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Council in Crisis? Blame the media!

Council in Crisis? Blame the media!

🕔13.Sep 2017

As I read John Clancy’s resignation statement, one passage stood out – not least as it came before admitting that he had made mistakes, writes Kevin Johnson

It has become clear to me that frenzied media speculation about the Birmingham waste dispute is beginning to harm Birmingham City Council and the Birmingham Labour Party.

I can see no end to such speculation, as ill-informed as much of it is, for as long as I remain leader.

READ: Clancy – what’s the legacy?

There it was again, to all intents and purposes, when I read the email Stella Manzie sent to staff after news of Cllr Clancy’s fall became public.

We have Full Council tomorrow and I expect we will see more interest in the Council related to that and over the next few weeks.

Don’t believe everything you read in the press – we will try and give you the facts…

Politicians and senior officers must not be allowed to get away with such statements.

For anyone to suggest that the protracted industrial dispute and the political crisis that unfolded in recent weeks was the fault, in any small way, of the media or that the fourth estate was not acting responsibly in explaining it to readers, listeners, viewers and visitors is beyond what this blogger can stomach.

That such quotes can come from those leading a council which has a long history of not managing media terribly effectively and not modernising its communications quickly enough makes them even harder to swallow.

The media – in all its modern guises – has been the element of this city’s fabric which has actually enabled some form of resolution to the political crisis. It has been the media – broadcast, print, online arms of newspapers, social media and bloggers – which has tried to bring some transparency to the murky affairs behind the #BirminghamBinStrike.

The reporting and commentary of Neil Elkes and colleagues on the Birmingham Mail have reflected and served the interests of Brummies who simply want to know why their bins have not been emptied and when might they possibly, just possibly, be emptied again.

Neil’s comment piece last week on the dysfunctional council captured the depressing scale of the problem in its historical context.

Kathryn Stanczyszyn and colleagues at the BBC have given widespread coverage across their broadcast, online and social channels.

It was Kathryn’s interviews with Unite’s Howard Beckett and former leader John Clancy that generated many of the newslines in the developing story. “There was no deal….suspended, not ended” were all given first airing in BBC interviews.

As ever social media is a mix of the good, bad and ugly. Interesting nuggets, healthy debate and political/personality point scoring have been blended with some more unpleasant posts, often behind anonymous accounts.

But, overall social media has played its part in trying to shed light and generate an understanding of recent events.

Answers from Cabinet members in the council chamber yesterday made clear that the media, including the Chamberlain Files, had uncovered factual inaccuracies.

Our coverage and that of others has taken advantage of briefings and leaks from all sides in both the industrial dispute and the political crisis. But – as we are confident our colleagues in the ‘grown up’ media have done too – we have endeavoured to corroborate information and present it with context and balance.

When the public – and the media on their behalf – are not getting the full story, then it will try to seek out the truth. It may not find all the facts, particularly where they are hidden under legal privilege or where communication has been limited to conversations or text messages, but that is hardly the fault of the media.

The term ‘fake news’ has even been bandied about in recent days. When you hear Donald Trump’s favourite phrase brought into the council’s lexicon, you know it’s in trouble.

If you allow a vacuum to be created, don’t blame others for trying to fill it.

From respected political journalist Vincent Hanna brought in to advise on council PR to the tenure of Debra Davis, we’ve seen it all.

Birmingham city council has never been a case study in communications excellence. But, it has particularly struggled since Myra Benson retired from the top comms job.

The latest communications study undertaken by a Local Government Association peer review team, following the Kerslake Review, remarked:

Birmingham city council too often sees itself as a victim.

Too true.

To his credit, former chief executive Mark Rogers tried to bring a more open culture and positive approach to the council. But he, too, struggled with the attitude to communications he inherited, not least as he tried to respond to the Trojan Horse crisis.

As the LGA review said, too often the council sees itself as a victim. Too often, we would add, it bunkers down, says as little as possible and sees the media as the enemy rather than a partner.

We appreciate the fact that interim leader Cllr Ian Ward agreed with Cllr Gary Sambrook’s intervention yesterday praising the media for its role in this crisis and for the invaluable part it plays in scrutinising the council.

READ: Council leader – who next?

To be fair to senior officers, their Cabinet report for 24 August highlighted the deficiencies in communications during the industrial dispute.

Communications remains work in progress at the council. We know the latest assistant director, Eleri Roberts, is working to fix problems that have built up over many years.

But, a more positive approach to the media will only flow from a commitment to an open culture and treating communications as a strategic function at the top of the organisation. For the moment and perhaps for a few months yet, that means Ian Ward and Stella Manzie.

When the next crisis pops up and the city of Birmingham’s reputation (not just that of the council) is being damaged, we look forward to the city’s leaders seeing the media as a force for good, not one to be blamed.

Main Pic: BBC interview with John Clancy.

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