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Industry bosses pile pressure on to mayor over reporter ban row

Dawn AlfordThe Society of Editors has added to mounting pressure on a council over its decision to bar local democracy reporters from mayoral briefings.

The SoE has intervened in the media access row at Bristol City Council which has prompted a number of outlets in the South-West of England to boycott fortnightly press conferences held by Mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees.

Dawn Alford, the Society’s chief executive, has now written to Mr Rees urging him to allow LDRs to attend the briefings.

The organisation’s intervention comes after the council announced it had stopped sending press releases to journalists, opting instead to solely publish announcements on its own website and social media channels.

Dawn, pictured, wrote in her letter to Mr Rees: “While the Society appreciates that these regular briefings have been introduced under your own volition and are open to a broad range of journalists from numerous platforms, the role of local democracy reporters has always been to provide impartial coverage of the regular workings of local authorities in the UK – including mayoralties – so I am unsure as to why, given their remit, they have not been invited to attend such briefings.”

News organisations including the Bristol Post, Bauer Media, the BBC, Bristol 24/7, the Bristol Cable, Bristol World and ITV West Country are currently boycotting the mayoral briefings, in a move backed by the National Union of Journalists, after a public relations boss at Bristol City Council challenged Post LDR Alex Seabrook’s right to ask a question of the mayor during a recent conference.

After Alex quizzed Mr Rees over his decision to fly 9,000 miles to Canada and back to give a talk on climate change, the council’s head of external comms Saskia Konynenburg described the question as something “a journalist from a newspaper”, rather than an LDR, should ask.

The council defended its actions and claimed the Post breached a “long-standing agreement” that it would not send either Alex or his 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.

Mr Rees has since claimed the LDRs are not banned from the conference – instead insisting they are simply “not invited”.

Defending LDRs in her letter, Dawn added: “Since their formation, they have contributed significantly to strengthening local news coverage in the UK.

“Like all journalists, their role includes communicating positive stories on behalf of local authorities as well as sometimes asking difficult questions of elected officials. This is done without fear or favour.

“I do hope that, moving forward, local democracy reporters will be invited to attend your briefings and that regular communication with journalists – to the benefit of the public – can be resumed.”

The Bristol branch of the National Union of Journalists has renewed its support for the reporters affected.

In a statement issued yesterday, the branch said: “These reporters are holding local politicians to account effectively – and not just on behalf of the publications with which they are directly associated, like Reach plc’s Bristol Post. Other local publications also use their material, including the Bristol Cable, Bristol 24/7 and Voice series.

“Anyone in an elected role has a duty to be answerable to his or her electorate. We reiterate that the question to which Rees and his staff took offence, when an LDR and NUJ member asked him about flying 9,000 miles to deliver a 14-minute speech on climate change, was perfectly reasonable.

“It should not matter whether the question was asked by an LDR or a general news reporter. The impartiality expected of LDRs and, indeed, all reporters, does not mean they will never ask awkward questions of those in power.

“The mayor has made much of his decision to declare a climate emergency in Bristol. Leaving aside the environmental implications of long-distance air travel, the public might wonder how he has the time to promote himself while delivery of a key policy – a clean air zone in central Bristol – has continually been delayed.”

Reacting to the council’s decision on press releases, the branch added: “The mayor’s increasingly desperate measures will only serve to harm democracy during the remainder of his term of office.

“We would like to offer the mayor’s office our services to mediate between them and local media organisations, if it will aid their understanding of the value of the LDR service.”

HTFP has approached Bristol City Council for a response.