Bristol City Council is set to consider a motion calling upon the local authority's press office to reinstate access for the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) to all press opportunities after it was claimed that the service's reporters had been banned from press conferences.
However, the Mayor, Marvin Rees, has denied that there is any such ban in place.
The motion, tabled by a Green Party councillor, states that "any such attack on the press does not demonstrate strong City Leadership" and called for an investigation into the decision by the monitoring officer.
The BBC funds LDRS journalists as part of its Charter commitment. A total of 165 reporters are allocated to news organisations around the UK to cover local democracy issues and any news concerning local authorities in their region.
The motion lodged by Cllr Ed Plowden alleges that the council's press office barred LDRS reporters from press opportunities after LDRS reporter, Alex Seabrook, asked Mayor Rees about his decision to fly 9000 miles to speak about the climate emergency.
Seabrook, who covers Bristol and South Gloucestershire, was challenged during the conference by the council's Head of Communications, Saskia Konynenburg, who said: "From my understanding, I couldn't quite understand what the role as an LDR would be in asking those questions?"
Seabrook responded: "Well, because it's holding people who lead local authorities to account, Marvin obviously being the leader of Bristol City Council. And there are obviously questions with the huge amount of carbon emissions from flying so far, so I think it's a legitimate question to ask."
Konynenburg replied: "Yeah, I think it is probably from a journalist from a newspaper etc. But I can't quite see the link to LDR."
The Green Party's motion claims that the council's Press Office "banned this public service from Council Press conferences, apparently in retaliation for posing questions the Mayor does not like".
It is also asking the council to acknowledge that it is "fundamentally wrong for the LDRS to be banned from any press conference or other press opportunity".
"Any such attack on the press does not demonstrate strong City Leadership."
It added: "This brings the Council, and potentially the City, into disrepute."
The motion is calling upon the council to resolve that:
- the office reinstate access to the LDRS to all press opportunities;
- the monitoring officer be instructed to examine how the administration's decision sits with the relevant Codes of Conduct for officers and the Mayor/politicians;
- if it is necessary to instruct the CEO to review Council policies to ensure that the role of the Press Office is depoliticised so as to be focused on serving the needs of the city and people of Bristol; and
- as the council moves to a committee system, the new constitution should contain safeguards against unwarranted attacks on the freedom of journalists to do their jobs.
Cllr Plowden said: "This action brings the city into disrepute and is reflective of a model of leadership that the city has rejected. Attempting to hide from accountability is weak leadership."
In response to a question submitted by Cllr Sarah Classick asking about "recent stories in the media about [LDRS reporters] being banned from attending the mayor's briefings", the mayor said: "There is no ban, which just shows you shouldn’t believe everything you read online."
Mayor Rees added that he started the press conferences to "help the media to give them access and scrutiny. I tell them they can ask me any question they want. Every press conference is recorded and published unedited where any journalist and any citizen can watch them."
He noted that his press conferences are not statutory and are offered voluntarily.
The mayor continued: "When I hold a press conference, I invite the seven main news outlets in Bristol to attend. Six of them send their own journalist but the biggest corporate media company, Reach PLC, does not have enough staff to send one. Instead Reach wants to replace them with a publicly funded LDR reporter whose remit is very clear and very narrow and relies on impartial coverage of council business. In addition, we have had several meetings with former editors of Bristol Live, senior managers at BBC West and the National Manager of the Local Democracy Reporting Service."
He claimed to have tabled at those meetings substantial evidence of a lack of impartiality by Local Democracy Reporters in the city.
"Furthermore, the local media which has such a weak record on diversity and inclusion, locks many communities and voices out of democracy both in the way they select and tell their stories and their failure to employ people from Black, Asian and working class backgrounds over the last decades. This latter point is particularly important to me, and I’m not surprised that some elements of the media have closed ranks."
The full council meeting is scheduled to take place at 6 pm today (5 July 2022).