SALFORD COUNCIL ON TRIAL
"I don't know which planet you're on or where you're coming from..." Stephen Kingston, Salford Star
Yesterday the Salford Star's appeal against Salford Council's decision to block the city's community committees from funding the magazine went back to the Council's Cabinet for the second time.
At an earlier hearing in June, officers of the Council had accused the Salford Star of not meeting the Council's criteria for funding publications because it was `overtly political' and `not balanced' – without producing any evidence.
"We've not been provided with the written evidence of examples of political bias" said Council Leader, John Merry at the time "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…"
For an edited transcript of the June meeting and more background information click here…
For this hearing Sue Lightup, Salford Council's Strategic Director for Community Health and Social Care, produced a report as "additional evidence" to respond to the Salford Star's appeal. The evidence was based on 22 articles on the Salford Star website, from which she concluded…
• "There is not one quote from an individual referred to which is a response to the accusations – quotes are used from reports but with little evidence of direct contact with individuals about their quotes."
• "the articles are not balanced as they focus significantly on the Council, rarely about other public bodies…"
• "…all of the articles presented a critical or cynical view about the Council, its decisions or people" and "There were constant references about the Council that inferred lack of integrity, truth and accountability."
Also included as evidence was the National Union of Journalists Code of Conduct.
To see the full report and the 22 articles referred to, click here, and then click on Salford Star Appeal 1
Sue Lightup, for Salford Council, took the Cabinet through her report and concluded that in terms of the criteria for funding publications she would still advise members to reject the Salford Star's appeal.
THE QUESTIONING OF SUE LIGHTUP
Stephen Kingston, for the Salford Star: Did you actually read these 22 articles?
Sue Lightup: I read every single one of them
SK: I went back through them all last night that's why I'm so knackered today – in every single article you've mentioned there were direct quotes from either representatives of the Council or the people who we were referring to. I can take you through every single article you've mentioned and name the person we quoted. I don't know which planet you're on or where you're coming from because every single one of those articles had a direct quote from the Council or quotes from councillors or officers.
SL: I'm not disagreeing with that, I'm actually suggesting in my report that you do quote people.
SK: It doesn't say that in the report – it says that there's no quotes from councillors – "There is not one quote from an individual referred to which is a response to the accusations" Every single article you read has this.
SL: I'm suggesting that there isn't an opportunity for people to respond. The quotes are out of context.
SK: Would you like me to take you through every single one of those articles – have you got time?
John Merry: Not really. Go on then, give us an example
SK: The article cited about the police probe into Salford Star – there's a direct quote from Nick Page… The Safeguarding Slammed article – a direct quote from John Merry, that's you, in response to it.
SK: Another example – the 10% rises for the NDC – a direct quote from Councillor Bill Hinds responding to that article.
Councillor Lancaster: Did you ask Councillor Hinds for a quote in response to the issue?
SK: He's here – it was a direct quote from you wasn't it?
Bill Hinds: Yeah
SK: We do come back and we are accurate and fair in everything that we do. I can go on and on and on and on…
John Merry: I've read virtually all your website…
SK: You love it…
JM: I'll just quote one example you might want to think about – the `Freedom of speech goes out of the window' headline…who attempted to censor you?
SK: It was a paraphrase of a quote from the Chair of Vertical Villages tenants association.
JM: It's nothing to do with freedom of speech
SK: We would argue that it is actually
JM: Go on then make your presentation…
THE SALFORD STAR PRESENTATION
Stephen Kingston: The report states that the Salford Star concentrates on the Council and doesn't cover other public bodies. Well, the public bodies we have looked into over the last few years include the NDC, NWDA, the NHS Trust, Salford Royal Trust, Hazel Blears and other MPs, URC, Salix, Strategic Partnership Executive and Pathfinder. If there are any others in Salford let me know and we'll investigate them too.
