said that "it was just across the publication that some articles were of a political nature and there wasn't a balance" although she admitted that "there were no specific examples".
The Salford Star asked Sue Lightup for a definition of `overtly political'… "It's a judgement" she said "We are obviously making judgements about sets of criteria…We have to use the experience and knowledge and understanding we have, and what case law might exist, to make those judgements that we come to – so we use the expertise that we've developed over a period of time basically"
Salford Star: So defining it is subjective?
Sue Lightup: "Many judgements are subjective"
Barbara Spicer, Salford Council's Chief Executive, said the Local Government Act explains that `political' is supporting any political party or candidate – but the Council couldn't give any examples of the Salford Star supporting any political party or candidate.
In response to officers' assertions in their report that the Star had supported the Hazel Must Go! campaign, editor Stephen Kingston said "Given that half the people in this room were slagging her off at a private meeting at the Town Hall, I think it is fair to say that (our backing of the campaign) was representative of people in Salford at that time. After an election was called we did not support that campaign – we continued to expose Hazel's misendeavours but did not support any political candidate – we did not tell anyone not to vote for Hazel or to vote for the Hazel Must Go! candidate."
Indeed, Salford Council had supported a so-called `overtly political' campaign in its own Life magazine, when it campaigned to keep the maternity unit at Hope Hospital open. No matter how just the cause was - and the Salford Star certainly supported that campaign - what was the difference between the campaign to save Hope maternity unit and the Hazel Must Go! campaign, or the campaign to save St George's School which in the end was supported by the independent schools adjudicator?
John Merry stated that `overtly political' wasn't just defined as party political it was also "campaigning in a partisan manner".
Salford Star: So the Council campaigning in a partisan manner in Life for Hope Hospital maternity unit was ok was it?
John Merry: "Let's just concentrate on the issue of funding this magazine…"
The only other example cited in the original officers' report which led to their conclusion that "There can be little doubt that the Salford Star prints articles that are of an overtly political nature" was an article on Planning Lead Member Councillor Derek Antrobus concerning a possible U-turn on industrial development in the Green Belt.
Councillor Antrobus argued that the he was never asked for his views on the article which the officers had argued "infers that comments attributed to Councillor Derek Antrobus were made with the forthcoming election in mind".
Responding, Stephen Kingston said that the magazine had quoted him verbatim in the report and questioned his comments, made in an overtly political press release, released on Labour Party letterhead, shortly before the local election.
It was right to question its integrity, rather than print it as fact, as all the local press had done. Indeed, after last week's planning meeting, when Councillor Antrobus did indeed vote for industrial development (mining) on the Green Belt the Salford Star article seemed to be borne out (see here and here). "The two cases sited in the officers' report just don't stand up."
The appeal continued with Salford Star arguing that the case against it was not only flawed but biased. Stephen Kingston argued that Salford Online, which applied for community committee funding at the same time as Salford Star, never had reports from officers attached to its application saying it hadn't met the criteria… "It stinks of hypocrisy".
Responding, Sue Lightup said that "It was subjected to the same criteria", while another officer stated that Salford Online had actually "passed" the criteria.
"Passed it?" said Stephen Kingston "Though they do uncritical interviews with the BNP, give open access to political candidates? I would argue that the reason they weren't subjected to the criteria is that they cut and paste Salford Council press releases without any independent objective journalism."
The Salford Star quoted further examples of inept judgements by officers.
• An e-mail "expressing the view" that the Star "should not be supported" - obtained by Salford Star, and sent by Brian Wroe, the former Council Strategic Director for Community Health and Social Care - stated that the Star's application was deferred "to await the outcome of deliberation by Lead Member and thereafter the Leader"
As well as the officers view, this seemed to show that "John Merry was the judge of whether we met the criteria and whether we got funded or not" said Stephen Kingston.
Responding, Sue Lightfoot said that "At the time that's what we understood was the process. We haven't used this process since 2007…It's been a little while and not many people had experience of using the criteria, so at the point at which the assessment was made, the understanding was that the decision needed to be made by the Lead Member and Leader – I don't know where that came from. In fact that didn't happen. I accept that's what it says in the e-mail but following that the recommendation was determined by myself and senior officers, not the Leader."
• The Salford Star had explained in both its original application and in a further letter that its online version was a very different animal from its printed magazine because people choose to look at it rather than have it pushed through their door with no choice. As the application was for funding towards the printed magazine, the company had specifically requested that officers and the community committees only refer to the printed magazine in their assessment of the application's merits. Yet officers had only looked at the online content, despite three magazines being included with the application.
Responding, Sue Lightfoot said "I entirely accept the point that with an online publication it is up to people to choose whether they have a look at it or not . But we can only judge the criteria against what we can see…. so we used the criteria against what we saw and that was the advice that we came back with."
