Things I learned from The Courier last week

Welcome back to my very irregular series about what The Courier has alerted me. For new readers, The Courier is my local paper in Ballarat. Published six days a week, there is a lot of local news which is published

Breaking news-The Council spends money!

A series of articles by Tom Cowie who has ‘analysed’ the money spent by Council staff using purchase cards over a three year period and concluded that the council spends money.

The investigation involved receiving over 900 pages of expenses, through a Freedom of Information request which were then scanned using OCR or Optical Character Recognition (a technique used by Trove at the National Library of Australia), with a keyword search being undertaken. Keywords such as coffee, travel, cakes have been searched. The total expenditure on these purchases was been tallied up and presented to the public.

No questions appear to have been asked by the Courier of the council to explain the nature of individual expenses (if they have asked these questions, no answers have been published). The journalist then invited the public to look through the scanned 928-page document to see for themselves.

The council has explained the process of the cards’ usage, which has replaced the traditional purchase order/invoice/payment in 30 days regime, but has not sought to defend any particular purchases.

Where the questions have been asked, though is in the comments section of the articles by members of the public. For the most part, it has been a very negative response by individuals outraged by the fact that council staff are spending ‘their’ money on frivolous items. The comments were largely of the ‘snouts in the trough” outrage and “how dare they”, but after the third consecutive day of reporting, the tide was beginning to turn against the reporter, with accusations of council-bashing and pleas for it to stop.

Presented with this data it is not hard to reach the same conclusion. However the data has been reported in a contextual vacuum, with no real expose other than there is little control over descriptions  which staff are required to enter when submitting their list of purchases.

Coffee can mean the purchase of coffee to sell in commercial establishments the council operate such as the Art Gallery of Ballarat’s cafe, or the Nescafé found in the myriad of tea rooms for the 900 employees of the Council. But there is no explanation given by the journalist, because there has been no serious investigation.

Where is the comparative expenditure by councils like Geelong and Bendigo? Where is the investigating of audit reports which the Victorian Auditor General’s Office must do on local government expenditure? Where are the responses from the council on suspect claims?

The role of the media in scrutinising the workings of government is a precious one in a democracy. It is a form of accountability which has often seen media agencies under threat by authorities for doing a good job, and I fully support this.

This however,  smacks of clickbait for The Courier’s website and for a chance for Tom Cowie to gain a couple of front page headlines to add to his collection for possible advancement to another paper, rather than any serious scrutiny of the expenditure of an organisation.

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2 thoughts on “Things I learned from The Courier last week

  1. Your comment about the significance of context is a very important one. It was addressed by Christine Borgman the first keynote speaker at the VALA conference last week. I am going to refer to it in a brief presentation I am giving to interested staff next week. I hope you don’t mind if I reference your blog post as well.

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