Silencing councillors tightens grip on public right to know

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Speaking to journalists will become much harder for Warrnambool City Councillors if a proposed change to its media policy goes ahead. Image: Third Sector.

ANALYSIS – Carol Altmann

The attempted shaming of three Warrnambool City councillors for speaking to a journalist is yet another step toward shutting off information to the public.

And if you care about freedom of speech and freedom of the media, then the events of the past few days should be very troubling.

First, some background.

Late last week, the agenda for this Tuesday’s council meeting was released and contained a report given to chief executive officer Bruce Anson from the Local Government Investigations and Compliance Inspectorate following its investigation into the leaking of confidential council documents to The Age early last year.

The inspectorate concluded that it could not determine who leaked the documents.

But it did conclude that three councillors – Brian Kelson, Peter Hulin and Peter Sycopoulis – met with a journalist from The Age the night before it ran the first of several stories about links between then-Premier Denis Napthine and Midfield Meats owner, Colin McKenna.

It was not hard to reach this conclusion, because the councillors told the inspectorate about this meeting.

After all, it has never been an offence for an elected official to speak to a journalist and it happens every day.

The assumption, of course, is that the three councillors used this meeting to hand over secret documents, but this is wrong.

The Age journalists, Royce Miller and Ben Schneiders, have issued a statement to say that they were already in possession of the documents before this meeting.

How did they get the documents? Who knows, but in a world dominated by public relations officers and media managers, leaks and whistleblowing are often the only ways that information in the public interest can come to light.

Cr Peter Sycopoulis was one of three councillors being shamed for having met with a journalist from The Age. Image: Warrnambool City Council.

The inspectorate knew the three councillors had done nothing illegal, and it prepared a confidential report naming the three councillors that could only be released with the approval of the CEO, Mr Anson.

Ironically, Mr Anson decided to make this confidential report public, and included it in the agenda. In other words, what is and isn’t kept confidential by council is entirely at Mr Anson’s discretion.

front page headline by The Standard followed but, in what I believe is unprecedented for a newspaper, it didn’t defend the profession of journalism that relies on research, well-placed sources, whistleblowers and leaks, but instead leapt on the “revelation” that three councillors had met with a journalist, as if this was a crime.

Its sycophantic editorial went even further and defended the former Premier against such “damaging” behaviour, saying that he must “be itching” to ask what was discussed between the councillors and The Age journalists.

This is coming from an organisation that knows the trust between a journalist and a source is fundamental to flushing out what those in power don’t want you to know, but is in the public interest: like the fact – as reported by The Age – Dr Napthine (and our Federal MP Dan Tehan) held shares in a racehorse with Mr McKenna.

A compliant newspaper and a media-managed council is a powerful combination in a regional city, and it could soon get even worse.

The public right to know hinges on the ability of journalists to ask questions of sources. Image: Disclose This.

Lost within the story is a recommendation by the inspectorate that the Warrnambool City Council put its boot even harder on the neck of elected members.

It has suggested – and the council will now consider – changing its media policy so that councillors MUST tell the council’s communications manager, Nick Higgins, when they speak to a journalist, about anything.

What right has a government inspectorate got to try and gag elected councillors?

It is an outrageous recommendation and one designed purely to ensure that the only information released to the media (and therefore, to you, the public) is that which suits the council’s chief executive or the mayor of the day, whoever they may be.

This closing down of voices in local government is a growing trend across Australia, and comes as newsrooms are shrinking.

Indeed academic papers* have been written on this increasing secrecy and the restraining of elected members by tightening a council’s media policy.

We need to ask ourselves, who does such secrecy benefit? It is certainly not intended to benefit you, the humble ratepayer.

No, it is designed for councils to move more and more information behind closed doors so that decisions can be discussed – and made – by those with power without any “distractions” from the public.

This means decisions, when they are made public, are virtually a fait accompli, such as the nine-storey apartment block proposed for 1A Liebig St, or the sale of land to Midfield for an enormous milk processing plant.

And it is designed to keep all of the potential “hot spots” under wraps, such as the true state of affairs of the Fun4Kids festival finances, or the declining patronage at Flagstaff Hill, or the actual salary package paid to the chief executive, or who was invited into the May Races marquee...

We here at Bluestone Magazine have already been cut off by the council’s media unit: our questions now go unanswered and our requests for interviews with certain council staff are denied.

This is what happens when you don’t play by the rules or you refuse to stick to “the message” – but Bluestone will keep investigating nonetheless.

Warrnambool should not be distracted by the public shaming of three councillors for talking to the media – this is not the problem. The much more worrying issue is the move to stop councillors talking to journalists at all.

16 thoughts on “Silencing councillors tightens grip on public right to know”

  1. It is clearly obvious our current council can do no right. There has been too much tension for too long. In my opinion the only way forward is FRESH FACES on the council. I have started a campaign on Facebook called NEWFACES to encourage the local community to get behind me and fight for a new council next election.

    1. I am disappointed to see a contender for Council come out with this very simplistic supposed solution. I don’t believe that attitude will win you sufficient votes. I urge you to rethink your proposal and come up with something that will give us belief that you have what it takes to make a worthy Councillor.

