Journalists from two weekly papers were thrown out of a community meeting after a council chief said he was “uncomfortable” with their presence.
Reporters from the Croydon Guardian and Croydon Advertiser were excluded from a meeting of the West Croydon Community Forum along with a local blogger after the council’s chief executive, Jon Rouse, warned members it would be a “very different meeting” if they remained.
Mr Rouse – whose salary including pension contributions totals £248,362 – told the meeting upon his arrival that he would prefer the press not to be present as he did not believe it was his job to be scrutinised by journalists.
The media has previously been invited by members of the forum to attend the meeting at which Mr Rouse was discussing the council’s plans for the area in the wake of last year’s riots.
However Mr Rouse told the meeting: “I just feel uncomfortable about this situation. It’s not appropriate for an officer to be placed in this position. It is going to be a very different meeting if the press are here.
“It is not my job to place myself in a position in which I have to defend council policy and have my words scrutinised and reported on by the press. That is the place of our democratically elected politicians.”
Following his warning, members of the forum voted in favour of the press being ejected, but Croydon Guardian assistant editor Matt Watts said there had been a strong reaction against the move.
He said: “Questions have been raised about how transparent the council is being about work it is doing in Croydon.”
The West Croydon Community Forum was set up in the wake of last year’s riots in Croydon to help regenerate the area.
Said Matt: “Its work has been closely followed by our newspaper and our reporters and other media were invited by the forum to cover a meeting where Mr Rouse would be discussing the council’s work in the area.
“Mr Rouse was not willing to have that discussion with the media present. He obviously felt his comments to members of the forum should not be open to scrutiny or reported more widely.
“Our position would be that if you are the chief executive of a council, he should be publicly accountable. He is paid a large salary and the public should be able to hold him to account.”
Labour leader for the council, Councillor Tony Newman, labelled the decision “deeply disturbing”, adding: “I have always been a passionate believer of a free press. It is fundamental to our democracy. I find this deeply disturbing and I hope it is something I never see the light of again.”
Meanwhile, one member of the forum walked out in protest and other residents took to Twitter to label the chief executive “arrogant” and accuse him of a lack of transparency.
A spokesman from Croydon Council claimed the meeting did not count as ‘public’.
In a statement, they said: “The meeting was scheduled by WCCF as one of their regular discussions with officers. As it wasn’t scheduled to be a public meeting, once the press were there, WCCF members voted on the issue and asked the media to leave.
“It appears that there had been a misunderstanding caused by someone who tweeted invites to the media.
“WCCF publicises its public meetings on its website and the media and members of the public attend those public meetings, however this meeting was not a public meeting and was not publicised on the website.”