To say that we only concentrate on Salford Council is untrue. What we do is look at the Council in great detail because the Council is the accountable body for most of these organisations. We've done loads on NWDA, and on Pathfinder and the University…
You say that the Star infers that the Council has got "a lack of truth, integrity and accountability" – I don't think we've ever said that the Council tells lies; we've said it misleads, which I'll stand by…and a lack of accountability – yeah, absolutely a lack of accountability.
It's a game of cat and mouse when you're a journalist – you have information you don't want us to see and it's up to us to dig it out – accountability is what we're here for. Part of the reason the Salford Star was set up was to make public bodies more accountable.
Of course we would argue that there is a lack of accountability – for instance in this very meeting, after we've been kicked out, there's an agenda item on the public funding for Chapel Street. As a journalist I'd really like to see that because I get asked by residents all the time what's happening down there – but we're not allowed to see it, which to me is a lack of accountability.
But the main thrust is that you're saying we're not balanced and we don't quote people who we feature. But I've got evidence here of every single article mentioned in that report with direct quotes from the Council or whoever we're on about.
You've also brought in the NUJ Code. The NUJ membership and branches in Manchester and Salford are probably our biggest backers. Why would the union back something that breaks its own code of conduct?
THE QUESTIONING OF SALFORD STAR
Sue Lightup: The Salford Star say they don't breach the criteria – three officers say they do breach the criteria…There are two areas where we feel it does breach the criteria in the political nature of the magazine and that it doesn't take a balanced approach. Those were the two key areas where we have a difference of opinion
Stephen Kingston: I haven't seen any evidence of it. Last time we came to Cabinet people were saying around the table that there was no evidence and I'm still waiting to see some evidence. Show me the evidence…
John Merry: Alright. Derek – do you want to ask a question?
Derek Antrobus: No
Margaret Morris: You claim a number of organisations that you're critical of…
SK: Not critical, investigating…
MM: Do you ever do any positive articles on the things that they've achieved. And can you give me some examples? SK: Absolutely. The University's art shows, the eco houses…
JM: What about Media City?
SK: We're investigating it – it's not open yet.
MM: Can I ask about Salford Royal then – have you done any positive stories about it?
SK: We did lots of stories around the campaign to keep the maternity unit open and we're involved in the campaign to keep it open now.
MM: Have you ever written anything about the things it's achieved?
SK: Has anyone sent us a press release about it?
MM: You're an investigative journalist
SK: We investigate – Salford Council and the NHS have massive press offices pumping out stories.
JM: Not to say that I don't acknowledge the important role of an investigative newspaper, even one like the Star that investigates me from time to time.
SK: That's healthy in a democracy
JM: Absolutely and that's where there's no disagreement between us – the problem is do I think the Council should fund it…
SK: We're not asking the Council to fund it, we're asking the community to fund it through its devolved budget. That is the whole point and crux of the argument, and you are stopping them doing it.
JM: We have tried to devolve as much power as possible to the community but it is still council money, it is still money that comes from council coffers, and as such it has to be subject to the same rules and regulations as council money – I know I'm getting tedious now but the point is that it is council money. Like I said, I would even support some of the stuff that's in the Star but it's not the same as saying that the Council should support it. And if the Council did fund it, it would destroy the raison d'etre of the Star. If we were funding it we'd have to have some editorial control over what would be published in the Star and I don't think you'd be keen on that anyway.
SK: We'll worry about that afterwards. Yes, I agree that the Council has got to be whatever body that needs to do whatever - but you say you've had to put criteria in place and we're saying that we don't breach those criteria because you've presented no evidence for it.
JM: OK the Hazel Blears Must Go campaign…
SK: Oh not that again – we went over that last time.
JM: …The fact that you haven't published any positive stuff on Media City -because you're investigating it means that you've taken a view… We mentioned the `freedom of speech' headline… And Councillor Antrobus wasn't approached directly for a response to his article…
SK: No, hold on, just stop on that – Councillor Antrobus produced a Labour Party press release saying whatever about the green belt. We were the only publication to actually say that was a Labour Party press release and wasn't council policy. Every other publication that covered it said it was a U-turn in council policy – we were the only publication that went back to the source.
