Yesterday, Bristol’s two Local Democracy Reporters (LDRs) were banned from attending press conferences with mayor Marvin Rees, causing outrage among local and national journalists.
The role of these BBC-funded journalists is to hold local councils to account. It is therefore unacceptable to try to shut out these reporters from simply doing their job. It’s ridiculous for the mayor to only allow access to journalists who ask him questions he likes.
This comes after a question asked by LDR Alex Seabrook about whether Rees saw any irony in flying to Vancouver in April to give a 14-minute TED Talk on tackling the climate crisis. This question was challenged by the council’s head of external communications Saskia Konynenburg during the press conference, who said that kind of question would be expected from a newspaper journalist but not an LDR.
Although the reporters are funded by the BBC – to provide a valuable public service of reporting on local councils, which has become increasingly difficult for cash-strapped local papers – they are employed by Bristol Live. An array of local media outlets, including the Cable, publish the articles written by the LDRs on important issues of local politics.
The Cable requested to attend these fortnightly press conferences during the early days of pandemic, when it was crucial for the mayor to share updates on the virus and the council’s response. But the council refused on the grounds that it ‘can’t accommodate everyone’, even after we got the local branch of the NUJ involved.
It was wrong to shut out our reporters then, but it’s worse to shut out LDR reporters now. It’s their job to cover the mayor as leader of Bristol City Council day in day out – a vital service that holds politicians to account in an increasingly challenging landscape for local journalism.
This isn’t the first time the mayor has attacked local journalists during his time in office – in 2019 he publicly ridiculed another LDR reporter during a council meeting – and it probably won’t be the last. The mayor needs to be less thin-skinned and be prepared to defend this record and actions.
The Cable welcomes the announcement by Bristol 24/7, Bristol World and now the BBC and ITV too that they will be boycotting the press conference by not sending their reporters. The move by the council has also drawn criticism from the National Union of Journalists and the News Media Association.
The council said in a statement that it was false to suggest that LDRs had been banned after recent reporting, and that there was an agreement between the Mayor’s Office and the Post about not sending LDRs to the briefings. But this was disputed by Bristol Live editor Pete Gavan, who said: “In the past, we had agreed to send other reporters to the mayoral briefings when possible but reserved the right to send the LDRs.”
The Cable would like to express our support and solidarity with the LDRs, and call on the council to reinstate access to the mayor’s press conferences immediately.