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Why we are fighting for press freedom

PUBLISHED: 13:12 10 August 2018 | UPDATED: 10:32 13 August 2018

The Thurrock Independent front page. Pic: THURROCK INDEPENDENT

The Thurrock Independent front page. Pic: THURROCK INDEPENDENT

Archant

Today we are highlighting a remarkable case of a council refusing to open itself to scrutiny from local press – transparency essential to our society.

Thurrock Independent editor Neil Speight. Pic: N SPEIGHTThurrock Independent editor Neil Speight. Pic: N SPEIGHT

Our job is to ensure you, our loyal readers, are fully aware of what your elected officials and executives on the council are doing.

When Thurrock Council chief executive Lyn Carpenter unilaterally decided to block the local publication the Thurrock Independent she breached the age old relationship between the council, the media and the community.

Editor Neil Speight has done nothing wrong. In fact it is his vigorous pursuit of transparency on behalf of his community that has so offended the chief executive.

We are in the same business and will not stand by idly while one rogue chief executive abuses power in this manner. When democracy is diminished in one place, it is diminished everywhere.

Thurrock Council CEO Lyn Carpenter. Pic: Steve O'Connell/Thurrock CouncilThurrock Council CEO Lyn Carpenter. Pic: Steve O'Connell/Thurrock Council

That’s why today we are writing to the CEO to register our dismay at her action, and why we are offering Neil Speight and his newspaper practical assistance until this ridiculous decision is reversed.

We will be making our position known to the local government minister this week.

Thurrock Council has written to Thurrock Independent editor Neil Speight to say it will not answer requests for comment for six months - restricting the ability to carry out journalism on behalf of local residents.

A letter from the council’s chief executive Lyn Carpenter, posted on the Independent’s website, states the council is taking the action because of what it calls “repeated breaches of appropriate working practices”.

Thurrock Council leader Cllr Rob Gledhill. Pic: NEIL SPEIGHT/THURROCK INDEPENDENTThurrock Council leader Cllr Rob Gledhill. Pic: NEIL SPEIGHT/THURROCK INDEPENDENT

An earlier letter to Mr Speight, dated May 15, outlines “vexatious and unreasonable” behaviour the authority viewed as “wholly inappropriate” - warning it was considering a ban.

Mr Speight told us he believes Thurrock Council is a law unto themselves. That this decision means there is no local democracy if they feel they are not accountable and don’t have to answer legitimate questions.

He predicted the council would overturn the decision claiming independent and Labour-group opposition councillors didn’t support the move.

The council’s outrageous move comes after press watchdog the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) cleared the Thurrock Independent over a front page editorial branding the authority a “council of secrecy and contempt”.

IPSO ruled “the publication had not received responses to the questions it had asked in time for the print deadline”.

The decision by Thurrock Council to effectively sever ties with the Independent is an outrageous attack on press freedom.

It’s vital we call out this sort of behaviour and challenge it at every opportunity. Holding local and central government to account is a fundamental part of the local press and the bedrock of democracy.

Archant will continue to campaign for and defend press freedom everywhere it’s challenged.

We strongly urge Ms Carpenter to rethink her position as soon as possible, and meet with Mr Speight to find a swift resolution.

We would like to make clear that the councils we work with recognise the importance of an independent free press and are supportive in keeping the lines of communication open and we hope this remains the case.

Readers who are as concerned as we are about this gross affront to local journalism can write to us, and also directly to the chief executive.

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