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December 6, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 8:41am

University vice-chancellor blasts ‘meddling journalists’ in speech to stricken council

By Charlotte Tobitt

The vice-chancellor of a university with its own media department teaching journalism courses has criticised “meddling journalists asking difficult questions” in a speech to a struggling local council.

Nick Petford, who is also chief executive at the University of Northampton, made the comments in a “Thought of the Day” speech to Northamptonshire County Council last month, which he was invited to give.

A journalist for local newspaper the Northampton Chronicle and Echo has said his comments had denigrated the press.

Northampton runs degree courses in multimedia journalism and sports journalism which it advertises on its website as being accredited by the Broadcast Journalism Training Council.

Petford, who briefly worked as a journalist for the Times Higher Education Supplement in the mid-90s, spoke about a 2017 Ipsos Mori poll that ranked politicians as the least trusted profession behind bankers, estate agents and journalists.

Petford told councillors: “Given this, it takes courage to commit publicly to an idea or a set of values in a climate – as we watch on TV – dominated by hostility served up 24/7 by unaccountable keyboard warriors venting their spleens on social media, or worse still, meddling journalists asking difficult questions with both eyes set on accentuating the negative.

“And arguably NCC has had perhaps some of the worst of it with events over the past 24 months playing into the hands of cynics and naysayers.

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“It can’t have been easy to be told as politicians and councillors by outsiders that as elected representatives things need to change and quickly.”

The Conservative-run Northamptonshire County Council last year became the first local authority in almost 20 years to be effectively bankrupt when locked down spending after paying out millions. It was later given a government bailout of £60m.

Sarah Ward, the Local Democracy Reporter who first reported Petford’s comments for the Northampton Chronicle and Echo yesterday, told Press Gazette she was “totally bemused” by Petford’s comments.

“Especially when sat in a council chamber that over the past 18 months has heard unbelievable tales of mismanagement and has voted for cuts to services that are having an big impact on many Northamptonshire residents and council staff,” she said.

“There is no doubt that Nick Petford is aware of the situation as he is chairman of the health and wellbeing board and his university has been involved in a number of projects with the council.

“To say the councillors are doing a ‘great job’ is an interesting take on the situation. Perhaps he wanted to give the councillors a boost, but denigrating the press was not the way to have done it.”

Jason Gibbins, assistant editor of the BBC Local News Partnership that runs the LDR scheme, joked on Twitter: “Too right. Who needs ‘meddling’ journalists asking difficult questions when a council could otherwise collapse quietly with its £41m financial deficit?”

BBC Northampton politics reporter Craig Lewis said Petford’s comment was “probably the greatest compliment anyone could give a Northamptonshire journalist when it comes to Northamptonshire County Council.”

A University of Northampton spokesperson declined to comment.

See Petford’s speech below (from 2:40):

Picture: University of Northampton

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