GUIDELINES for town and parish councils appearing to forbid councillors from speaking to journalists without consent have been branded “ridiculous” and “self defeating.”
Advice by the National Association of Local Councils suggests the press should contact the clerk rather than a councillor directly and that written consent should be sought before an interview.
Gwilym Wren, clerk of Milverton Parish Council and a Taunton Deane councillor, said: “Speaking as a Deane councillor, the guidance seems ridiculous and self-defeating.
“It’s surely better to address this as a council rather than try to dodge it as an issue by operating a gateway via the clerk.
“In any case, who’s to say the clerk’s sufficiently media-savvy to undertake this responsibility?”
The guidelines emerged last month with Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles describing them as “Stalinist”, warning of a “chilling effect on public life.”
Cllr Ken Browse, chairman of NALC, rejected the accusations, saying the group wanted its 9,000 parish councils to have “more dealings with the media”, not fewer.
He said the guidance was published last year and “does not bar councillors from speaking to the media, but explains the legal framework that governs them”.
Debbie Bere, assistant town clerk at Wellington Town Council, said: “We currently enjoy a good relationship with all local media.
“Our councillors are aware that their names will feature in the press, and understand the difference between their name being printed with the title ‘councillor’ or in a private capacity.
“Wellington town councillors seek the advice of the clerk if there are concerns when engaging with the media, and the clerk’s often contacted directly for quotes.
“The media are also welcome at all council meetings unless otherwise stated.”
Wiveliscombe Town Council chairman Bryn Wilson said: “Members are free to speak to the press without getting consent and will continue do so.
“It will be for the individual councillor to make certain the facts are correct as far as is reasonably practical.”
West Somerset Council leader Cllr Tim Taylor said: “We live in a fairly free society, and I believe in freedom of speech and a free media.
“This wouldn’t be democratic at all and could result in criticism.”
Minehead Mayor Les Smith, who sits on West Somerset Council and Minehead Town Council, said: “Most of the time the press contacts us through our officers, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t happy to speak to them directly.”