The pantomime of politics - what has happened to truth and transparency?

  Posted: 25.11.21 at 09:55 by News and COMMENT by Nub News editor Neil Speight

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A LEADING Thurrock councillor has been accused of scraping the barrel of transparency and honesty during his response to questions over the authority's communications strategy.

Cllr Jack Duffin was speaking at a full meeting of the council last night (Wednesday, 24 November) in answer to a question from Labour's Cllr John Kent about the strategy being approved, without debate or public discussion, by councillor leader Cllr Rob Gledhill.

At a meeting of the council's cabinet in September Cllr Duffin had questioned the strategy and a report by the council's director of communications Karen Wheeler in response to criticism of it by - among others - Neil Speight, editor of Nub News.

His concerns, and those previously expressed by members of the council's corporate overview committee and also council deputy leader Cllr Shane Hebb, led to the cabinet deferring any decision and it was agreed that Ms Wheeler should consult with members of the media and bring her report back to cabinet.

That should have happened on Wednesday, 13 October when a new report was prepared by Ms Wheeler.

In the interim between the two meetings Ms Wheeler had emailed local media editors asking for their views on the strategy.

Mr Speight did respond, though his views were not sent until eight days after a deadline imposed by Ms Wheeler. Mr Speight candidly admits he misread the deadline time, saying: "If it had been rejected, fair enough, it was my fault. But it was accepted and acknowledged for which I was grateful."

The response was acknowledged formally n the report prepared for the 13 October meeting when it was also identified as the only response. Ms Wheeler said: "No feedback was received from any local media outlet in response to this invitation within the deadline provided of 27 September, however, one response was received on 4 October.

"The feedback in this response is focused on operational aspects of communications including timescales, equipment and on-call arrangements. Feedback on the media briefings already included as part of the strategy will be taken into account as the approach is further developed.

"Consideration will be given to the operational issues raised in the response but they do not impact on the overall strategic approach to the council’s communications and the strategy itself."

The cabinet meeting on 13 October did not take place because, ironically pointed out by Mr Speight moments before the meeting was convened, it would have been illegal because of administrative errors in publicising it and a change in its location.

The meeting was never reconvened and the strategy became policy under a directive issued by Cllr Gledhill.

Mr Speight challenged the legitimacy of that decision, saying the many points he had raised about the council's repeated failure to enter dialogue with the media, refusal to answer legitimate questions and genuine concerns expressed by councillors of all political persuasions about transparency were being dismissed without, in his opinion, proper consideration.

He challenged Cllr Duffin to bring the matter back to cabinet and question the actions of Cllr Gledhill and the veracity of Ms Wheeler's report.

He declined to do so and the matter passed without mention at November's cabinet meeting.

In an attempt to bring the matter into the public domain, Mr Speight submitted a 114 word question to Cllr Duffin to be asked during 'residents' questions' at full council.

The council refused to allow the question saying it was not 'concise' and was a statement rather than a question. The question can be read at the end of this piece.

During members' questions at full council yesterday, Cllr Kent asked Cllr Duffin if he was happy that an issue he and other councillors had expressed concerns about had been pushed through by an executive, unaccountable decision.

Cllr Duffin responded by producing a glowing testimony of the council's new media strategy, produced by the publishers of the Thurrock Gazette, announcing it had been received on 24 September.

There has been no previous mention anywhere of the letter from Newsquest, which is the council's official media partner and has been under contract with the council to exclusively publish its public notices - which sometimes runs to thousands of pounds a week!

Cllr Duffin read out significant sections of the letter praising the council's communication strategy, saying it was a glowing testimony to the authority and its media relationship.

He dismissed, without mentioning the source, Mr Speight's detailed submission which included suggestions for improvements and samples of previous problems, with a glib couple of lines - saying it referred to operational matters, not strategy.

Cllr Duffin, whose basic council allowance of more than £9,000 is supplemented by a further £11 thousand a year as a portfolio holder, told the meeting his and other concerns had been addressed and he had no issues with Cllr Gledhill exerting his executive powers to push the strategy through without any further public debate.


Mr Speight says: "I was genuinely shocked at last night's meeting. So much so, I took my leave, chuntering - it has to be said rather loudly - about lies, deceit and an abuse of democracy. I can't say it was my finest hour and was the action of a petulant schoolboy than a journalist of more than 40 years' experience but quite frankly I was sickened, stunned and angry about what I had heard and witnessed. I couldn't stand to sit there any more.

"I don't think you could get a clearer example of the lack of integrity, honesty and complete disregard for democracy than what played out at this meeting.

"For clarity, an official report - enshrined in council paperwork in the public domain for more than a month - says: 'No feedback was received from any local media outlet in response to this invitation within the deadline provided of 27 September'. Then suddenly, at a time when he is under pressure and the council's whole integrity is publicly challenged, out of his magic hat, Cllr Duffin suddenly produces a letter dated 24 September that has previously been unheard of and is not mentioned anywhere in any public documents.

"Are we really expected to believe that for some unaccountable reason this catch-all vindication of all the council's media strategy plans - effectively Cllr Duffin's equivalent to Simon Cowell's golden button to cascade a shower of glitter onto the council stage at the college auditorium - had remained unseen, unreported and unmentioned for weeks?

"And even if that is true, what does that say about the administrative ability of Cllr Duffin and Ms Wheeler's departments?

"We are, of course, about to enter panto season. The council apparently had in its possession the egg laid by the golden hen but left it up Jack's beanstalk until someone popped up and shouted 'it's behind you!' when they were in need. Really?

"It's preposterous.

"At this meeting Cllr Duffin and the council scraped the bottom of the barrel of transparency and honesty.

"I know, because he has told me and others privately, what the motivation of Cllr Duffin is to have stayed in local politics and switch his political allegiance for a third time.

"But at least I thought he had some integrity and a passion for truth. He lost that at this meeting as the council managed to hit yet another new low in terms of its respect for democracy and how far it will stoop to save face."

The question from borough resident Neil Speight that Thurrock Council rejected because it was 'not concise and was a statement rather than a question'. It is 53 words shorter than another question by Mr Williams allowed last night which contained several intentional statements.

FURTHER to recent action by the council's executive administration and a report prepared for the council that contains provable inaccuracies, of which Cllr Duffin and colleagues are aware, is the portfolio holder happy that the council's communications strategy was 'pushed through' by the leader without further reference to the cabinet or public debate and discussion among appropriate councillors, despite Cllr Duffin's own request for more detailed consideration of the strategy and his statement that time was not the key issue and that it was more important to get the document right with all the relevant consultation and engagement with media partners, which has not happened?

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