JM: Councillor Antrobus do you want to say anything about that?
Derek Antrobus: No
JM: The fact remains that there are issues about the way that you approached it. I find myself in quite a difficult position because one of the things I am sympathetic to is the idea that there should be a campaigning journal within Salford, it's just that I don't necessarily think it's the job of the Council to actually fund it .
SK: What is this `I don't think'? The Council report begins with Sue Lightfoot's `I don't think' – it's all subjective. I repeat, show me some evidence of where we've broken the criteria. Are we overtly political? Are we not balanced ? I've given you evidence today that every single article mentioned in that report was balanced. You've written in that report that we're overtly political with no evidence for it.
JM: I've given you numerous examples of where I felt that you had overstepped the mark…I don't think that we could come to the conclusion otherwise that the magazine takes a particular editorial view and I think that's significant. I don't think it's a magazine that shouldn't be published, it's a question of whether it's appropriate with the particular editorial stance it takes throughout its articles…it isn't the job of the Council to fund what is a polemical magazine.
JM: Anybody else want to comment?
SK: We've got a story on the site this morning about child poverty and as a journalist you have to be a bit polemical when you find out that 60% of kids in Salford are living in poverty. That, quite frankly, is disgusting.
JM: Actually I didn't find that article particularly offensive.
SK: It wasn't supposed to be…
JM: You're perfectly entitled to ask questions, you're perfectly entitled to have opinions, that's why I take exception to freedom of speech and censorship arguments. If you can get the funding elsewhere then you could produce your magazine. The question is should we be supporting the magazine through what is, in effect, public money so that it can convey a particular polemical view point which I would argue has got political tones . Anybody else want to comment?
SK: No-one? Oh come on…
THE CABINET VOTE
JM: I want to stress that this is not about what personal views we have about the Star it's about whether it breaches the code. My view is that having read these stories I think that there is a clear viewpoint behind it which could land us in trouble. I certainly think that if it was a magazine in support of what the Council was doing we'd be in the same situation.
SK: What you're saying is that no publication in Salford will ever be funded?
JM: There are guidelines
SK: But we haven't breached them, we've just been arguing about that. Give me the evidence…
Margaret Morris: Looking at the criteria and the guidance given to community committees, about a balanced approached giving proportionate information on issues, you haven't demonstrated that you do that – you give your point of view and that's it.
SK: For every single article in that report we have direct quotes in response…
MM: That isn't what I'm saying.
JM: It's perfectly possible to give a quote from someone within the context of a misleading article. The Press Complaints Commission deals with loads and loads of stories, just the fact that you've got a quote doesn't actually mean that it's necessarily balanced… Alright, are we ready to vote? Anyone in favour of the appeal?
Two Salford Star hands go up…
JM: You don't have a vote…
The Cabinet votes unanimously to reject the Salford Star appeal.
Councillor Connor: I'm voting against it based on the fact that we don't fund any magazine, not on this particular case.
John Merry: I think we've made it clear that we've not cast an opinion about the quality of journalism but that it shouldn't be funded by public money…
Stop Press: 4th August 2010
A letter from Salford Council signed by Alan Westwood has been received re the appeal. It states:
"The cabinet resolved to dismiss the appeal as: The application fails to meet the agreed criteria in respect of Guidance to Community Committees re Spending of Devolved Budgets on Publications...
"The City Council has statutory duties to ensure that any monies it spends either directly or devolved through community committees are in accordance with Section 2 of the Local Government Act 1986. This precludes the publication of material by the Council which appears to be designed to affect support for a particular party or in support of a party political campaign."
Salford Star response:
We have never `affected support' for any political party or any party political campaign. Any independent judge would see this for themselves. Unfortunately Salford Council is its own judge and jury with everything it does. Which is why publications like the Salford Star are so vital to democracy.