Many people will find this hard to believe, but in parts of Australia local government politicians are being prevented, under threat of legal action, from talking to the media.

I know.  It’s ridiculous. What kind of a democracy is it when a polly can’t talk to the electorate? Yet it is happening. I have become aware of this phenomenon over the last year or so, through the work I do with suburban and rural newspaper reporters. It isn’t universal, but nevertheless there are enough cases of this anti-democratic attempt at media management on steroids to make it an issue of real concern for journalists and the public.

Typically, councillors are told that they must not make any media statements without first seeking clearance with either the Mayor of the CEO – and indeed they are told that this is a legal requirement.

Well, its bollocks of course, as demonstrated by the case of the South Australian Penola Pennant, and one Councillor Peter Muller.

The editor of the Pennant, the fiercely independent Michael Gorey, invited Muller to write a regular unpaid column on council affairs. Muller, a former high school principal and respected local identity, wrote frank and informative columns that, according to Gorey, kept readers better informed than was possible through conventional reporting. The reason was that the Wattle Range Council, like too many of its fellows, is wedded to abusing the Privacy Act and the Local Government Act to close meetings to the public and keep many controversial matters out of the public eye.

Muller’s column seriously displeased his fellow councillors, who as the Pennant reported, amended their media policy  to state that all media statements by councillors had to be first submitted to the Mayor of CEO of council “for accuracy”.

It is hard to imagine that any local representatives with a firm handle on the nature of democracy would tolerate such a restriction, let alone vote for it. Nevertheless, it was so.

Muller, though, did not lie down. He paid for a legal opininion which stated that Council had no power to gag councillors.He could show his column to the Mayor if he wished, but he did not need to seek approval, and council had no power to make him do so.

Reluctantly, council altered its policy, and Muller’s column continues to this day.

Says editor Gorey:

Local government reporting has changed a lot over the past 20 years. As a young reporter I needed a wheelbarrow to carry all the documents and meetings went for most of the day or night. We were expected to file 20 or more stories from a meeting. Council meetings today are more corporate in style. In Victoria that was Kennett’s intent through the amalgamation process and I think it’s flowed naturally through to other states.

Indeed. The Pennant, it should be said, is part of  an independently owned group that comprises The Border Watch, The South Eastern Times and The Pennant, all circulating in the south east of South Australia. Read its history here.

This story came to me as a result of my recent Crikey piece that was critical of the way Fairfax Media and Rural Press newspapers – or some of them at least – let down local communities by, among other failings, not reporting properly on local government.

Kudos to the Border Mail group for striving to be different. Gorey could also teach the Rural Press people a bit about new media. Read his blog here.

And, message to councillors and council reporters nationwide – don’t stand for anti-democratic and probably illegal gags.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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