Croydon Council spends at least £660,000 per year of our money on its press office. The council press office is supposed to be there to distribute information about the council services and activities. It is supposed to be strictly neutral in all respects, showing no favour to one political party whatsoever, giving no preferential treatment to one local newspaper, or website, over any other.
There are many, both on the opposition Labour benches at the Town Hall and in the local media, who have long harboured suspicions that the council, perhaps under orders from its political masters, perhaps directed by chief executive Jon Rouse, too often exhibits a bias. Certainly, during the long period of Labour control of the Town Hall until 2006, the Tories were equally convinced that the press office and free rag, Your Croydon, was being abused to peddle a particular party line.
This, of course, has always been firmly denied by the press office. An example, you might think, that spin begins at home.
Imagine Inside Croydon‘s surprise, then, when at the visit to Reeves Corner by Nick Clegg, the deputy Prime Minister, to support the London Mayoral candidacy of Brian Paddick, we sighted none other than Croydon Council senior press officer John Bownas.
Jolly, bearded Bownas is hard to miss.
But this was an explicitly party political event, staged by the Liberal Democrats for the benefit of the candidate in the London Mayoral elections.
So why was Bownas present, snapping away with his camera?
Was it his day off? Was he there simply to choose a new sofa? Or was Bownas there on council-paid time? And will the council’s press office be devoting equivalent resources to the visits to Croydon of other political leaders, or Mayoral candidates?
The presence of Croydon’s senior press fixer may betray a lack of confidence in the chances of Steve O’Connell, the country’s most over-paid local councillor, for the Assembly elections in May. If Croydon’s Tory leadership really see the Croydon and Sutton AM seat as a three-way marginal, then boosting the LibDems may be a strategy to take votes away from Labour. With PR support paid for by the Council Tax.
Bownas never likes to be quoted in reports about the council. “The convention is to say ‘a council spokesman said’,” is his self-deprecating preference, which somewhat flies in the face of openness and accountability. And while the practice has long been tolerated in British newspapers, citing unnamed sources is entirely unacceptable to serious international news agencies.
When we phoned the council press office late on Friday to speak to Bownas’s new boss, the equally shy (secretive?) Danny Brierley, to ask what Bownas’s role was at this explicitly political event, there was no answer.
Perhaps chief executive Jon Rouse would care to contact Inside Croydon to explain why his staff, paid for with our Council Tax, are becoming so overtly involved with politics?
- Inside Croydon: brought to you from the heart of the borough, free of charge, an independent voice standing for freedom of speech for the people of Croydon
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