Propaganda in Council’s Library Article Challenged by Author

This post details the correspondence between Lincolnshire children’s author William Hussey and the editor of the council’s newsletter, The County News.

The article that sparked the debate can be read here on the council website: New Chapter for Libraries

SENT to Editor of the County News (24.9.13):

Hello

LCC via their twitter feed asked me to email you. I assume you know the thrust of my question: I feel that Councillor Worth has been given a full page in the latest issue of County News to put across the Council’s position on libraries and pro-cuts argument and, in the interests of democracy and freedom of speech, I would like a full page in the next issue for Save Lincolnshire Libraries to contest the assumptions within this article.

I hope you agree that County News shouldn’t simply be a mouthpiece for what many of us consider the Council’s ill-founded propaganda when it comes to libraries and that a balance between the opposing views on this vital issue ought to be struck. County News is delivered to all households so Mr Worth’s position is being advertised by a publicly funded organ. I’d hate to think that tax payers’ money was being used to propagate a one-side debate.

I await your response with interest.

Best regards

William Hussey

RESPONSE from Editor (25.9.13):

Dear William,

Thank you for your email.

The contents of the next edition of County News (covering January, February and March) haven’t been decided yet, but all suggestions, including yours, will be given careful consideration when that process gets underway.

Kind regards

SENT to the Editor (25.9.13):

Dear Sir

Many thanks for your timely response. I appreciate you have yet decide the contents of the next issue, however I believe that this is so serious an issue that it demands space be made for Save Lincolnshire Libraries to respond in the manner I have outlined. Otherwise the magazine might be seen as a mere political pamphlet, funded by the tax payer, for the Conservative-led coalition to promote its views. There must be a balance struck here, and freedom and equality of speech demands SLL be allowed to put their view across in the County News, countering the assumptions and statements made by Nick Worth.

I note the next issue is for Jan, Feb, March. Obviously this could be too late for Save Lincolnshire Libraries as the decision on the future of libraries will be taken by the executive in December. Could I ask when the next issue will be released and when content will be decided? If we are talking about after December then I would ask that space be made on the County News website for our rebuttal.

I am going to touch base with Mark Williams of The Lincolnshire Echo to highlight this matter and will keep him updated as to your decision.

Best regards

William

RESPONSE from Editor: (4.10.13):

Dear William,

Further to previous correspondence, I have now had the opportunity to consider more fully your request for space in County News (either the magazine or online version). Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, I will not be able to help.

As you are aware, the next edition of the hard-copy County News magazine is not printed until mid-December, so the timescale simply would not work for a Save Lincolnshire Libraries article.

Also, having looked back over the “New chapter for libraries” article that you wish to respond to, it still strikes me as a very balanced piece. The central point is that new technology is changing the way libraries are used, which is surely beyond doubt. Beyond that, Cllr Worth simply outlined the consultation proposals and explained how residents could take part.

What is more, the consultation closed on 30 September, so I am not sure how an article by you on our website at this stage would add anything significant. The next step is to find out the outcome of the consultation, and the responses are now being analysed by a team at Sheffield Hallam University.

Its report is expected to be available at the end of October. As soon as it is, and in the spirit of openness, it will be made available prominently on the council’s website at http://www.lincolnshire.gov.uk. We also intend to release the report to the local media, which will no doubt – and quite properly – wish to cover the contents in depth.

Finally, I should perhaps respond to your suggestion that County News could be “seen as a mere political pamphlet”. In fact, the magazine’s main purpose is to keep residents fully informed about Lincolnshire County Council policies and services. In line with the Government’s Code of Recommended Practice for Local Authority Publicity, County News does not, and would not, promote a particular political group.

Thank you again for your interest.

Kind regards

William

SENT to the Editor (6.10.13):

Dear Sir

Many thanks for your email. I find your response disappointing but, I’m afraid to say, unsurprising. It will no doubt be futile to set out my arguments as to why I believe your decision is both flawed and a denial of freedom of expression for opposition councillors and a significant number of Lincolnshire residents who oppose the council’s library proposals, and who pay for the County News, yet I will set them down for the record, and for Mark Williams of the Lincolnshire Echo, who I know is taking a deep interest in this matter.

