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FRONT LINE FIRST - THE AUGUST BREAK

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You can do one of two things in the dog days of August - follow your political masters to the south of France, leav...
You can do one of two things in the dog days of August - follow your political masters to the south of France, leaving the newspapers to run stories about asteroids, or be a canny communicator and see all that empty space as a golden opportunity.

That is what the Children's Society and the Children's Play Council did when they used the hook of National Playday to turn all the usual silly summer stories to their advantage.

As part of their campaign, they produced a list of everyday activities that many children are now prevented from enjoying due to safety concerns. These included such innocuous activities as climbing trees, riding bikes, playing conkers and making daisy chains.

The charities were careful to stress that they were 'not pointing the finger of blame for a growing culture of caution at any one group', but the media still saw it as a chance to take a pop at councils.

It was all taken as further evidence of bureaucratic madness and the relentless onset of the nanny state. Radio Four's Today programme asked listeners to call in with their own examples and revelled in the tale of a Welsh education authority that had banned the use of sand in the long jump at a school sports day because it might harbour germs.

All good for a laugh, but it was short-lived. The rest of August's coverage was decidedly more serious and emphasised that whenever there is a major incident, you can forget notions of the jolly enabling council, skipping around merrily as it promotes well being for one and all. The reality is that the media will always judge councils by their ability to manage the weakest links in the risk chain.

The media saw no irony in reporting, alongside the National Playday coverage, that the government had announced safety supremos for school trips, following a series of tragedies on school excursions.

And while the local NHS trust in Barrow was widely praised for its ability to handle the outbreak of Legionnaires' disease, the council took a hammering. 'Until Friday evening it was an anonymous snicket, slinking off Barrow's Duke Street to the municipal entertainment centre's multi-storey car park. By yesterday, it was known universally as Death Alley and the

mood had changed from shock to

anger,' wrote The Guardian's Martin Wainwright.

Or take the grim tale of schoolgirls Jessica and Holly, unfolding horrifically hour by hour over the past two weeks. And when the school caretaker his partner, a classroom assistant, were arrested, the spotlight fell on the local education authority and whether it had carried out the appropriate checks. The council was quick off the mark and Cambridgeshire CC's head of communications Bob Pearson was widely quoted on how the council had acted in line with good practice.

There was something chilling in the idea that a person holding a child's hand in a playground could potentially be responsible for such a hideous crime. The chances of this happening are miniscule, about as small as the risk of catching a germ from a daisy chain. Yet councils are expected to manage both scenarios. And as Mr Pearson knows, for council public relations officers, there is no such thing as a quiet August.

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