Fringe Box



Letter: The Local Media Is Responding to Malicious Rumours

Published on: 8 Nov, 2013
Updated on: 8 Nov, 2013

This week (w/e November 9) The Guildford Dragon NEWS received a further anonymous letter on the subject of events at Guildford Borough Council.

On this occasion, save one masked paragraph which could not be corroborated, the criticism was mostly aimed at us, so I have decided to put our normal policy on letters (see the “About Us” section’) to one side and publish it for all to see.

Obviously, I am unable to reply directly to the author so I am replying openly, hoping that he or she will be able to read it.

Martin Giles


GBC Anon masked 600Reply:

Dear “Guildford Borough Council Staff'”,

Thank you for your letter and for enclosing Sue Sturgeon’s email (see below). It is interesting.

I am a little surprised that while you imply criticism of the previous anonymous letters, you felt unable to sign yours. It is a shame, I think, that you felt the need to conceal your identity. What do you think would happen to you if you revealed it?

We have not solicited any of the letters and would much prefer it if you and others would come forward to speak to us, on or off the record. It has seemed that in the past, at least, officers have been too frightened to do so. I can assure you that any contact could be confidential but I realise that this requires considerable trust.

We do not doubt that David Hill was responsible for good work at GBC. It is often the case that a leader can be popular with some sections and unpopular with others. What is important is what lies behind the views of the staff and what is achieved by the organisation as a whole.

You say that the letter is written, “on behalf of many front line staff who are really upset and angry about how our council and our former Chief Executive David Hill are repeatedly being gossiped about in the local media – it is really looking like this is personal”.

It would be interesting to know how many officers you represent. Our clear impression is that most staff are happy with the recent changes.

In no way could our coverage be considered “gossip”. We have corroborated all the information we have published, often with senior councillors. Additionally, we have not published most of material we have heard about David Hill and others because, either, it was not judged to be in the public interest, could not be corroborated or was legally dangerous. We were also aware that there could be malicious intent.

It was certainly not personal from The Dragon’s point of view. No one here knew Mr Hill. We were only interested in the issue of how our council was being run.

It is the role of the media to hold those who govern us to account. We at the Guildford Dragon cover only Guildford Borough so the focus of our scrutiny falls naturally on GBC. It is a responsibility we take seriously, but we realise that the added scrutiny is bound to cause some discomfort among some councillors and council officers.

We strongly believe that the work of everyone at the council and the decisions taken are important to our borough. We hope that by covering council news we will increase interest in council affairs. We need to. At present, most of the electorate do not even vote in local elections.

There is a lot of very good work done by the council and we do run articles about those areas too. But in our media role it is right that we focus on areas of controversy and failure as well.

We do try hard to ensure that our reports are balanced, considered and accurate. There will inevitably be differences in view of how well we achieve that and sometimes, we will make mistakes. It is harder to achieve balance when the council brings the shutters down claiming a blanket “staff confidentiality” reason or if they simply do not respond or respond slowly. Then we might get only one side of the story.

When we refer to senior members of staff or the possible gross misconduct of officers, requiring their suspension, we believe that there can be public interest at stake that should sometimes override the need for staff confidentiality.

There is a bigger question about why much secrecy is required at all in a Borough Council, especially one which declares ‘openness and transparency’ as a core value.

Of course, there are some things that must be secret, plans for times of national emergency or for security events and things that are commercially sensitive, which could give one supplier an advantage over others, for instance. Additionally, there is personal data relating to council employees, for example their addresses or sickness records. It is quite right that these are kept confidential and we would not publish information that we considered improperly compromised personal privacy.

It seems to us that the need for secrecy at Millmead has become the default position more akin to a security service than a borough council. It appears that most things were regarded as confidential unless expressly classified otherwise; even GBC’s email classification system suggests that.

I know of councillors, not council officers mind but elected representatives, who prefer us not to send them emails on some stories in case their email accounts are being observed or could be subject to examination. That cannot be right in a free society.

Sue Sturgeon’s email says: “None of us would want our confidential information leaked in this way…”. I am not sure which information she means but, if we take the fingerprinting of officers, that is not personal data nor have individuals been harmed by the revelation.

It is noteworthy that the content of the letters is apparently known only to “a small number of staff”, who I understand are senior officers. This implies that there was, at least some degree of accuracy, although I would agree that any facts in the anonymous letters were diluted by considerable subjective opinion.

Writing an anonymous letter is not the best way of addressing an issue but those who write them, like you I suppose, presumably feel they would be at risk if they said the same things openly.

So it is good that the “whistle-blowing” process is being reviewed and the development of a new culture attempted. It will be challenging to obtain the full trust of everyone and bosses need to feel safe from malicious allegations too.

We wish the council well in their endeavour to do this. It will not be straightforward or easy. Cultural change is the most difficult of management tasks.

For our part we will continue to report without fear or favour, as accurately as we can.

Martin Giles

Editor, Guildford Dragon NEWS

GBC Anon_0001 600

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Responses to Letter: The Local Media Is Responding to Malicious Rumours

  1. Jim Allen Reply

    November 9, 2013 at 10:55 am

    In a hotel once, a waiter said to me, “It is the policy of the house to slightly under-cook the vegetables. Would you like them cooked properly?”

    In this case I think it is a case of, “It is the custom of the house to hide everything we do. Would you like to see what we are doing? Sorry it’s in ‘Draft format’. Even elected councillors are not allowed to see it.”

    Secrecy is a double edge sword and leads to mistrust and suspicion. We are meant to have open government and freedom of information is paramount.

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