Neil Merrick 25 November 2019

Navigating the rules of purdah

Navigating the rules of purdah image

Election periods are difficult for journalists. Not for reporters covering the campaign, whose main problem is dealing with the amount of comment, speculation and verbal abuse flowing from the mouths of politicians.

No, I’m talking about journalists who write about local government and other areas of public policy. Owing to purdah rules that may be interpreted as preventing public sector employees speaking freely to the press, it can be tricky if not impossible for journalists to reach the people we need to produce a worthwhile article.

It is not only staff in local and central government (including press officers) who are forbidden from saying anything that might be considered controversial in an election campaign. Charities are also, in effect, gagged owing to a change in the law earlier this decade.

Yet, as I’ve found out over the past few weeks, not all local authorities apply purdah rules in the same way. While some are happy for councillors, and occasionally officers, to continue speaking to the media, others throw a cloak of ‘no comment’ over the whole local authority.

It should be stressed that purdah rules do not prevent elected members of a council from speaking to the media. Otherwise, how would a councillor who is standing to be an MP communicate during the campaign?

Yet in early November, just after Parliament was dissolved and purdah kicked in, I received an email from a cabinet member of a council in north west England who told me that she had been informed by her press office that she could not speak to a journalist prior to the general election.

Others were more helpful. The next day, I emailed the press office of a council in southern England and, within 24 hours, it fixed me up to speak to its council leader. Meanwhile, the leader of another council told me purdah did not apply to anyone there, as no local elections were taking place.

Confused? I’m not surprised. In most cases, the key for journalists is to bypass normal channels of communication (ie press offices) and go straight to councillors, including council leaders. But what if we don’t have their direct phone number? Any email is likely to be read first by a secretary who is, of course, an employee of the council. That’s not to say some don’t try to assist journalists.

I can still hear the exasperation in the voice of the secretary of a council leader in London as she asked why the press office wasn’t dealing with requests to interview the leader. In case you’re wondering, this councillor never got back to me. Perhaps my article wasn’t deemed sufficiently important at this time or likely to influence the result of the election.

Even when a council leader advertises their mobile number on the web, it may not deliver results. My joy at getting straight through to the leader of a northern local authority was quickly tempered when he said he was too busy to talk as he was campaigning on behalf of the local MP.

Then there are charities. Most would, naturally, love to speak to the media during the campaign if it means the cause they support gains publicity. But, by law, they risk losing charitable status if they act in a way that is construed as showing political bias.

Some, notably housing charities, have nevertheless used social media and other avenues during the past few weeks to flag up issues such as homelessness. But otherwise, they too are taking it carefully. Very carefully.

Meanwhile, I for one will be happy on December 13 when purdah disappears (at least until next year’s local elections). Then again, will it be too late, depending on who is in government by next month, to write the articles we wish to and perhaps need to produce right now?

Neil Merrick is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Local Government News.

SIGN UP
For your free daily news bulletin
Highways jobs

Caseworker - Children and Education

Essex County Council
£20604.0 - £22664 per annum
Please note this is a 6 month fixed term contract As a caseworker in the Children and Education Team you will help to provide a high-quality advice an England, Essex, Chelmsford
Recuriter: Essex County Council

Executive Director Public Health and Integrated Commissioning

Sunderland City Council
£105,361 - £125,042 (with the potential for a market supplement)
You’ll provide strong, visible, transformational and system leadership to drive improvements in the health and wellbeing of... Sunderland, Tyne and Wear
Recuriter: Sunderland City Council

Chief Housing Officer

Pembrokeshire County Council
£58,917 - £64,638
As Senior Leader you will have a strong commitment to our Tenants, working as a committed and conscientious landlord, developing homes and... Pembrokeshire (Sir Benfro)
Recuriter: Pembrokeshire County Council

Utility Liaison Officer

The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea Council
£31,434 - £34,986 per annum
You will also be responsible for agreeing all relevant inspection and permit fee charges with utility companies including... Kensington and Chelsea, London (Greater)
Recuriter: The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea Council

Rough Sleep Coordinator

Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council
£40,760 - £45,591 per annum
This position is a fixed term contract until 31/08/2022. Sandwell, West Midlands
Recuriter: Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council

Public Property

Latest issue - Public Property News

This issue of Public Property examines how how flexible workspaces can lead the way in regeneration for local authorities, Why local authority intervention is key to successful urban regeneration schemes and if the Government’s challenge of embracing beauty is an opportunity for communities.

The March issue also takes a closer look at Blackburn with Darwen Council's first digital health hub to help people gain control over health and care services.

Register for your free digital issue