Council newspapers: When wanting to communicate really means “only what we want you to know”

While searching for successful Freedom of Information stories last week, I stumbled across this one from the London Informer newspaper.

Throughout the story, Hammersmith and Fulham Council is at pains to stress how effective its CCTV network is, quoting up to 50 arrests a month thanks to the spies in the sky.

But tucked away in the article is the reference to a Freedom of Information request:

There are also concerns over the location of hidden cameras, after the council refused to respond to repeated Freedom of Information requests for the location of its CCTV network, claiming it would jeopardise its crime-busting activities.

Under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act, there is an exemption which allows authorities to refuse requests for information if it was felt it could prevent or hamper the detection of crime.

Lancashire County Council used a similar defence four years ago when I asked for the number of fines issued by each speed camera in the county – despite the fact that it publicised where the speed cameras were so people knew to slow down.

The same should surely apply to CCTV cameras. Given that CCTV cameras in London, on average, solve one crime per 1,000 cameras, surely the benefit of CCTV cameras is that they act as a crime deterrent – and what better way for that to happen than for the council to let everyone know where the cameras are?

Take that thought process to a logical conclusion and a council refusing to release details of where its CCTV cameras are actually creates an environment where crime is more likely to be committed – because the locations of the cameras aren’t commonly known.

What makes this case all the more odd is that it involves Hammersmith and Fulham – one of the councils at the forefront of the public authority newspaper charge.  It cites that the local newspapers in its area (and I should declare a tangential interest here – I work for Trinity Mirror, one of the companies which operates legitimate newspapers in this area) don’t provide it the ability to communicate information to its residents.

So it has its own fortnightly newspaper instead, which takes about £260,000 in private advertising, plus nearly £200k of council advertising a year. The Tory-run council was heavily criticised by Tory members of the Government’s culture, media and sport select committee for trying to disguise the fact that it is run by the council.

Under pressure to explain why it only ever puts positive stories about the council in its propaganda (the MP’s word, not mine in this case) sheet, the (ex-journalist) councillor in charge told the committee:

“It is a communications driven operation rather than us setting out to produce a democratic document.”

In other words, they’re putting out the information which they feel benefits the council. And at the same time, being oddly restrictive about information people are actually seeking, rather than having it foist upon them.

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