Loonies need not apply

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Paranoia is not a prerequisite for working in the London borough of Lambeth's press department: it comes with the job. Few places outside Albania can have been capable of provoking so strong a sense of contra mundum among staff in recent years as Lambeth council, which is currently looking for a head of press and public relations. As phone lines into Brixton town hall glow once again with journalists' inquiries - this time about corruption reckoned to have topped pounds 10m - there is a familiar siege atmosphere in the press office.

The bulk of the time is spent on damage limitation. One staff member says: 'There's no other authority like Lambeth. I judge my performance by the number of stories which don't appear, which is the reversal of what a press officer should be trying to do.'

Satisfaction comes in strange ways. 'I get a buzz if I have killed a story or even if I have just managed to get a sentence in at the end of a hostile Sun piece,' the staff member adds.

Recruitment problems were publicly acknowledged by Herman Ouseley, the borough's chief executive, two years ago when he wrote in the Local Government Chronicle: 'Top managers thinking of coming to Lambeth often have their sanity questioned.'

During the Eighties, Lambeth council was the acme of municipal madness for the tabloids. Most inner-city Labour authorities were treated as loony, but Lambeth had its own space in the ninth circle of Hell. Although by 1990 the 'Free flying lessons for bereaved lesbians' stories had dried up elsewhere, Lambeth remained a rich source of loonyology.

During the last general election, when more than one tabloid decided that the path to Tory victory lay in reviving the municipal loony Left, Lambeth was target-

in-chief. A typical call from the Daily Express sought confirmation that the council was digging up footpaths in Brixton and replacing them with red paving stones. The Sun ran a picture of the Irish tricolour fluttering on the town hall roof. Nobody in the building could explain this and the paper denied the obvious explanation, that it had staged a stunt.

Press officers accept that much coverage has been wholly or partly justified by events. Successive left-wing administrations have displayed genius for publicity that feeds a hostile press. It has been complemented by a flair among councillors and officers for springing man-traps on their press officers. The case of Norbert McCootie, the 14-year-old double rapist in Lambeth's care who was able to commit the second of his crimes because he was not put in secure accommodation, typically caught the beleaguered department on the hop.

'I was on my own in the office on the day the case went to the Old Bailey and the story broke,' a former press officer says. 'The social workers hadn't thought to brief us, so we had no prepared strategy. All hell broke loose.' The complete lack of an agreed response could only heighten public perception of a chaotic administration which cared nothing for its responsibilities.

Al Hanagan, the former head of press and public relations whose departure in June caused the current vacancy, will always remember the seemingly innocuous report which landed on his desk among the mountain of bumf. It held left-wing Labour councillor Rachel Webb's views on rising crime on the borough's estates.

He skimmed through it without noticing - because he had not been alerted - the paragraph urging council tenants to set up IRA-style punishment squads for offenders the police would not deal with. Her report was rejected by the administration, but eagerly welcomed by the media.

'You had to have eyes in the back of your head,' Mr Hanagan says. 'Surprises were constantly popping up where no thought or alert had been given by members of staff about the media consequences of what they were doing.'

colleague adds: 'I once overheard a councillor blaming the press office for unfavourable stories about Lambeth. This outrageous allegation displayed how unaware some of these people were of the effects of their actions.'

This officer was one who admitted the work brought on serious stress. 'It was particularly stressful on those days when we had every paper ringing up for comment on the latest madness and the relevant person in the department in question refusing to co-operate and make a statement.'

A stint at Lambeth, however trying, is generally considered by those who come through it as useful experience. One press officer who survived says: 'Interviewers always show an interest in my time at Lambeth and take the line that it proves I can work anywhere.'

Steve Whaley, the council's Labour leader, declined an invitation to comment: 'In view of the enormous press coverage of the last few days it would be rather churlish of me to comment on the workings of our press office.'