WHEN the topic of budget-setting comes up at the council each year, there is a familiar cry from the opposition benches at the Town Hall, whichever party is occupying them: Cut back on the press department. Of course, when in power, there is more often than not a little backtracking and councillors in charge remember how many calls they actually make for PR advice each week… I even heard that on some occasions press officers might even draft letters and opinion pieces that appear under the names of our busy councillors.
The Conservatives, however, seem ready to shake things up. Two weeks ago, former leader and Swiss Cottage councillor Andrew Marshall went over the press office’s collective head with tweets, blogs and email posts which ignored a strict embargo on the press release that the UCL Academy school’s opening will be delayed. It scooped the embargo by only a couple of hours but in doing so undermined how the press office was trying to manage the situation with local journalists.
Then, last week, the Tories were quick to point out that the press office was, to their mind, sleeping when a boring machine (boring, as in drilling) fell over in Adelaide Road, Chalk Farm. Sleeping, that is, in comparison with on the spot roving reporter Councillor Jonny Bucknell. In an email to followers, he said afterwards: “I am surprised that the Camden press department had not put out a release on this since it is quite a major incident. As usual your Belsize Councillors hear about it in minutes.” Now, no press office or newspaper can hope to be as quick as Jonny Bucknell, the guy knows everything about his neighbourhood. You see him on his bike, his moped, in his G-Whiz car – he’s everywhere. But his comment is double-edged. By arguing the council’s press office should have swiftly put out a statement, there is a clear suggestion that there is a valid function to a department which is always the first target for budget amendments. If the Tories, or anybody else running through the accounts, wants the council to provide a news service as superfast as Jonny Bucknell (and for all parts of Camden, not just Chalk Farm), then somebody is going to have to pay for it.