Firstly, I understand your response denying Save Lincolnshire Libraries (SLL) a right of reply in the physical County News, but I reiterate a request that SLL be allowed to set out its opposing views on your online version of the magazine. This is surely not too much of imposition, and the value of it I will discuss below.

I can only stand in stark opposition to your view that the article was in any way a ‘balanced’ piece. ‘Balanced’ in journalistic phraseology suggests that a position is stated and that any countervailing view is sought and given space for expression. This was not the case with the article, in which only Cllr Worth was quoted, and so I ask, in what possible way can it be seen as balanced? Cllr Worth gave his view, which the rest of the content backed up, that the library service needed to change and that community groups have the capacity and skill-set to run libraries. A balanced piece would have included the counterview that the library service has existed and thrived for over 160 years in its current state and, therefore, change is unnecessary and potentially highly damaging. With no counterview expressed it cannot sensibly be thought to be balanced, but is indeed horribly one-sided.

The piece was propaganda for the council’s proposals, pure and simple. Your point about technology is rather blinkered, if I may say, as it looks only at libraries as a repository of books and information, whereas a library user with only a modicum of experience of the service knows that libraries are so much more than this. They are safe havens for the vulnerable, places of reassurance and rare convergence for the young, the elderly and the disabled, vital centres of assistance for those looking for work, invaluable hubs for physical research; things that cannot ever be replicated by a virtual environment. This aspect of libraries, and many others not alluded to in the piece, ought to have been reflected, if it was to be truly ‘balanced’.

I know that later in the piece Cllr Worth makes statements about ‘community libraries’, but it is the evidence-based contention of SLL that volunteer-led libraries, as envisaged by the proposals, do not work and will ultimately fail. This is backed up by OXFAM, whose Trading Director states that the volunteer model is ‘unsustainable for libraries’, and I feel that any ‘balanced piece’ ought to have allowed the serious doubts about the council’s preferred model for the majority of future libraries to be expressed. It should not simply have been stated or implied as a given that the community has the capacity to run libraries without the counterview that this is not a workable model and that major organisations like OXFAM have said that such a solution is simply not feasible (I could fill 5 pages with reasons why volunteers cannot properly run libraries, including my own country-wide, first-hand experience of where these libraries are closing or have closed, but this is already a long email. For your edification on the matter, I suggest you go to the excellent http://www.voicesforthelibrary.org.uk/).

Further, it is the belief of experienced bodies like CILIP that the argument that libraries are ‘changing’ based on advances in technology is vastly overstated, and Age Concern has pointed out that concentrating on the still marginal use of technology within libraries excludes that sizeable chunk of library users, the elderly, who are more likely not to use such tech. In this light surely a countervailing view on the technology point ought to be allowed within the pages of a publicly funded magazine.

The title of the piece itself, ‘New chapter for libraries’, presupposes that the consultation will throw up answers which will inevitably lead to the council adopting some form of the current proposals and fundamentally changing the service. We in SLL fervently hope this will NOT be the case, yet with a title like this it heavily implies to the reader (the entire county, in fact, as County News is delivered to all households) that the decision that libraries WILL change, particularly along the lines LCC propose, is a foregone conclusion and would lead to many wondering why they should bother filling in the consultation forms at all, or filling them in with the erroneous view that they must simply accept the model of libraries proposed under the plans whereas, although the form of the consultation document is skewed to produce acquiescence to those plans, one is perfectly entitled to reject the proposals in their entirety.

Further, you say Councillor Worth simply states the case, yet in the content of the article County News state, ‘… more traditional elements of the library service MUST (my emphasis) also change with the times if they are to remain affordable and efficient.’ MUST they? That presupposes that the consultation will echo this sentiment when it might easily show that the public do not want ANY change (I attended several consultations and this was the view sent back to the Sheffield Hallam team time and time again), in which case the executive would have to listen or risk exposing the consultation as the hollow process many of us suspect it to be.