• The Ordsall and Langworthy Community Committee rejected the Salford Star's application on the grounds that it was a "commercial venture"…
"This is how badly informed the Community Committees were" said Stephen Kingston "If the Salford Star is anything it is not a commercial venture. How the hell anyone can believe that it's a commercial venture I don't understand…it's obviously based on incredibly bad advice from officers"
Responding, Sue Lightup said "They are entirely able to make their own minds up about how they respond to the Salford Star, so one of the Community Committees chose to respond to the effect that it's a commercial organisation. We did not put those words into the Community Committee's mouths, it's the way they have decided to respond."
• A Community Committee Budget Sub Group member stood up at the East Salford Community Committee meeting and said that, following advice from officers, members had no choice but to reject the Salford Star application – otherwise they would be "breaking the law".
"They had two hands tied behind their backs" said Stephen Kingston "I would accept it if those committees said `We don't want to fund the Star' but when people are told you might go to jail if you fund the Salford Star, that's something completely different."
Responding, Sue Lightup said "I don't think that's an entirely accurate representation of the discussion in East Salford but I wasn't there and you weren't there…"
Stephen Kingston: The person who stood up and said they would be breaking the law was actually a rabbi. Now are you accusing a rabbi of lying?
SL: "I wouldn't dream of doing that – I'm just saying that was his interpretation of the advice that was given"
SK: He had no choice –Claremont and Weaste said the same thing – they had no choice.
SL: "Do you think it is appropriate to have criteria against which to judge decisions?"
SK: Yes. But we have a problem about how you judged us against those criteria… One community committee member who doesn't even like the Salford Star particularly came up to me the next day and said we'd been stitched up."
QUESTIONS FROM THE CABINET
John Merry: Is there a danger that if you did get funding off the Council you will end up with an incredibly bland publication?
Stephen Kingston: Given that we think we meet those criteria we'd carry on exactly as before.
JM: Given that the Council would have to have some form of editorial control wouldn't that be a step too far?
SK: Of course we wouldn't accept control from anybody - hold on a sec, this isn't quite right because before we became a publication we did get money off East Salford Community Committee and no-one insisted on editorial control and nobody insisted on anything but seeing receipts.
Councillor David Lancaster: In Eccles it is clear that the reason we turned it down was that it's coverage doesn't cover Eccles
SK: We didn't apply to Eccles…
DL: You applied to Eccles.
SK: But we didn't apply to Eccles…
DL: I didn't interrupt you, will you have the courtesy to let people get out their question before you say it. Now on the issues of the editorial of Salford Life we've got clear editorial content which is not Labour Party content, it's controlled by the editorial board of the three political parties and it's there to give a balanced view. And that's why we can fund organisations like the Salford Life. Articles in Salford Star have been drawn to my attention and if you can say that is a balanced view which you actually portray, from what I've seen it's nowhere near a balanced view. It's not just Salford Star, I remember another publication in this city which was turned down and it was an organisation I totally support but because it didn't have a balanced view we did not support it. It was about the incinerator in Monton and it was very clear that it was not putting a balanced view and for that reason it was turned down. So we haven't just picked on your paper.
SK: But we did not apply to Eccles…
John Merry: The whole question was around this issue of balance and I think this is something that we disagree on. You think that the fact that you supported the Hazel Must Go campaign before the election absolves you of all accusations of political bias when that campaign was a very clear political campaign, not so much around her expenses, as the candidate said, but around whether our troops should be brought back from Iraq and some of the other issues involved. Is that right?
SK: You've just put your foot in your mouth actually because you said `the candidate said' – Once the candidate was in place Salford Star took a back seat…
JM: We'll check on that…
John Merry: I want to ask another question around the issue of devolved money. You feel that this money is not the Council's. Are you aware of what the legal situation is around this money?
SK: I've seen the constitution, yeah.
JM: So you would agree that legally it is the Council's money and we have a duty to protect it
SK: I would accept that the community committees should be allowed to spend the money how they want.
JM: Is there anywhere in the Local Government Act that allows us to do that?
SK: I don't know I haven't read it.
JM: Well I can assure you there isn't.
SK: Why, because we're overtly political? But nobody has defined what `overtly political' is.
JM: Let's just deal with the issues. If this is legally the Council's money and we have a duty to protect it, we cannot simply allow community committees to spend it on the basis of no criteria whatsoever, you'd accept that won't you?
SK: Yes but I'm saying that we have met the criteria, you're saying we didn't. And I'm saying that the reason we didn't meet the criteria is because it's a subjective judgement.
JM: And there's a whole range of court cases involving these sorts of things where people have contested decisions of councils, have you seen them?
SK: I haven't.
JM: Well there are, take my word for it. Political isn't just, as has been defined, party political, it's campaigning in a partisan manner.
SS: So the Council campaigning in a partisan manner for Hope maternity unit was ok was it?
