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Purdahtory

08 May

So the election is over, and thank goodness for that. Not that it hasn’t been an entertaining experience. As ever, I was tasked with trying to make an everyday constituency sound interesting – and I did by bit. I also juggled with the dilemma of promoting “non political” stories beyond their usual station so we didn’t have to include candidates. And I did my bit.

So, too, did the press officers – constantly quoting “purdah” as an excuse to avoid stories. For those who don’t know, purdah is the period once an election is called whereby public bodies refuse any broadcast interviews – on the grounds that they may somehow influence the election.

This is all very well on politically sensitive or controversial stories. But for the past few weeks it’s seemed like a game of double standards to me. For instance, a hospital trust refused to talk about transplants after a wonderful story of someone having their life saved. The Highways Agency said “no” to my simple request to talk about a new bridge opening. And Public Health England wouldn’t provide anyone to explain the truth about health tourism.

Pretty consistent, you might think. Every journalist will have similar stories. But in recent days I’ve seen senior civil servants seemingly playing by their own rules. One council Chief Executive (and a Returning Officer to boot) was tweeting about plans to change some services for children with special needs, complete with a link to a public consultation. The same returning officer was tweeting on Election Day itself encouraging people to use their vote.  Another Head of Service called for a significant change in drinking laws. When I challenged this, he said he was speaking as an individual after experiencing a relaxation in restrictions abroad. And a communications officer I know constantly posts messages against austerity.

Now, I’m the first person to bang the drum for personal views being just that. Long may they continue. But at the next election, don’t preach purdah to me on stories which are anything but political. The existing rules surrounding purdah are not only archaic, but legally questionable. As is the blanket use of those rules because it suits a civil service which likes to play it safe.

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