Gavin Maclure's Musings

My take on politics locally, nationally and internationally

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EXCLUSIVE: Press Gallery scrapped at Ipswich Borough Council

Last week I reported on the important announcement that Ipswich Borough Council are to appoint a social media officer at Grafton House.

This prompted me to ask chief executive Russell Williams why the press gallery at the Town Hall only allows access to traditional print media journalists and the Council’s communications chief. I was also keen to know the process I should follow to gain access to the press gallery as I felt bloggers should be treated equally with the dead tree press.
Well, today the blogosphere in Ipswich has won a victory of sorts. Mr Williams has acted swiftly and this afternoon he informed me the Borough Council have decided to scrap the “press gallery” – actually just one table and two chairs – and move the Morning Ipswich Star’s political editor, Paul Geater, and the Council’s communications chief to the public gallery. So in effect, bloggers and traditional media journalists will now report on Council proceeding together in one place. Very cosy.
In related news, Mr Williams also tells me bloggers and other social media outlets will now receive press releases from the Council along with the print and broadcast media. I am told Ipswich Spy have been waiting months to get on the press release list so this will be most welcome in that parish. Gavin Maclure’s Musings intends to request receipt of future press releases and all bloggers can apply to be placed on the list by following the instructions on the Council’s Press Office webpage.
Despite the new social media officer not yet been appointed with the vacancy open for applications until tomorrow, it seems the Council’s top officer team is taking social media seriously now. Ipswich Borough Council should be applauded for facilitating full and transparent reporting of the Council’s activities – a core tenet of democracy – by ensuring both traditional journalists and bloggers are now treated equally when all 48 councillors meet to represent Ipswich residents at the Town Hall.
I look forward to reporting – alongside new and traditional scribes – at the next full meeting of the Council on 26th September.

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Ipswich Borough Council joins the 21st Century

Ipswich Spy has written a good piece today on Ipswich Borough Council’s appointment of a social media officer to their communications department.

I understand Tory Group leader Cllr John Carnall’s point about additional spending when the public debt pile is rising – with the national public debt increasing by £600bn under the present Government alone – and I certainly could find a hundred ways to save money at Ipswich Borough Council, having been a councillor there for four years.  However, I feel Cllr Carnall’s reaction to the social media officer appointment was a little knee-jerk; would Mr Carnall have used the word “disgraceful” in the context of social media if he was in his 30s and not his 60s? 
Social media such as Twitter, Facebook, blogs, YouTube and a plethora of web-based communication applications are empowering millions today (including people over 60!)? Look how much further Cllr Carnall’s comments now go because of social media. He made his comments to the Morning Ipswich Star but I read them on the blog Ipswich Spy and was no where near a copy of the local paper. The so-called mainstream media is quickly becoming not very mainstream at all – as the Morning Ipswich Star circulation figures clearly show. Undoubtedly, social media is a force which will only get stronger as more people consume their news and debate electronically.
However, I can’t believe the Council could not recruit for this position internally. Are they really saying out of the hundreds of people they employ, not one had the requisite skills to take over the running of the social media function at Ipswich Borough Council? It is not a full-time job, surely? What will they need to do? Send out a few tweets, keep the Facebook site up-to-date, create a guide for less IT-literate civil servants on how to communicate with the public via Twitter and Facebook. A couple of days a week, maximum.
Perhaps, the new recruit could make a start by tweeting when the Area Committees take place? I asked for this, as a resident, back in March but it has still not happened.
Ipswich Spy also made the very pertinent point about how Ipswich Borough Council treats bloggers over the dead-tree press, such as the Morning Ipswich Star. Let’s hope their new social media recruit tells the Borough communications chief that Archant’s circulation is going DOWN whereas blog readership is going UP year-on-year. It makes you wonder why the Council puts Morning Ipswich Star political editor Paul Geater on a pedestal, quite literally, at town hall Council meetings. Mr Geater gets his own table and chair (and, of course, a jug of water) high up with the councillors whilst bloggers like myself and Ipswich Spy have to squeeze into the public gallery.
If I was in charges of communications and the media at the Council, I’d be a little more concerned the future of journalism – the blogosphere – were being kept sweet rather than the dead tress press. Of course, I might not be aware of the Council’s open-all-doors media policy so I’ve today emailed the chief executive, Russell Williams, to ask for a copy of the process for gaining access to the press gallery. I’ll let you know his reply in due course.

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Lib Dems gain St Margaret’s Ward

Counting to elect a new councillor on Ipswich Borough Council in the ward of St Margaret’s (a more affluent ward in the town) took place overnight.

The winner were the Liberal Democrats whose candidate, Cathy French, won with a majority of 71 over the Conservative candidate, Stephen Ion.

Firstly, a hat-tip to Ipswich Spy who have provided a comprehensive post on the by-election result first thing this morning and are miles ahead of the Morning Evening Star in their election AND results coverage. As Ipswich Spy pointed out a few days ago in their comments section, if you want an intellectual read on Ipswich politics stick to the blogosphere and not the dead tree local press who are now woefully lacking in quality journalism. Most of the political blogs in Ipswich are far superior than the rubbish printed in the political reports of the Morning Evening Star.

The full results were (hat-tip to Ipswich Spy):

Cathy French         LD     942 (41.8% (+6.7%))
Stephen Ion           Con     871 (38.7% (+1.7%))
Glen Chisholm        Lab   439 (19.5% (-1.8%))
Spoiled Papers                 9
Majority                 LD     71 (0.03%)
Total voted                       2261 (6276 voters (36.03%))

As you can see from the above the turn-out was high for a by-election but not unusual in St Margaret’s where turn out is always above average. The Liberal Democrat vote is up compared to the local elections in May this year but I prefer the comparison to 2008 before the national Liberal Democrat collapse. Cathy French now has a larger majority than her party had in 2008 – 71 compared to 45. This should be disturbing for Labour as it looks from this result that the Lib Dems are on the ascendency again in Ipswich after their political collapse earlier this year. However, by-elections, especially local by-elections, do have a tendency of obscuring the national trend. The real test will be the local elections in May next year.

Labour, despite the spinning of Labour MEP Richard Howitt, have nothing to be smug about in St Margaret’s: their vote is down compared to the May local elections this year and one opposition councillor has been replaced with another opposition councillor on the Borough Council.

I had predicted Stephen Ion would win for the Tories but I was proven wrong by underestimating the Liberal Democrats’ motivation for a fightback after their disastrous polling in May’s local elections this year.
Mr Ion is to be congratulated for his hard work in the by-election and he would have made a good councillor, drawing on his experience from when he represented Rushmere ward. However, I had my doubts during the campaign on how effective election literature which linked Mr Ion with David Cameron would be in a ward which has a lot of traditional Tories (the same Tories who the Conservatives call on every General Election). It should be remembered, as I’ve written before, that David Cameron didn’t win the General Election in 2010 mainly due to the Conservative leader’s message being at odds with the views of the party’s base. Reminding Conservative voters of this during the St Margaret’s by-election was, in my view, not a good move.

In summary, nothing, as yet, has changed on the political landscape in Ipswich. The real test of opinion is May 2012 when 16 council places are up for election across the Borough.