JM: Let's just concentrate on the issue of funding the magazine….No public money can be formally signed off without councillors being involved in the decision making process….
SK: So you accept that the Council intervened in the Community Committee process?
JM: The Council has to legally intervene if there are issues over the criteria because we cannot escape the consequences of the Local Government Act .
SK: So it's nothing to do with the fact that the "Salford Star tends to criticise authority, in particular singling out Salford Council and individual councillors"?
JM: It may well be that Brian Wroe has expressed that opinion. If the Salford Star does ever appear I may even buy a copy, but it's not the issue of whether it's a good magazine or not, it's an issue of whether it meets the criteria or not.
Councillor Peter Connor: You say you have a balance and that overt political comments were not meant to be overtly political…Are you saying that the Salford Star is not political?
SK: It's not – it would be a lot easier if I and our other journalists could just sit there and not put a comment from the Council in, never put anything about Salford Council events. People forget the positive things that the Salford Star does – promoting exhibitions, bands, artists, you name it – we do a lot of that, which you don't give us any credit for whatsoever . Do you want me to go away from here and say `In future we'll never get a comment from Salford Council because we don't care if we're balanced or not, we won't put anything in that has even got Salford Council's name on it because we don't care'. Do you want us to go and do that?
PC: I didn't say that – I just wanted you to answer the question
SUMMING UP – Edited Highlights
Sue Lightup – for Salford Council
"It's important members that this isn't an issue of whether as officers we're advising the Community Committees that we like the Star or not, it is absolutely nothing to do with that. It's to do with whether we believe the Salford Star in its application meets the criteria which was set out and which allows the council to fulfil its obligations under the Local Government Act, it's as simple as that.
"And in the assessment we undertook we did believe…we could not recommend to the Community Committee budget group that the Salford Star met the criteria. I totally accept that there is a judgement in that, and the Salford Star might totally disagree with that but that is the advice that we felt was appropriate as officers of this council to the Community Committees.
"We didn't feel that the Star met the criteria and we didn't feel that the Council couldn't truly undertake its obligation and responsibilities under the Local Government Act. So I think what we are attempting to do is take a transparent clear approach around publications. It does get more difficult as time goes on because publications can appear in many, many different ways and I entirely accept the point Stephen's made about an online publication is up to people to choose whether they have a look at it or not .
"But we can only judge the criteria against what we can see, so I appreciate that the comments were made at the point that if the publication came out in black and white it would take a different approach. But we couldn't judge on that, we could only judge on what we saw and so we used the criteria against what we saw and that was the advice that we came back with."
Stephen Kingston – for the Salford Star
"We did actually put printed copies of the mag in with the application to judge us on, so to say you then went online to judge us is a nonsense really. If you look at the last issue you will find nothing overtly political, nothing unbalanced, we actually gave way too much space to certain people in it.
"We do not expect to get this decision overturned because we believe that the whole process has been biased from the start, evidenced by the report sent out from Salford Council stating that the Salford Star "tends to criticise authority, in particular singling out Salford City Council and individual councillors for criticism".
"The fact is that Salford Council doesn't like the Salford Star, doesn't like our investigative journalism which takes hours and hours and hours to dig up… we don't print Salford Council press releases verbatim, we independently assess everything that goes out from the Council and NHS and others…
"I still haven't heard a reasonable definition of what is overtly political, I still haven't heard a reasonable definition of the fact that we don't take a balanced approach, and I would argue that Salford Council is making a subjective judgement on whether the Salford Star should be funded from the community or not.
"We'd be breaking the law if we funded the Salford Star" is one comment from a rabbi, while another person came up to me the day after the meeting and said `You've been stitched up'. That's what I believe this Council and this Cabinet is doing to us."
Concluding the appeal John Merry said "I find myself in some difficulty, not whether or not I like the Salford Star and the issue is not whether we want it to exist or not. The fact remains that there are loads of publications which are perfectly entitled to attack councils, but they wouldn't seek funding from the organisations they are attacking…"
SK: "Let's get this right, we are not attacking Salford Council, we're exposing figures and telling people what is actually going on, it's different. There is no axe to grind…"
JM: "OK. Regardless of whether I think you've got an axe to grind, and I think your readers are supporting you because they think you've got an axe to grind, but that is irrelevant.
"The point is that I'm not satisfied yet, and we've not been provided with the written evidence of examples of political bias. What I want to do is to defer the decision until I've got written evidence of whether it meets the criteria or not. I don't think that on the basis of the evidence I've got before me I can make a decision. I've not got the evidence in front of me one way or the other. So I'm going to suggest that we defer this until the next Cabinet meeting."
The next Cabinet meeting is in July. Watch this space…
For more background info click here
See also: The Cost of Getting Up People's Noses at the Mancunian Way
See also The Guardian on Life and Salford Star
See also Hold the Front Page on Salford Star