    2. Raelene, have you given any thought to a ratepayers association? Perhaps that would be more of a community voice that cannot be silenced by a CEO. (edited)

  2. Hammer hitting nail straight on head….is this really our future? I hope all rate payers think about this.

  3. What is clear, Raelene, is that the Councillors who dare to question are about to be further silenced by Mr Anson. Are you prepared to guarantee that a new council will stop this type of bullying and be prepared to employ a new C E O.?

  4. What a disgrace. I have just subscribed to Bluestone Magazine because Warrnambool needs a free press which will actually report in the public interest.

    1. Thankyou Siobhan, we really appreciate your support in helping to keep Bluestone alive.It makes all the difference.

      1. I tried to post this (below) in the Standard after reading that article on Saturday morning and it was quickly removed. There would seem to be no way of getting an opinion out into our community if it doesn’t fit in with the current push of this newspaper.
        I had written this before I became aware that the Age journalists were already in possession of that leaked information, although when I had read the article, it had already raised some alarm bells. Would this revelation really have made its way into the the Age the very morning after this meeting without some follow up checks? And a meeting which I am now reading was at a function, and not something clandestine, as that Standard article inferred.
        Here is what they would not publish.

        “If the trio did not disclose this information they should seriously consider engaging a solicitor to demand an open apology from the Standard. Though neither the article nor the editorial directly accused them, the inference that they are guilty is so clearly there. And when was this inquiry held that has only now seemed to have come to light? Ah, where would (edited by Bluestone) the Standard be without those three?”

        Perhaps they didn’t like my mention of possible legal action. I would think there is every reason they shouldn’t

  5. I am so glad that you followed this up! I was absolutely floored when I saw that article in The Standard online!
    This has nothing to do with needing all new fresh faces on Council. That response in itself shows just how conditioned some sectors of the community are by the deeply flawed and manipulated local media in Warrnambool. Stop believing the hype and think for yourself. We have 3 Councillor’s who listen to their community, who stand up for their community and do this despite being constantly hounded and harassed. I cannot imagine the stress and strain this puts on them, but they carry on and push forward anyway, and for this, I couldn’t thank them enough. So I am not sure what sort of people you want on Council, Raelene, but the integrity and determination of these 3 men is exactly the qualities I will be looking for in the candidates at our next election.
    Lastly, I hope this analysis helps more people to understand just how much we NEED Bluestone Magazine. Thank you. Again.

  6. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The secrecy and shenanigans of Warrnambool’s City Council and its CEO are most definitely not part of the values out city’s founders foresaw. My late grandfather and former mayor Harry McGennan OBE would be horrified. Hang in there Warrnamboolians and fight for your rights.

  7. Government trends towards tight media management, communications without content and secret deals highlights the importance of having a strong independent media and a public that is not scared to get involved in debates with politicians and bureaucrats.

  8. While this move by council is wrong in so many ways i can understand why it has been attempted.
    The “three” have cost we,the rate payers, so much by constantly harassing everyone else on council and trashing warrnambool in the process that i guess things are getting desperate.

    1. I respect your point of view, Gordon. However why on earth do you think we only have three councillors asking questions of our CEO? Reading all the factual information provided by Bluestone, we really should have seven councillors asking questions.

  9. the reason we have disharmony on the wcc is that 3 councillors dared to ask questions and have not fallen into line like sheep , those that complain that the “3” have cost Warrnambool its image and cost to the ratepayer should take a look around , get to the meetings , take the time to speak to them and look at what they have achieved

  10. I am sorry but in reply to some of the comments here, I didn’t realise that a BBQ in your back yard is classed as a function that you would formally talk to an Age reporter. And if Mr Hulin is such a good representative of the Warrnambool Council, why is he always on the defensive and negative about our town. Shouldn’t the article to an Age reporter be about how great our town is, hell no, lets show our faults and problems to the whole state. And lets not get started on the timing.
    I also don’t believe that the 3 councillors are the only ones to ask questions, they are the only ones to ask the questions in the paper. I find it quite funny that when an article is against the 3 of them there is back lash and threats of ramifications, but when the article is right behind them, it is posted on their facebook pages as the truth, see Cr Kelson’s page with this particular article posted.
    I am slightly disappointed to feel that this Bluestone article is tilted towards Cr Hulin, Sycopoulis and Kelson and defending their silencing. I don’t think that they can be silenced, for if they can’t get in the Standard, they will now go further, and this is not the first time I have seem articles/stories outside the local area, that have a damning effect on Warrnambool. I joined Bluestone as I believed that it would give a wider view to all sides of the story, as with previous articles.
    I feel for the Councillors that are not embroiled in this stupid school yard battle for who has the bigger piece of pie. I feel for those councillors that are not constantly in the papers, that people within the public arena are asking to have removed. Yes these councillors are asking questions, in the appropriate places, at council meetings, not via media source.
    I actually believe that a lot of councillors are trying to do their best, and I do believe that Cr Hulin, Sycopoulis and Kelson actually wish to do good things for Warrnambool, maybe its time, as many people within the community have said, for everyone to put aside their differences, and actually look at what the people want.

    1. Thanks for this comment Carolyn and for being part of the wider discussion. I just wanted to clarify that this piece is not about defending any particular councillors or being tilted either way, but raising concerns about the much bigger issue of it now being considered wrong for any councillor to talk to a journalist. Any attempt to shut down voices really concerns me, both as a journalist for Bluestone and as part of the Warrnambool community. I would hold the very same concerns regardless of which councillors were involved. Thanks again.

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