Citizen journalists are often hampered by lack to official information and delays with freedom of information requests. Social media often gets blamed for fake news and councils’ comms teams are often the first to blame newspapers and social media for fake news.
One example FOI request is useful at showing how communications and statements can be sought and produced very quickly when needed. Interest from the national press helps in this feeling of urgency. And it’s also an excellent example of how a newspaper item is called ‘fake news’ by the council but in fact is found to be fake news by the council itself.
Also, note the different power balances between the roles in councils and the speed with which some questions are answered.
In March 2019, a video was taken of old streetlights being removed from Bedminster — a poorer area in the city — and being installed in a wealthier area — Sneyd Park.
The FOI requesting emails about the situation showed the mayor’s assistant fervently chasing up responses from officers and getting lengthy replies.
In contrast, the cabinet member responsible was identified as someone different from the Cabinet member who asked questions about what was happening [he was the central ward councillor Kye Dudd]. The cabinet member responsible did not ask any questions at all in the emails and is not seen to have been involved.
This shows a curious balance of power. When talking about local participation, I refer to types of participation such as voting, participating in public meetings, writing to councillors etc.
The public facing and policy creating part of the council is vested in the cabinet members and mayor. Politicians decide policy and civil servants/officers implement it.
The mayor’s assistant is a political role. They are not elected. They are accountable to the council’s code of conduct perhaps and to their boss, the mayor — also to HR? I’m not sure. [research]
Cabinet members are appointed by the head of the cabinet and as councillors are elected by their constituents.
The streetlight example highlights who has what power to achieve which aims. In this case, the aim was to identify whether a practice was taking place and who benefited.
The first article came from the Bristol Post, which, according to the council emails, said that “(nice)” lamps were being taken from poorer areas and being placed in wealthier areas. This would in consequence benefit the wealthier areas to the detriment of the poorer areas.
The first statement from the press office was intended to dispute this fact.
They at this point had already been contacted by the Mail Online:
From the Public Relations email account to the mayor’s assistant, executive director of Growth and Regeneration and others redacted: “Just to add that Mail Online have also called about this now. They are obviously all going for the ‘class war’ angle, which is not helpful.”
To who and why the ‘class war’ angle is not helpful is not mentioned. I would guess that feeling under pressure from enquiries by newspapers and residents, it was not helpful for the council having its own perspective believed. The writer may have other interpretations of ‘not helpful’.
The beginning of the first press statement was drafted as follows:
“It is totally inaccurate to suggest the council is stripping some areas of the city of historical assets to benefits other
It is as simple as needing to replace the lampposts as they don’t work well anymore and this is a health and
safety risk. There are no plans to put the old lampposts anywhere else. We would not usually consult residents
regarding changes to the type of lamppost, however are happy to chat through any concerns they may have.”
The response to the statement is as follows:
“Have spoken with Kevin [mayor’s assistant (MA)]– He is clear that we need to go further than the highlighted section”
This can clearly be seen as taking directions from the MA.
The director of place and management, in a follow-up email just minutes later [between 1pm and 2pm], explains what is happening and concludes with:
“They are certainly not being reused in Clifton or Redland”
Between 4pm and 5pm, there was a follow-up email about what had been happening.
The next day, after the context of the situation had been deduced — a historical policy decision to replace rotten lamplights but with the decision to also maintain the style of the most lamplights in the area, if most are new replace with new, if most are old (nice) replace with old etc. — the MA issues a policy decision:
By the time the final press statement was released, it had lost its aggressive stance that affectively called the Bristol Post liars (purveyors of fake news) — “totally inaccurate” –and acknowledged wealthier areas had benefited from a historic policy:
This has had the long term effect of concentrating heritage lampposts in affluent areas. The final press line
we arrived at yesterday was:
“We have suspended the streetlight replacement programme while we fully explore its consequences. For
decades many areas of Bristol have lost their older lampposts while some areas have retained them. We intend to have a policy that ensures all areas are treated equally.”
[to be continued]