Spinning out of control

AS A journalist, your relationship with press officers and spin doctors is always complex.On the one hand you rely on them to give you information about the organisation they work for - but you have to treat them with a certain scepticism.

AS A journalist, your relationship with press officers and spin doctors is always complex.

On the one hand you rely on them to give you information about the organisation they work for - but you have to treat them with a certain scepticism. You have to be a bit of a Doubting Thomas.

But normally you find you can build up a good relationship, a relationship built on mutual trust and understanding.

For a newspaper like the Star, a newspaper that is part of the community as well as reporting on the community, that is vital.

Over the years we have built good relationships with organisations we report on - even if sometimes there are issues surrounding them that we criticise or if they don't like a story we are writing.

Which makes it very sad, and irritating, when the relationship breaks down. When you have difficulty in trusting what they tell you, it becomes almost impossible to work with an organisation.

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And that is the situation that has developed with Suffolk County Council's communications department which has grown like Topsy over the last decade - and now employs more people than you find in a newsroom, who sometimes seem to be there to suppress any real news about the organisation.

The Star broke the story that Andrea Hill had been appointed chief executive of the county council with a £220,000 salary - a move which we criticised robustly.

It was a move which attracted condemnation across the area - from politicians of all parties and from the voters in the recent Ipswich council elections.

Yet the paranoia that has gripped the communications department at the county council is astonishing.

It started with the department telling us: “You might look silly if you say Andrea Hill will be earning £220,000,” which implied that her salary was substantially less than that.

Her salary turned out to be £218,000 - less than one per cent under our original story! Such an intervention, which could be seen to have been aimed at undermining our story, to many could be seen as an attempt to persuade us to mislead our readers.

When the news came out this week that the District Auditor had considered the process used to set Mrs Hill's salary could have been “potentially unlawful,” the county council claimed it had been exonerated.

Our publication of the details of the report prompted a call from the £81,000 head of the department asking why we had taken that line and not just published the council's spin on the issue.

I understand other media got similar calls, because they spotted the same story as we did!

Welcome to the world of Suffolk County Council 2008!

WHY did it take Ipswich's Conservatives and Liberal Democrats so long to agree a new coalition after the elections on May 1?

On the face of it there wasn't much to discuss.

The Lib Dems and Conservatives have worked together for almost four years and seem to enjoy each other's company - and once again this year's elections failed to produce a clear winner.

Labour won the most seats, and is now the largest single party on the council - and had considered trying to form a minority administration before the LibDems reconsecrated their marriage with the Tories.

I heard several stories from various sources, which were nevertheless denied by both parties in the administration, about demands being made from the LibDems for particular portfolio jobs on the executive committee.

Frankly the LibDems were in no real position to make demands, they are now in a much weaker position than they had been before the election.

They lost, by a clear margin, another seat in Whitehouse Ward and failed to pick up a second seat in Westgate - again by a substantial margin.

With only eight councillors they are doing very well to still have three members on the executive and a senior committee chairmanship.

The Tories also lost seats in Bridge and Rushmere wards - but they have been encouraged by the popular vote across the borough.

Although Labour won the most seats, they didn't poll the most votes in Ipswich - they were pipped by the Tories in that particular beauty contest.

That is a fact that the Labour leaders in Ipswich need to bear in mind before they talk too much about the will of the people being ignored!

On a parliamentary level, though, Chris Mole must have been left feeling fairly satisfied at the end of the campaign.

With his party doing very badly nationally, Labour managed to win seven of the 13 wards in his constituency.

When the general election is called, you can guarantee that the ruling party's reluctant voters will turn out - which should make him fairly confident of defending his majority.

I'M beginning to think I've accidentally wandered through a time-warp and found myself back in the 1970s.

We've had football violence on the streets of Manchester, Neil Diamond preparing to play at Glastonbury . . . and a Labour prime minister flailing about as the economy slips into recession..

We've even had a Healey-esque mini-budget this week as the tax rates were changed to pacify Labour backbenchers furious about the abolition of the 10 per cent tax rate.

What will happen next? The Conservatives winning a safe Labour seat in a by-election at somewhere like Crewe?

At this rate I'll soon have to start dusting off my flares and cheesecloth shirts!

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