Independent Wexford TD Verona Murphy has called for the chief executive and secretary of Wexford County Council to both step aside while an investigation is carried out into what she described as attempts by the local authority to curtail “freedom of the press”.
Ms Murphy told South East radio’s Morning Mix programme that the council’s chief executive Tom Enright had contravened the Local Government Act “recklessly” when he put “unwarranted pressure” on the local radio station.
A report by the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) in January found that by threatening to withdraw council advertising from the station during a row over comments made by a presenter, Mr Enright had breached the provisions of the Local Government Act and failed to maintain proper standards of integrity.
The public ethics body said Mr Enright had wrongly conflated the issue of his dispute with the station over its coverage of the council, and the council’s commercial position as the station’s primary advertiser.
In an email to the managing director of the station Eamon Buttle on March 25th, county secretary David Minogue called on the station to agree that its presenters would not express personal opinions on air in return for the council taking out advertising on the station anticipated to be between €40,000-€50,000 this year.
Ms Murphy said that Mr Enright had misused his position to “throw around his weight” and had failed to ensure that his behaviour did not bring the reputation of the council into disrepute.
The Sipo report had been “damning”, she said.
'Huge reputational damage'
A subsequent “very ill-informed” meeting of the council at which councillors had endorsed the behaviour of the chief executive and had given him a standing ovation (except for one councillor Pat Barden who abstained) would cause “huge reputational damage” to the county of Wexford, Ms Murphy warned.
Ms Murphy said that she had brought up the issue in the Dáil after the Sipo report when the Taoiseach said that there could not be any attempts to influence “the content of any local radio discussion, debate or its treatment or coverage of any issue”.
“Even if there are advertisements that emanate from the council and so on, that is not correct,” said Mr Martin.
“It can never be used for that purpose by anybody. I am very clear about that.”
The same breach of ethics has now occurred with the email from Mr Minogue, said Ms Murphy. This was a very serious assault on the basic principles of democracy.
She said responsibility now lay with the councillors who had supported the chief executive, they must now come out and stand up for democracy and free speech.
“They must call a halt to this breach of ethics.”
The people of Wexford have lost confidence in the county council, said Ms Murphy.
The county manager (chief executive) and the county secretary should step down until the matter was fully investigated, she said.
Morning Mix presenter Alan Corcoran said he had been shocked to read an article in The Irish Times on Saturday on the issue.
Freedom of speech was vital, and he said that South East radio would not lose its independent voice no matter how much advertising revenue would be lost.
“No journalist should be subjected to this restriction.”