Bernard Ingham: A free Press remains the front line of democracy

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IT is my proud boast that I started in the newspaper industry nearly 70 years ago at the very bottom – as a delivery boy. Six days a week, I wended my way up Keighley Road to Nursery Nook in Hebden Bridge and then down again via Frying Pan Alley, as Highfield Crescent was know because of its layout.

Then, at the age of 16, I began to learn my journalistic trade reporting parish councils for the local newspaper. It was in the monthly meetings of Blackshawhead, Heptonstall, Wadsworth and Erringden councils that I learned about grassroots governance.

I wallow in this nostalgia to a purpose. I have just learned that the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) has issued guidance to 80,000 parish councillors representing 15 million people not to talk to journalists without written consent from officials.

This is conclusive proof that the 
NALC is as incompetent as it is a dangerous representative of 9,000 parish councils – the lowest tier of local government – and should be wound up today for the good of the country and its democracy.

First, we have to ask how dumb can an organisation be about life in England. Parish councillors live cheek by jowl with their voters and local Press. They talk to each other as a matter of course. It is what normal people do, always assuming the NALC knows how a normal person behaves.

In fact, I have covered parish councils at which reporters were invited to contribute to the debate.

On one memorable occasion the doyen on the Press bench unceremoniously rubbed out a councillor’s blackboard explanation of flooding to give us the results of his evidently in-depth investigations.

To try to distance councillors from journalists defies human nature. It is like trying to stop squirrels eating nuts.

Second, the NALC’s “Stalinist” edict, as Eric Pickles, Local Government Secretary, describes it, demonstrates that its bureaucrats have got above themselves. Who do they think they are appointing presumably parish clerks to issue dockets giving councillors the right to speak to a journalist?

They would go down very well in Alistair Campbell’s totalitarian No 10, but would have no place in mine. The idea that unelected officials can boss elected councillors about is an abomination. It is time these asses were educated in the ways of democracy rather than dictatorship.

This brings me to the sheer ignorance or opportunism – and I leave you to judge – of the NALC’s pogrom. If they were even remotely in touch with the real world, they would know that Britain’s local Press is in a parlous state, thanks to the internet, the BBC and the long recession.

It has limited resources. One of the consequences is that young journalists do not have my privilege of learning about the working of Britain’s constitution from the bottom.

But a healthy democracy needs a vigorous, probing local Press that feels strong enough to stand up to authority. That is not always the case now. To try cut off parish councillors from reporters is to drive another nail in democracy’s coffin.

This is why I leave you to judge whether the NALC is just plain stupid or devious. Either way it is a menace, especially when it tries to kid us that it wants parish councils to be telling the media more about their “brilliant work” on the ground.

The way to achieve that is to invite local reporters to cover their meetings not to ban unauthorised contact between councillor and scribe.

Journalists would then discover for themselves the “brilliant work” they are supposed to be doing rather retailing it as PR puffs from pen pushers.

In truth, I worry far more about the current failure for want of resources to inform people of what is really going on in their communities than I do about secret trials for terrorists – much though they concern me – or The Guardian’s obsession with electronic surveillance to protect us from terrorists.

Let us not forget the efforts – now thankfully in a sort of limbo – to regulate the great British Press by Royal Charter.

Notwithstanding yesterday’s verdicts in the News of the World phone hacking trial, we no more need regulation 
of the Press than we need emasculated parish councillors forced to pass journalists by on the other side of the road.

We need the free flow of information under a single all-embracing rule of law.

After 70 years in the business, I would like to bring you news of parish councillors promoting that flow by arranging an ostentatious nation-wide talk-in with reporters in every village square. It is no more than the NALC deserves.