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Controversial Media Policy Passed by Hawkesbury City Council Sparks Outcry

Dec 13, 2023

Hawkesbury City Council was embroiled in heated debates and criticism last night as it approved a contentious new media policy, with some councillors dubbing it as veering towards censorship.

The policy drew sharp objections from Independent Councillors Mary-Lyons Buckett,  Nathan Zamprogno, Les Sheather, along with Green Councillor Danielle Wheeler. Despite the vocal opposition, the policy was adopted; however, it will be subjected to further scrutiny in a Councillor workshop scheduled by the end of February to address specific concerns.

In a round of often confusing attempts to make amendments, the policy was eventually passed by the Liberal/Labor bloc that controls the council together with Cr. Eddie Dogramaci. All other councillors voted against the policy.

While the draft  policy was released for public comment, few real changes were made before it was finalised. This was despite many submission that suggested changes, making  the same points as councillors who rejected the policy.

A major point of contention revolves around the broad discretion granted to Council officials to determine which media outlets they engage with and the ability to make a range of subjective judgements, some of which were described as ludicrous. The policy also places onerous and expensive demands on small media outlets and does not cater for freelance journalists. 

The meeting was chaired by Mayor Sarah McMahon who regularly attacks journalists and media outlets. She often uses the HCC run Mayor’s page for those attacks.

Cr Wheeler, a vocal opponent of the policy, said that certain aspects of the policy encroach upon the territory of censorship. She expressed concern over the subjectivity inherent in the policy, particularly the requirement for a Council official to assess whether a media response aligns with the “community interest” when addressing media inquiries.

Cr Wheeler explained, “Clause 7.12 requires a Council officer to make a value judgment about a media organisation seeking information, considering factors such as accuracy, clarity, fairness, balance, privacy, avoidance of harm, integrity, and transparency. While these may seem easy to determine on the surface, my experience over seven years on this council tells a different story.”

Wheeler recounted instances where she felt misrepresented by various media outlets, including the Hawkesbury Gazette, leading to threats of violence against her. She questioned the sudden emphasis on accuracy, given past experiences, and emphasised the need for a more comprehensive discussion in the workshop“We paid money to that publication (The Hawkesbury Gazette) every week to put council notices up. Clearly no one cared about the accuracy of it then, why all of a sudden are we making value judgements about accuracy now. I can’t support this in its current form,” she said.. 

Cr Wheeler said her issues arose with the deviation of our media policy from the model policy. “There are some excellent inclusions, but contradictory statements and problematic sections create confusion. For instance, the constraints placed on council officials, if applied to elected representatives, could constitute a gag order, contradicting the policy’s assertion that councillors are free to discuss their votes on resolutions.”

Wheeler also expressed reservations about a specific clause (7.4) directing media inquiries to corporate communications, arguing that it should not be applicable to councillors. She deemed it ludicrous for elected representatives to seek permission before making comments to the media.

The councillor also urged her colleagues to scrutinise their social media activities, especially concerning minors, and questioned whether those posting pictures of minors during their end of year presentations had obtained parental consent for such posts. 

Council has committed to take another look at the policy by the end of February but there is no process for this to occur at present and councillors who voted against the policy believed the process of first passing a policy, then immediately reviewing it, was poor process.

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