The line I have quoted above also does not seem to me to guide people to an open consultation, as you seem to suggest in your defence of the piece, but, rather, tends towards encouraging them to agree that changes MUST be made and are inevitable. Affordability and efficiency is also presupposed by this quote to be the natural result of these proposals whereas, in fact, many argue that the savings hoped to be made by LCC by these plans are largely illusory and horribly short-sighted. A balanced piece would reflect these opposing views, giving room for contentions such as budget underspends that might fund the library service as it stands and the reality that, when libraries close, as they must under the volunteer-led model, expense to the county through rising dementia care costs (Age Concern has stated this is an inevitable result of the volunteer-led model) and rising unemployment because of the lack of trained librarians to help jobseekers will negate any short-term savings the council has made. On costs there are many other arguments SLL could make but these two will serve as illustrative.

Again, in the article we have Councillor Worth saying there is ‘need for change’ (anticipating a certain response from the consultation) and yet you will not allow SLL a right of response to this assumption. Worth is not here merely setting out the consultation, as you suggest, but laying a value judgement upon its outcome. ‘Change’ is also presupposed in the article’s content, as in the extract I quoted above. For a council and publicly-funded magazine to be making these very leading comments during an already loaded consultation process is perhaps not helpful and may assist immensely with any future Judicial Review challenge to the free, fair, impartial and open nature of the entire consultation.

You ask how a further response for SLL could add anything significant. Well, the executive will not decide on this issue until December. In the meantime they have promised to take into account the views of the public, both during AND after the end of the consultation: any SLL response on the County News website would certainly amount to such a ‘view’ and would generate further letters and communications to councillors for their consideration and edification before the final decision is made. It might also redress the imbalance in the piece in question with its insistence on the necessity for change.

I note your response to my ‘mere political pamphlet’ comment: you say County News is there to report LCC policies and services, yet those opinions expressed in the piece, and the assumptions inherent therein, are Nick Worth’s and executive’s alone. The vast bulk of opposition councillors (as well as over 25,000 council tax paying residents who have signed the petition opposing the very notion of change) stand resolutely against these plans. Moreover, the ELDC are also opposing the plans and have serious suspicions about the openness and frankness of the consultation process. Where are their voices reflected in the County News? The thrust of the piece was in favour of this notion of inevitable change to the library service – something opposition councillors deny is necessary – but which the executive, who will make the ultimate decision, appear to support. As this executive is made up almost exclusively of councillors from one particular party you might see how the County News, in suggesting the inevitability of change within the article (NB, not just in Nick Worth’s comments but in the content), might be seen to be endorsing a particular party’s viewpoint rather than reflecting the variety of views of the council as a whole. Clearly, this impression might be ‘balanced’ by allowing SLL or an opposition councillor to express their views on the future of the library service on the County News website.

As an aside, I note the potential partiality of the article has been picked up by others: http://www.horncastlenews.co.uk/news/letters-opinion/letter-lincolnshire-county-council-s-library-article-just-political-spin-1-5555531

I anticipate my further plea for SLL to be allowed a right of reply will fall on deaf ears, but I will keep your response in my file to refer to a later date should that become necessary.

With best regards

William Hussey
CC: Mark Williams, The Lincolnshire Echo

RESPONSE from the Editor (11.10.13):

Dear William,

Thank you for your detailed email. However, I’m afraid that our view on this remains unchanged.

Kind regards

MY NOTE: This is the last communication from the Editor. Please note that this two line email fails to address ANY of the substantive points in my 1,500 word email. This failure to allow a balanced public argument seems to a fall foul of the council’s duty to allow a free, fair and open consultation. Might this be a ground for, or sustaining evidence in support of, Judicial Review? I leave that to wiser heads to decide…

SENT to the Editor (10.11.13):

Dear Sir,

To match your brevity: is it not a sad day when the flame of democracy falters for want of the oxygen provided by the equality of the freedom of speech? I will keep your response on file as it may yet become relevant to the campaign to save Lincolnshire libraries.

Regards

William

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