In the corridors of power, Twittergate has sent a shudder down the backs of all those who work in the press offices of local authorities. Thanks to a Freedom of Information request by BBC reporter Phil McCann, an uncomfortable series of emails has been revealed.
Council staff composed and posted Tweets in the name of the council leader, Michael Jones.
The Tory councillor approved messages written by Cheshire East Council’s media team.
Of course the problem is that the poor old communications gang, which is required to be politically neutral, then posted the Tweets under Mr Jones’ name. Rightly so, there are allegations of misuse of public resources.
Wisely, Mr Jones has said that he no longer uses staff to draft and post Tweets. Nevertheless, the Tweets were published on Mr Jones’ personal account, which has a disclaimer to say the opinions expressed are personal and not on behalf of the council.
While some of the Tweets look neutral, it is clear that many are not. The BBC quote this as an example: “Moribund Miliband talks of a national mission. A mission to economic disaster.”
This is not only an issue of neutrality. The poor old taxpayer has effectively been paying for Mr Jones to put over his political messages via the press office, obviously not great value for the taxpayers’ hard-earned.
The Local Government Act prohibits authorities from publishing “any material which appears to have an effect on public support for any political party”.
Thankfully, the BBC has taken its investigation further and found that Cheshire East Council’s constitution specifies staff, “should avoid being drawn into discussions of politically contentious matters.” It adds: “Any input should be consistent with the requirements for political impartiality.” So all this is pretty clear.
Why the media staff didn’t object to Mr Jones’ Tweets is unclear, they had every right too.
The question to be asked is whether press offices of local authorities should have their own enforceable code of conduct, similar to the Editors’ Code? You could argue that there are rules set out as mentioned earlier in this article, but is it enough?
There is a thin line between political propaganda and quality unbiased information. If you have five minutes, the emails between the press office and Mr Jones are a bit of an eye-opener, they are attached. Members of the opposition are slightly miffed about what has been going on. No surprise there then.