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Reporter overturns council’s exclusion bid

A trainee reporter at a weekly newspaper has successfully challenged a motion from a council leader to exclude him from a stormy meeting.

Lawrence Dunhill from the Bucks Free Press was covering a meeting of High Wycombe’s historic Charter Trustees, a unique committee formed to oversee the town’s traditional mayoralty.

The main issue of interest was an astonishing row between the current mayor Jane White and her predecessor Julie Pritchard, both Conservatives, over the state of last year’s charity appeal accounts.

But the leader of Wycombe District Council Lesley Clarke, who is also a trustee, tried to pass a motion to exclude the press and public from the debate – which was challenged by the reporter, who was therefore allowed to remain.

Lawrence, who has just taken his NCE exam, said: “It was surprising that the attempt came to exclude us, but it was encouraging that other committee members spoke out when I questioned it.

“I had just been on an NCE refresher course a few weeks before this meeting, when a scenario very similar to this came up in a mock exam question.”

The row came about after this year’s mayor went to the police to ask them to investigate the accounts from last year’s charity appeal.

They found no wrongdoing but the row left the former mayor furious and led to a splash in the Free Press headlined ‘War of the Mayors’.

It was raised again by the current mayor, Councillor White, at a meeting last week but the council leader then tried to pass a motion for the press to leave.

The mayor, who was chairing the meeting, asked Lawrence to leave but he pointed out that a reason for exclusion must be stated and a formal motion passed by a majority.

Other trustees then questioned if there was a valid reason so he was allowed to stay and listen to the next instalment of the volatile dispute.

Lawrence was praised by Independent councillor Gary Hall, who was not at the meeting but heard what happened.

He said: “The first thing is the freedom of the press. The council has to be seen to be transparent and excluding the press from meetings without a very good reason can be looked at suspiciously by a whole range of people, not least the public at large.

“We have to be seen as open and above board. No council, no matter who they are, is entitled to act in that way.”

Free Press editor Steve Cohen added: “This is exactly the type of gumption reporters need to show when challenged with such restrictions. It’s important that authorities remember we are not there simply on behalf of the press – it’s the public we are representing.”

It comes after HTFP reported last week on Paul Geater from the Evening Star being told that Suffolk County Council would issue a ‘no comment’ to his enquiries, but the authority then denied the ban existed and said it would deal with him as normal.