Local government publicity gone wrong: The Suffolk County Council photo row tells us a lot

Have you been following the curious case of Andrea Hill, the chief executive of Suffolk County Council, and the rather peculiar photos her authority paid rather a lot of money for?

If not, perhaps a bit of context first. Roy Greenslade has done some good stuff on it here.

FOI was used well to report the following:

The county’s £218,000 chief executive Andrea Hill has undergone 23 coaching sessions with a “change” guru – at a cost of more than £12,000 to the taxpayer, The Evening Star can reveal today.

There was a whole hoo-ha around the council saying it had banned the reporter who wrote the story, only for the council to backtrack quickly. Another FOI came to pass, finally, about 10 days ago, when the Evening Star in Ipswich reported the following:

More than £1,400 of taxpayers’ money was spent on the 40 pictures of Andrea Hill.

The bill for the photographs, taken at the council’s Endeavour House HQ, came to £1,474.74p and was settled in July last year – weeks before the county announced radical cost-cutting plans to shed services.

You can view the pictures on the website of the photographer who took them, Robert Johns. He travelled from Bedford to take the pictures, having, according to his blog, taken photos of Hill at her previous authority. He is her photographer of choice.

Various allegations have been thrown around since the story broke, most of them from Johns. As Greenslade noted, Johns’ first claim – that he retains the copyright on the photos and therefore the newspapers should be paying to use them – could end up in court.

Another claim made by Johns is that the bill for the photos was settled in 2009, not 2010 as reported by the paper.  He accused the newspapers which ran the story of sloppy journalism and says they should have checked the facts with him. He misses the point that journalists receiving information received under FOI, as the paper did for the photos story, should be able to take it at face value.

He also insists that the pictures were of a very high quality and well worth the cash spent on them, which, he says, were at the regular NUJ freelance rate.

Most would perhaps have left it there, but Johns in his blog is keen to stress: ‘A Suffolk photographer was used prior to me being commissioned and he didn’t do a great job.’

In all honesty, the year of payment and the quality of photography are both red herrings which distract from the real issue: What was a council doing paying so much for photographs of the chief executive in the first place? On that score, Johns’ blog paints a fascinating picture.

The issue encapsulates neatly a trend which has grown throughout local government over the last decade. Back in the mid 1990s there were council press offices. Slowly, they grew into communication departments as authorities began to try to manage their image and messages more effectively. As they grew, so did the levels of publicity they tried to generate – think council newspapers – and by the early 2000s it wasn’t uncommon for these enlarged communications departments to hire in PR firms for specific projects.

And, of course, the need for greater publicity meant the need for more photographs. On more than one occasion, I’ve been grateful for a press release and photo to help fill a big book, but only if the picture and the story stood the ‘should this be in the paper at all’ test.

But when you have a situation where hundreds of pounds are being spent on arty shots of a council chief executive you find yourself witnessing the extremes of a public sector publicity obsession gone mad.

There’s no disputing the quality of Johns’ work – even if he doesn’t need to be quite so forceful about it himself – but surely a cost-conscious council would have rung the local newspaper and said ‘You need recent pictures of our chief executive, we need some new headshots of her, can you come and take some?’ I doubt the answer would have been no.

Why does a council need arty shots of its chief executive? Why, indeed, did Hill’s previous council, Bedford, need to hire Johns to take a picture which illustrated the fact the council was improving? To quote Johns’ blog:

I have worked with Andrea before when she was the Chief Executive of Bedfordshire County Council. Under her leadership the Council went from no stars to 3 Stars in less than 3 years. I shot a very iconic picture, a portrait of the council to illustrate the journey upward.

The picture, which you can see on his blog, is indeed very good (I say this as an amateur photographer who probably falls into the category Johns riles against in his blog) but I look at it and ask ‘Why did the council have to pay for a picture to illustrate it was improving?’

There’s a mistaken belief that the cuts currently being imposed on councils represent the first belt tightening at town halls for a decade. Not true. As far back as 2003, Labour was pushing savings on to town halls, often off-setting them with one-off specific grants, and funding settlements often ran below real inflation. Long before the credit crunch, unpopular decisions were being taken. To that end, the year the Hill photos were taken was irrelevant. Was it a good use of public funds? Of course, if as a freelance photographer, such a job comes up, you jump at the chance, and this story isn’t about his work in that respect – it’s about whether the council should have been paying for it in the first place.

Johns blog post makes fascinating reading. It gives an unintentional insight into how some senior council officials perceive publicity – as a right they have to pay top dollar for. If they were in the private sector, and their profile could make a difference to the success of that firm, then that would be fine. But council chief executives are there to manage public services – and the fact a council could even find it acceptable to spend so much on some profile pictures of someone who shouldn’t even need a high profile tells us something is very wrong.

Footnote: It took several attempts under FOI to get the information – proof that it’s worth pursuing.

2 comments

  1. David Higgesrson writes, “Another claim made by Johns is that the bill for the photos was settled in 2009, not 2010 as reported by the paper. He accused the newspapers which ran the story of sloppy journalism and says they should have checked the facts with him.”

    I would like to bring to your attention the PCC Editors’ Code of Practice, section 1 ii states, a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected promptly. I made the Evening Star aware of the facts the day the story broke but Josh Warwick refused to accept the evidence which is posted on my blog. It is not a claim but fact!

    1. Thanks for your response. The point I was making was that information received under FOI should be accurate, and journalists should be able to treat it as such. In many ways, the story in the papers isn’t about you, it’s about the way the council spends money, which is the observation I was making. You have raised various issues which run the risk of diverting attention from the very valid question: Why was the council spending this sort of money on photos in the first place? In that context, the year of the invoice and payment is irrelevant. I trust you’ve raised the inaccurate FOI information with the council, your employer in this instance?

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