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Council backs down over banning press from meetings

A council has backed down from plans to ban the press and public from committee meetings after a confidential report on the proposal was leaked to the local paper.

Strabane District Council in Northern Ireland had drawn up preliminary proposals to hold certain meetings behind closed doors, claiming the move would actually increase transparency in council business.

However, following coverage in weekly paper the Strabane Chronicle and other news outlets in the region, the council has now voted against the change.

Chronicle editor Nigel McDonagh said the plans had come to light through a leaked document.

“As a local newspaper based in Strabane, we had grave concerns that if this proposal was implemented it would prevent our journalists from reporting on important decisions and grassroots issues relating to the local community,” he said.

“Thankfully, the council has confirmed that it will not be implementing such a ban and we welcome the council’s assurance that our reporters and members of the public are still able to attend committee meetings.”

The proposals had also been attacked by the National Union of Journalists, with president Barry McCall describing the move as “an attack on democracy”.

Committee meetings on topics such as economic development, environmental health and culture, arts and leisure were among those which would have been closed.

Instead, they would only be able to access one single ‘full council meeting’ per month.

The union wrote to all councillors to express its concerns.

In a statement, the council’s interim chief executive, Danny McSorley, said it was regrettable that the proposal had been released before it had even been fully considered as an option.

He had previously told the paper that officers were considering the proposals as part of a task to “create more effective committee meetings” and “more openness and transparency in council business”.

He added: “If this option were to be adopted, it would increase the availability of reports and minutes to the press in advance of the ‘full council’ meeting, beyond what is provided currently.”

Currently only eight local authorities on Northern Ireland are believed to restrict access to such committee meetings.

The plans are the latest in a string of incidents affecting access by journalists to council meetings.

Last month, the Oxford Mail was prevented from attending a standards committee meeting held by Oxford City Council which investigated the conduct of a Lord Mayor.

And in December, 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, said he was “uncomfortable” with their presence.

Mr Rouse told the meeting it was ‘not his job’ to be scrutinised by the press and initiated a vote to exclude members of the press.

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  • February 11, 2013 at 10:20 am

    The council should black out their windows – to improve their transparency!

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