26 November 2014

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Outrage after reporter’s notes confiscated by council clerk

A reporter was kicked out of a council meeting and had his notes confiscated after councillors suddenly announced it was private – 45 minutes after the start.

Trainee journalist Chad Welch, from the Llanelli Star, was covering the meeting of the Llanelli Town and Rural Council meeting discussing proposals by the Community Health Council to close a local hospital’s accident and emergency department.

He had been been taking notes for around 45 minutes when councillors noticed he was there and declared the meeting was private.

Council clerk Mark Galbraith then demanded that Chad hand over his notes and leave, watching as he tore the notes from his notebook before confiscating them.

The case has attracted the attention of readers, MPs and media lawyers alike, with Twitter posts about the situation being re-Tweeted more than 200 times within hours of appearing online.

Editor Bede MacGowan said the paper had yet to have the notes returned, and said he would be seeking advice on the next step.

He said:  “As a local newspaper, we are the eyes and ears of the people of Llanelli, as well as their voice, and our reporter went along as a representative of the communities we serve – those who stand to be affected by any changes to our health services.

“So for him to be kicked out, have his notes taken from him and the door locked behind him – well the facts speak for themselves really and it is not something we will take lying down.”

He said Chad had only been with the paper for a month, and it was only his second council meeting.

“He was caught off-guard by the demand. He is a very competent reporter but this isn’t the sort of thing that is covered in your NCTJ exams,” Bede added.

“It will never happen again and we are deciding on our next step in relation to getting the notes back.”

Bede said the clerk had since apologised to Chad for the “misunderstanding”, and said he had not been aware that Chad was a reporter at first – but still refused to hand over the notes..

He added: “I was shocked and angry when I heard how our reporter had been treated, and judging from the response to our tweets about it, so are many other people – it seems almost unprecedented.

“Let’s not forget that these were public servants discussing a matter of huge public interest in a building paid for by the public.

“We received invitations to attend the meeting and believed we would be made welcome, in fact I still do not really understand why it was private in the first place. But that’s a question for someone else to answer.”

As well as a group of councillors, the meeting included Welsh Assembly members Keith Davies, Joyce Watson and Simon Thomas

MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr Jonathan Edwards labelled the move “disgraceful”, while others labelled it “bizarre” and “a farce”.

15 Comments

  1. Rupert Bear

    Can you imagine how much worse things are likely to be in future if MPs go ahead with restrictions on press freedom?

    A very substantial proportion of local councillors have a quite visceral hatred of the media (local as well as national), caused by competent reporters exposing their misdeeds.

    I attended (as a delegate) a national conference of the Standards Board for England (now abolished) in Birmingham some three years ago. When, during a debate in which the press came under fire, I got up to say the media was the only genuine safeguard for democracy I was the subject of a considerable amount of hostility.

    Although he is now posing as the champion of press freedom, David Cameron is essentially to blame for the threat facing the media. He should have told the various actors and other anti-media campaigners to grow up rather than set up the Leveson circus.

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  2. Observer

    I totally agree with Rupert Bear.

    Many years ago, when I was the editor of a weekly newspaper, the town clerk used to scour the paper every week and write a letter to me highlighting what he called were ‘issues’ with any reports from council meetings.

    He accused us of having an agenda against the council because we highlighted what it was spending taxpayers’ money on, sometimes saying it had nothing to do with the press.

    He never took up my offer to meet with the councillors to discuss any concerns. When I spoke to one of them about it, it turned out the clerk never told the councillors he was writing to the local paper.

    They seem to like the little bit of ‘power’ they have, but never like to be questioned.

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  3. Dave, Yorkshire

    I once had a member of the Green Party kicking off with me when I was covering the BNP. He tried to grab my camera, under his own steam he tripped and ended up on the floor outside a Town Hall. The bozo couldn’t understand that photographing members of the BNP is not the same as supporting them, but it was really amusing watching him attempting to grab the camera.

    To this young journo I would simply say, give em nothing, they are your notes, that’s your property. If they demand them from you by means of aggression, that is technically robbery – regardless of where you happen to be and regardless of how private they declare the meeting to be.

    If the editor has any wotsits, he’ll call the police and have those responsible charged. I’ll happily cover that – with a very large smile.

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  4. Observer

    It’s not just the press, it’s all voters. They just get in the way.

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  5. Voice of Reason

    The fact it took 45 minutes before councillors and officers even notice that there was a reporter in the room says much about the all-absorbing sense of self-importanec of some of our public servants. A shameful episode. They must give the notes back.

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  6. The Big Exclusive

    Sorry but why did he hand them over to the clerk?!

    Perhaps he’s a very fresh-faced rookie reporter but…why?! What is a council clerk going to do if you refuse – rugby tackle you to the ground and wrestle them off you?!

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  7. concerned hack

    This is nothing short of a disgrace. From a legal perspective, the council has no right to confiscate the private property of an individual at a public meeting- especially a reporter there legitimately covering proceedings. I hope this is raised with the NUJ immediately and some genuine action taken.
    I am sure this council is going to be fending off a large volume of concerns in the wake of this. It’s this kind of story that underlines that press freedom, particularly at local level and at any level, is utterly vital.

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  8. Digger

    Call in the NUJ? Much good that will do!

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  9. Loopy

    Poor from the council etc etc but disappointed that a reporter being paid to cover these things doesn’t know his rights and stand his ground. Seems like a failure of training – whatever the budget constraints at local papers these days it doesn’t cost much for an editor to give 15 minutes or so to go through these things. He could have consulted the news ed on his mobile, surely?

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  10. Martin Keegan

    It’s a criminal offence to tear up someone’s notebook – has this been reported to the police?

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  11. Bluestringer

    When I was a reporter, the council clerk would have had to have beaten me into unconsciousness before he got his paws on my notes.
    And that would have made a better story, so win/win innit.

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  12. WestWalesHack

    Might be worth adding that this town council falls within the area of Carmarthenshire county council. The council which had a blogger arrested for filming their meetings on her phone and then used tax-payer money to fund the chief exec’s libel claim against her. The chief exec pocketed £25k damages just last week.
    Might be unrelated, but maybe there’s the thought that what the county council can do, the town council can do too.

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  13. Typo, The NIBS Column

    Local councils really need some strong guidance. Some don’t get much if any press coverage, and others don’t appear to be paying enough attention to the letter of the law, partly because they’re not often dealing with huge issues, and partly because there are what appear to grey areas in the law at this level of government. I’d like to see them all sent very firm reminders of their accountability and responsibilities. Just because they’re purely voluntary it doesn’t mean they can operate as a private society. They need to act professionally at all times.

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  14. Ron, Kidwelly

    So much for ‘FREEDOM OF THE PRESS’

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  15. Bob the builder

    This reporter seems to have been the victim of a theft, possibly robbery. Someone call the police!

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