Researcher accuses local Councils of muzzling

Dr Catherine Strong

A Massey University researcher has said that some Local Councils are muzzling their elected members and stifling free speech.

Dr Catherine Strong from the School Communication, Journalism and Marketing said that there was a disturbing paragraph creeping into the operating policies of some Councils.

“It prevents elected members from talking to the media about anything negative within their Council. This includes Council decisions, policies and overall reputations,” she said.

She presented the findings of her research at the Journalism Education Association of New Zealand Conference in Christchurch last fortnight.

Her research also provides an analysis of Codes of Conduct of all 67 City and District Councils in New Zealand.

Gagging Members

While most Councils stated that elected members have the right to talk freely to the media (with obvious restrictions around confidential information and employment practices), the research found that ten Councils (15%) restrict elected members giving critical opinion to the media.

This amounts to gagging the elected members – the very people who are representing the community. They are not meant to be spin doctors for the Council,” Dr Strong said.

She suspects that newly elected Councillors approve the entire 4000-word Code of Conduct without scrutinising the wording of the small media section.

The study found that 43 Councils used Codes of Conduct as originally set out in the Local Government Act 2002 to acknowledge the necessary relationship between the media and the Council.

Some variations

Some of these included slight variations, such as Auckland City Council elaborating on the procedure and stating that elected members are not to make media statements “derogatory in respect of another elected member.”

Fourteen other Councils, including Wellington, Hutt City, Christchurch and Invercargill, applied their own wording to convey a similar message, but ten others contained what Dr Strong described as “disturbing restrictions”, preventing elected members speaking out publicly on issues with which they disagreed.

“In fact, it seemed all inclusive to prevent criticism. Some prevent criticism of conduct of Council, criticism of decisions, undermining decisions, or bringing it into disrepute,” Dr Strong said.

“Whakatane, Waitomo and Kapiti Coast Districts Councils used verbatim paragraphs, including punctuation errors, to essentially prevent elected members speaking out negatively against their local authority stating they “shall not criticise the conduct of the Council. Gisborne, Central Otago and Kaikoura District Councils used a variation of the wording, adding “nor should it undermine any existing policy or decision, Napier City Council added one additional word to prevent ‘personal’ criticism.  Its Code said that no such statements should make personal criticism of the proper conduct of the Council or of other elected members, officers of the Council or members of the public.”

According to Dr Strong, the Tauranga City Council and Buller District Council prevent media comments that would ‘undermine’ Council policy and this word could be interpreted to prevent any criticism.

Wong impression

Matamata-Piako District Council used wording to ensure that there was no criticism in general media or in usage of social media: “They must not criticise other elected members, Council decisions or Council staff in the media or on Council’s or their own personal social media pages.”

“These restrictions on elected members speaking publicly mean that the community gets the impression all decisions get all agreement, and that there are no contrary views to the myriad of policies and decisions taken by a Council,” Dr Strong said.

The findings show that New Zealand communities need to safeguard their reputation for having one of the most open democracies and free media in the world.

“The public should be appalled that their elected representatives may bite their lips and keep mum when there are important things ratepayers should know,” Dr Strong said.

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