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BBC and ITV join regional press boycott as council defends LDR ban

Alex SeabrookThe BBC and ITV have joined a boycott of mayoral press briefings after a council defended its decision to ban local democracy reporters.

Bristol City Council has hit back at the Bristol Post after journalists employed under the BBC-funded scheme were banned from regular briefings held by Mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees.

The spat comes after a public relations boss at the authority challenged Post LDR Alex Seabrook’s right to ask a question of the mayor during a recent conference.

The council’s treatment of Alex and Adam has prompted the Post to boycott the mayoral conference, with rival titles Bristol 24/7 and Bristol World following suit.

The BBC has itself now also joined the boycott, with a spokesperson saying: “We are deeply disappointed by the decision by the mayor’s office to not allow the Bristol LDR into his fortnightly press conference.

“It is an essential ingredient of local democracy that journalists should be able to ask robust, challenging questions to people in power.

“We have today informed the mayor that the BBC won’t be attending the fortnightly mayoral briefings until this important issue is resolved.

“We will continue to report on the city council and mayor as normal by attending all other meetings.”

Ian Axton, head of news at ITV West Country, added: “ITV News West Country stands by other media organisations on this issue.

“We will not attend the fortnightly press briefings held by the mayor until the exclusion of local democracy reporters is lifted.”

As the row rumbled on, the council claimed the Post breached a “long-standing agreement” that it would not send either Alex or his LDR colleague Adam Postans to cover the Labour mayor’s remotely-held conferences, while the newspaper said it has always “reserved the right” to have LDRs cover the briefings.

The authority has accepted neither Alex nor Adam have been turned away when they have previously dialled in to attend, but declined to comment on any future arrangements surrounding the conferences when quizzed on the matter by HTFP.

A spokesman for the authority told HTFP: “Any suggestion that LDR attendance has been barred as a result of recent reporting is completely false, and we continue to work day-to-day with LDRs in support of their role. All mainstream local media outlets are invited to the mayor’s media briefings.

“There has been a long-standing mutual agreement between the mayor’s office and the Post about personnel attending press conferences whenever they are announced and held, and that LDRs would not be sent due to the narrow definition of their role as an impartial service.”

In response, Post editor Pete Gavan told HTFP: “It’s great to get this support from colleagues and rivals across the city and beyond.

“It’s vital LDRs have access to these briefings as coverage of the mayor falls well within their remit.

“In the past, we had agreed to send other reporters to the mayoral briefings when possible but reserved the right to send the LDRs.

“We do not accept that any reporters should be banned from attending meetings at the behest of the council, nor from asking relevant questions on behalf of our readers and council taxpayers at any time.”

Alex, pictured, was challenged at a recent briefing by the council’s head of external comms Saskia Konynenburg after he questioned Mr Rees over his decision to fly 9,000 miles to Canada and back to give a talk on climate change.

Ms Konyenburg had described Alex’s question as something “a journalist from a newspaper”, rather than an LDR, should ask.

The authority later defended her claim in a statement to HTFP on the incident, while industry colleagues rallied in support of Alex after footage of the row was widely shared on Twitter.

The council’s actions have also been criticised by the National Union of Journalists and the News Media Association.

Charlotte Green, Reach LDR chapel rep, said: “The Reach LDR NUJ chapel strongly condemns the position adopted towards local democracy reporters in Bristol by the city council.

“Holding authorities to account and scrutinising their actions and decisions – including asking difficult questions that leaders might not like – is at the heart of the purpose of the scheme.

“Reactionary measures, like banning LDRs from mayoral media briefings, only serves to undermine a council’s public commitment to transparency and accountability to its residents.

“We stand firmly in support of our colleagues in Bristol to report without fear or favour, and they should not face retribution for asking questions in the public interest.”

NMA deputy chief executive Lynne Anderson added: “The NMA condemns the banning of local democracy reporters from the Bristol mayor’s briefings – a blunt assault on the principles of local democracy – in the strongest possible terms.

“By preventing local journalists from scrutinising their activity, Bristol City Council are disenfranchising the public they are supposed to serve. We stand with our colleagues in calling for an immediate end to this wholly misguided and deeply damaging ban.”