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Pickles slams councils for ‘obstructing’ journalists

Local government secretary Eric Pickles has slammed local councils for barring journalists from meetings and warned that “intentional obstruction” could result in fines.

Addressing yesterday’s Society of Editors’ Regional Conference in the West Midlands, Mr Pickles vowed to put a stop to what he called “feeble excuses for closing meetings to the public and the press.”

Recent weeks and months have seen a series of access rows involving councils and local papers,with a Llanelli Star reporter even having his notes confiscated after being turfed out of one meeting.

Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, also spoke out about the issue at yesterday’s gathering, saying attempts by councils to stop reporters reporting were “becoming outrageous.”

In his speech, Mr Pickles said plans announced last September to widen access to council committees and sub-committees now require councils to give 28 days’ notice of their intention to hold meetings behind closed doors and their reasons for doing so.

“We’re putting a stop to those feeble excuses for closing a meeting to the public and press without due warning,” he said, adding that “intentional obstruction” or refusal to supply certain documents could result in fines.

The new rules, introduced in the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) Regulations 2012, also give reporters the right to file copy live from meetings or Tweet information to followers.

However the regulations do not apply to Wales where many of the recent access rows have occurred.

At the Free Press in Pontypool,  journalists at the paper were hit by a ban on reporting meetings where community grants were handed out by Pontypool Community Council, which has since been reversed.

Managing editor Nicole Garnon commented:   “The situation we had with the Pontypool Community Council, I think at that level it’s ignorance over what they should be doing.”

Bede MacGowan, editor of the Llanelli Star, added:  “There does appear to be a growing control-freakery among some public bodies and it’s welcome news that the Government has acknowledged this.

“Any organisation which spends taxpayers’ hard-earned money should be open and accountable – and it’s the job of the local press to ensure they are, however reluctant they might seem on occasion.”