A newspaper and the non-story of a council’s travel expenses

Because some spending details are available as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request does not mean they are scandalous. Take the Evening Star’s latest revelation under the headline “Suffolk: County Council staff takes 175 trips abroad — at a cost of £98,000″.

That is in a period of six years making the cost of foreign travel less than £16,500 a year. The average cost of a trip is £560.

That looks to me like careful control of expenses. I doubt if many organisations of similar size would appear so frugal if their travel expenses were exposed to scrutiny.

The figures suggest budget airlines and far from luxurious hotels.

The newspaper reports a county spokesman saying that one trip to Africa, which cost £16,000 was mainly funded through the children partaking in the trip raising money. He said that the reason was to take eight children in care to visit orphanages in Africa.

That sounds like a commendable project.

And “almost £500 was forked out” to visit an exhibition in Amsterdam to consider the best speed cameras for the county. It lasted three days which hardly suggests an official living the high life.

We need our officials to get out and talk to people, to hear the experiences of others so that they are better able to advise councillors.

One employee had £2,000 to attend a five day course in Boston as a part of a masters degree. This kind of spending is clearly not common and providing development opportunities to staff is important in recruiting and retaining the able people we need working for us.

Wordblog in its earlier incarnation was about the media, and it is the decision that this story was worth running that worries me.

It is the job of the press to hold public bodies to account. Enquiring into all aspects of spending is an important part of this. And the Evening Star has produced some important stories including the revelation of the money spent on photographs of chief executive Andrea Hill.

The chief executive’s spending on hotel stays in Suffolk, now a part of the investigation into her conduct, is another.

But this story about travel expenses undermines the good work. It enables those who should be held to account to turn on the media with valid complaints. “Just another example of the press pursuing a vendetta,” they can say with credibility.

I fear that FoI requests have given regional newspapers, hit by declining sales, reduced advertising revenue, and the resulting loss of reporters, a cheap semblance of investigative reporting.

The in-depth analysis of what the county council is really doing is expensive, demanding staff time which is no longer available. But that is what we need.

The challenge to our regional media is how to respond the the challenges of changes which are much more long-term than the current economic low. The internet has changed everything but I believe print will be with us for a long time.

I will return to this subject to look at ways in which our regional press could operate in a world of hyperlocal web news and social media to better serve its print readers.

  • http://ariversideview.wordpress.com/ Kevin Algar

    That’s probably not even 10p of a council tax bill. The Evening Star is starting to sound like a Daily Lib Dem Focus.

  • AJR

    You are spot on with this. Sadly I have got used to how low the local paper will stoop to for a story (for instance, the one about the shuttle bus, which is funded by the staff out of their wages and is open to the public), but the comments by the MPs were disgusting. Ben Gummer described the flights as “frivolous” and said that the council needs to “get a grip”. If he really thinks that crime fighting and adoption cases are frivolous, then I think it is him that needs to get a grip.

  • jimmy smith

    Absolutely right. but it seems you have then fallen into the same trap. Just because the paper keeps on repeating something, that doesnt make it true. The photos have been shown to be non story too, because they were a set of shots of a lot of staff. The money spent per member of staff is tiny. Even the photographer (Robert John) has gone on and on about how this story is simply not true on his website and just about anybody else who will listen. the same applied to the “staff coffee”. The MPS seem to be ignoring common sense completely. Dan Poulter appear to be “rent a comment” on Andrea Hill, despite commenting on what is supposed to be a completely private enquiry – he is therefore simply making things up. And on the subject of Ms Hill – a) how much are the council spending on the enquiry with Wragge & co when it appears they are not finding anything (or she would have gone already) and b) how much is the council spending on answering what seems to be daily FOI’s from Archant?

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  • http://ariversideclown.wordpress Jimminycricket

    It’s not a suprise that any of these non stories become front page as it reflects the ingrained nature of poor reporting, fact checking and accuracy in supposed journalism across all media. The Evening Star is hardly known for it’s rigorous investigative journalism much like other news outlets. Two other posters here have recognised the actual story behind the story though which is the fact that our two headline grabbing local Conservative MP’s have both messed up on this topic with Ben Gummer sounding like a rank amateur again and not thinking his response through (he should have read this post first) and Dan Poulter trying to be down with the public. His regular and dull comments on this (and anything else) could be copied from the Tory whip’s textbook.

  • http://www.123cheaptravel.co.uk/Flights-to-India.html David Jimson

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