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Rival titles boycott mayor as council bans local democracy reporters

Pete Gavan 2022Local democracy reporters have been banned from a mayor’s press conferences – sparking a boycott from competing regional news titles.

Bristol City Council has announced the ban on journalists employed under the BBC-funded scheme after a public relations boss at the authority publicly challenged their right to ask questions of Mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees during the fortnightly briefing.

Alex Seabrook, who works for the Bristol Post and Bristol Live under the programme, was challenged 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 to give a talk on climate change.

As reported by HTFP yesterday, 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.

According to the Post, LDRs have now been banned from the Labour mayor’s conferences following the incident and the newspaper says it will not attend or cover any of the mayoral briefings until this ban is lifted.

The move has prompted the Post’s rivals, independent title Bristol 24/7 and National World-owned website Bristol World, to withdraw their reporters from the conferences in solidarity with the barred journalists.

Post editor Pete Gavan, pictured, said: “The LDR service is a vital piece of the journalism we offer to the city and the surrounding area. I give my wholehearted backing and support to both the Bristol LDRs and the great work they do holding the local authority to account.

“It’s absolutely vital that the BBC-funded reporters who make up the team locally are able to carry out their remit without interference.

“The Bristol Post has a long history of championing the city and we have always sought to work closely with the council and politicians of all parties to support the best outcome for the city.

“Inevitably, we will sometimes ask tough questions or raise issues that politicians might find tricky. But we believe this is a key function of a free press – and a sign of a healthy democratic landscape.

“Bristol is fortunate to be served by many different news outlets, which will have different priorities and audiences. The service that the LDRs provide is one which can be accessed by all partners.

“We believe it is an important shared resource and we are very concerned by the long-term implications of councils choosing to exclude reporters.”

A total of seven LDRs serve authorities across the West of England, and Alex and his LDR colleague Adam Postans are employed to work at the Post under the terms of its publisher Reach’s contract with the BBC.

In 2019, the Post criticised Mr Rees and other senior Bristol City Council figures after they joked about Adam’s credentials during a meeting, with the mayor stating it would “be great to have a journalist here” upon seeing him present.

Announcing Bristol 24/7’s boycott of the mayoral briefings, editor Martin Booth said: “It is a slippery slope indeed if we allow Bristol City Council to choose which journalists they want to attend briefings and who they want to exclude.

“It is the role of all journalists from print, online and broadcast to ask tough questions to our elected officials, and I share the concerns of Bristol Post editor Pete Gavan about the long-term implications of the city council choosing to ban a reporter after he has simply done that job of asking tough questions.

“At Bristol 24/7, we rely on the excellent work of our city’s two LDRs to cover stories that we would otherwise not be able to publish, and I have the utmost respect for the professionalism and integrity of Alex and his LDR colleague Adam Postans.

“Marvin Rees has previously said that his motto is ‘ask me anything’. I hope that he will live up to that motto and lift this ban on LDRs.

“Until that happens, Bristol 24/7 will neither be attending nor covering any mayoral press conferences.”

In a statement, Bristol World added: “Bristol World will not be sending representatives to the mayor’s fortnightly press conferences while the region’s local democracy reporters are barred from attending.

“In the interests of openness and transparency, it is vital journalists are allowed to question Marvin Rees on all issues impacting our city.

“To stop access to the LDR reporters indicated a degree of control on who and who cannot ask those questions, which we say is wrong.”

HTFP has approached Bristol City Council for a comment on the ban.

Defending Ms Konyenburg previously, the authority said: “We welcome public discourse as part of a healthy local democracy and respect the vital role of local journalists within that.

“The mayor holds a regular press conference for news outlets in the city to provide for media scrutiny and transparency.

“Relationships with journalists involve two-way dialogue and we will sometimes ask questions ourselves. In this instance, the journalist’s question had already been answered by the mayor when an officer politely queried their remit, given the specific nature and focus of the LDR role, and the fact that the story had already been widely covered and responded to two weeks previously.

“The clip being shared online does not represent the full context of the exchange.”