Neil Merrick 25 November 2019

Navigating the rules of purdah

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.

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