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Archant group editor speaks out to defend rival newspaper over council blacklisting in 'attack' on press freedom

A newspaper editor who has been “blacklisted” by a local council has said he is “very grateful” for support from regional publisher Archant and industry body the News Media Association.

Thurrock Independent editor Neil Speight has been told by Thurrock Council chief executive Lyn Carpenter that the local authority will no longer answer his media enquiries.

The council said the ban was the result of “repeated breaches of appropriate working practices” by the newspaper, which it described as “vexatious and unreasonable”.

The NMA has described this action as a “direct attack on the fundamental principles of press freedom”.

An email from Carpenter on 3 August said communications from Speight would be read and placed on file, but not acknowledged or responded to by the council, and that this policy would only be reviewed on 3 February 2019.

After Speight published the correspondence, saying it effectively amounted to a “ban on any response by the authority to investigative reporting by the newspaper”, he received support from Archant group editor for London Michael Adkins.

Archant publishes a number of local weekly newspapers covering east London and former Essex boroughs.

In an editorial published online on at least seven of Archant’s websites, including the Barking and Dagenham Post, Gravesend Reporter, Ilford Recorder and Romford Recorder, Adkins appealed for Thurrock Council to reconsider the “outrageous” ban.

He said: “The decision by Thurrock Council to effectively sever ties with the Independent is an outrageous attack on press freedom.

“It’s vital we call out this sort of behaviour and challenge it at every opportunity. Holding local and central government to account is a fundamental part of the local press and the bedrock of democracy.

“Archant will continue to campaign for and defend press freedom everywhere it’s challenged. We will be writing to Thurrock Council urging them to reconsider this outrageous ban.”

The News Media Association has also spoken out against the council’s decision.

It said in a statement last week: “This attempt to silence the local paper by refusing to answer any questions constitutes a direct attack on the fundamental principles of press freedom and the public right to know.

“Local newspapers perform a vital role scrutinising authority on behalf of the public and holding power to account. Any attempt to frustrate or thwart this function is an attack on democracy and must be resisted.”

Speight told Press Gazette today that he was “very grateful” for these interventions, but that he had contacted a number of other local publishers and received no response.

Thurrock is also served by Newsquest-owned Thurrock Gazette, Reach’s Essex Live, the Thurrock Enquirer, and Your Thurrock, a website run by Hyperlocal News.

Your Thurrock editor Michael Casey told Press Gazette he felt like other councils had partnerships with their local press, whereas Thurrock Council feels more like it works on “rules of engagement”.

“They [the council] need to reflect on whether they are in partnership or in competition with the papers,” Casey added.

Speight, who edited the Thurrock Gazette and Thurrock Enquirer before launching the Thurrock Independent in May last year, said today: “I think this issue is a genuine attack on the freedom of the press and our right – on behalf of residents in the community we serve – to be able to hold the council to account.

“I would strongly disagree with Ms Carpenter’s assertion that our questions to the council are vexatious.

“I can recount many instances where our questions have highlighted major issues for members of our local community, a number of issues which have shown the council’s failings on major issues, and our questions have also prompted public acknowledgement by council leader Cllr Rob Gledhill where he has thanked us for the work we have done, the issues we have brought to their attention and our good work on behalf of the public interest.”

Speight’s behaviour, deemed “unnecessary, unprofessional and wholly inappropriate” by Thurrock Council in a previous email dated 15 May, included publicly critiquing media statements, publishing internal council communications, and “focusing stories on individual members of council staff enabling them to be identified”.

In January, he published a front page lead dubbing the local authority a “council of secrecy and contempt” – a story that has been cleared by the Independent Press Standards Organisation after it found Speight had not received responses to a series of questions ahead of his print deadline.

Speight today offered to show all his press enquiries to the council to anyone who asks, adding: “I would find it difficult for anyone to find any of them spurious or vexatious.”

Speight said that despite the public show of support there has been no change in the council’s treatment of the newspaper since he published Carpenter’s email on 3 August.

However he said he has now received two emails from Conservative councillors on the Tory-run council saying they had not been consulted on the decision and that they disagreed with it.

Speight had already received public support from Labour and independent councillors, the two opposition groups on the council.

Thurrock Independents group leader Cllr Luke Spillman said the council’s decision was an “entirely unacceptable attack on the freedom of the press”, while Labour group leader Cllr Oliver Gerrish told Your Thurrock there needed to be “more engagement from the council, with residents, stakeholders and local media – not less”.

Thurrock Council has been contacted for comment. A spokesperson previously said it was unable to comment on individual cases.

The council’s communications strategy, which came into force last year says: “Should a media outlet, or one of its journalists, fail to adhere to the regulator’s code and in particular not reflect the council’s position accurately ensuring a ‘right of reply’, the council will not engage and recognise that organisation and/or journalist as ‘media’ for a period of time determined by the council.”

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