Politicians, should they wish, have more means than perhaps ever before with which to communicate their thoughts to those they represent. There’s blogging, social media, Youtube even. Community newsletters. And, of course, good old local media – be it newspapers, websites, TV or radio.
Unless you happen to be a councillor in Birmingham, in which case you’ve been told to stay silent – on an issue which should be a talking point for every single politician in the city.
Birmingham City Council is, in many respects, a council in crisis. Under monitoring by the government, facing millions of pounds of cut backs on top of the hundreds of millions of pounds and thousands of jobs it’s lost, the city council could well be the first in the country to have to hold its hands up and say: “We can’t do this with the money you give us anymore.” It could well be the council which proves that no council is too big to fail.
So to that end, the announcement that the council’s chief executive is departing is big news. The fact it’s happened while the council’s Labour leader is on holiday only serves to create a further sense of crisis.
But according to the Birmingham Mail:
“Birmingham’s councillors have been GAGGED from commenting on the crisis enveloping Britain’s largest local authority following the shock departure of city council chief executive Mark Rogers.
As Mr Rogers is locked in talks about the terms of his exit, the council’s chief lawyer has written to councillors, warning them against social media posts and public statements on the issue.”
Labour group bosses are already believed to have told Moseley and Kings Heath councillor Claire Spencer to delete a blog post in which she speculated about government interference in the running of the council.
As Tory councillor Matt Bennett said:
“The leader is on holiday and has not responded to our emails, we have no chief executive and we need to know what happens next, how we are going to get through this.
“Then we get this email warning us not to discuss it. How can we when we haven’t been told what’s going on. It’s a farce.”
The argument in favour of not speaking out would be that there are legal negotiations on going at the moment over the chief executive’s exit. But to ban elected representatives from speaking out suggests little, if any, faith in the ability of elected representatives to say sensible things, and near contempt for the people who pay the council’s wages: voters.
The Birmingham Mail has ensured people in Birmingham know of the ban:
And if ever there was an example of how working hard to embrace readers wherever they are – print, digital, social etc – enables newsrooms to do what they’ve always done more effectively than ever, it’s this story.
It made the front page, and that front page provided a compelling image for use on social media, where the link to the story was widely shared and commented upon – not just by journalists, but by councillors, politicians from elsewhere in the country and community groups in the city. The list of people and organisations sharing it was pleasingly diverse.
It became a story read by tens of thousands of people in Birmingham, and a talking point in local government and Whitehall circles quickly. It demonstrated very clearly the power of the local Press to hold councils to account through the oxygen of publicity.
For a council to believe it could control the commentary on an issue like this is, at best, very niave. Journalism has the tools to have the audience to do its job like never before – we just need to do that job in way the Birmingham Mail has over the past few days.