A council leader’s letter to a local newspaper editor in which he admits to calling the appointment of a BBC-funded local democracy reporter “unacceptable” has been uncovered by the journalist.
Cllr Richard Cooper wrote to Harrogate Advertiser editor Jean MacQuarrie informing her he had told council colleagues not to respond to queries from newly hired reporter Peter Lilley.
Lilley, 60, has since acquired a copy of Cooper’s letter, seen by Press Gazette, via a Freedom of Information request.
It reveals Cooper had previously told MacQuarrie that Lilley’s appointment was “unacceptable to me”.
He wrote: “I have contacted Cabinet colleagues over the weekend and I have to inform you that none of us will respond to requests from Mr Lilley, in his role as your Local Democracy Reporter, for information or comment.”
Lilley was dismissed after only 32 days in his role covering local government news across North Yorkshire for Advertiser-owner Johnston Press as part of a BBC-funded scheme to plug the so-called “democratic deficit” caused by local paper cuts and closures.
He told Press Gazette last week that MacQuarrie had told him his position had become “untenable” following the council leader’s complaint. He also complained that stories with an “anti-council angle” were often changed.
“I felt I wasn’t able to do my job,” he said. His two-year contract was terminated two weeks ago, while he was still under probation.
In the uncovered missive, Cooper accused Lilley of “taking action that has trashed relationships with politicians and groups across the district”.
He quoted a tweet by Lilley, posted on 20 April this year, in which the journalist said: “I wonder how many other Harrogate residents are looking at their choice of uninspiring candidates for the May 3 elections and concluding that it’s not a question of voting for the best – but the least worst?”.
Cooper went on: “Those candidates are now councillors and I do not think it is realistic to expect any of us to co-operate with someone whom we know holds that view of us all.”
He added: “I have hundreds of pages of tweets which prove these things to be true and, if you are unable to look at the persistent, continuous unpleasantness of his Twitter feed I can provide these for you.
“It is impossible to see how any of us can have off-the-record conversations with this individual in the same way I often do with other reporters…
“Looking back over hundreds of pages of tweets Mr Lilley has comprehensively trashed a wide variety of relationships which he will now need. It is unsurprising I think that many of us will want to repay the compliment now that he needs us to do his job.”
Lilley has said he acknowledges that he has been critical of the council in the past, but said “it was quite clear to everyone” what his position was when he applied for the Advertiser job.
He told Press Gazette today: “It is hard to imagine a more brazen attempt by a council leader to try and influence and undermine an external appointment…
“Clearly Cllr Cooper couldn’t stand the idea of not being in full control of a situation and having the council’s affairs constantly scrutinized by a reporter with a track record in raising awkward questions and seeking to hold the council to account.”
A Harrogate Borough Council spokesperson said: “We don’t comment on the recruitment decisions made by private companies. The reason why Mr Lilley’s contract was terminated remain a matter for the Harrogate Advertiser and no-one else”.
A Johnston Press spokesperson told Hold the Front Page: “It is not appropriate for us to be talking about an individual reporter’s employment in our or any other company.
“Robustly holding the council to account is the core function of a local democracy reporter. We will continue to hold all local authorities to account in the same objective and impartial way we always have done.
“We are looking forward to appointing a new LDR for North Yorkshire who has all of the skills necessary to carry out the brief with the rigour and fairness our readers expect.
“We will not be commenting further on this matter.”