A coalition of local media in Bristol has sent a joint letter to Bristol mayor Marvin Rees, urging him to reconsider the ban on local democracy reporters (LDRs) from attending his press briefings after a lack of progress.
The controversy emerged when the mayor’s office said that Bristol’s two local democracy reporters, who are funded by the BBC but employed by Bristol Live, were no longer welcome at fortnightly press conferences with the mayor. This sparked outrage across local and national media, and all of the city’s major outlets announced a boycott of the briefings until the ban could be lifted.
Tensions began after a briefing where LDR Alex Seabrook asked whether Rees saw any irony in flying to Vancouver in April to give a TED Talk on tackling the climate crisis. Seabrook was then challenged by the council’s head of external communications Saskia Konynenburg during the press conference.
At a council meeting on Tuesday, the mayor spoke publicly about the issue. He denied it was a ban, accused the LDRs of not following impartiality rules, and criticised local media for having a “weak record on diversity and inclusion”.
Rees said he set up the briefings and so it was up to him to invite who he wanted. He said the seven main news outlets in the city were invited, despite the fact that the Cable was denied access to the briefings two years ago.
After attempts to resolve the matter privately through meetings with the mayor’s office, Bristol Live, the Cable, Bristol 247, ITV, Bristol World and Bauer Media have sent Rees an open letter in an attempt to open a dialogue and resolve the matter.
We are writing to you as representatives of the main media organisations covering Bristol and the surrounding city region.
Like you, we want Bristol to thrive and we believe it’s essential to fairly reflect the voice, ideas and opinions of the city’s mayoral leadership, as well as politicians from across the spectrum.
But we also stand by the principle that good journalism must rest on sometimes asking challenging questions or probing into why decisions have taken place.
As a former journalist, we know that you will appreciate the importance of a free press and the crucial role it plays in a healthy democracy.
We feel strongly that it is not in the best interests of people in Bristol for local democracy reporters to be prevented from attending your fortnightly briefings.
As you will be aware, these reporters provide a service which is frequently used by multiple local media outlets – and we believe that it offers our audiences a valuable insight into local decisions.
Our organisations have each decided not to attend or report on today’s scheduled mayoral briefing – or future briefings – until this exclusion is lifted.
We sincerely hope we can find a positive and productive resolution that will allow local democracy reporters, as well as our own journalists, to resume their coverage of these media briefings.
We would be happy to discuss this matter with you via Pete Gavan at the Bristol Post or through the BBC’s representatives.
Ian Axton, ITV News West Country
Martin Booth, Bristol 247
Matty Edwards, Bristol Cable
Jim Foulger, Bauer Media
Pete Gavan, Bristol Post & Bristol Live
Alex Ross, Bristol World
There is no ban, says Rees
The letter comes after Rees commented on the issue during Tuesday’s full council meeting. In a written response to a question from a councillor, he said: “There is no ban, which just shows you shouldn’t believe everything you read online.
“I initiated the press conferences to help the media to give them access and scrutiny. I tell them they can ask me any question they want. Every press conference is recorded and published unedited, where any journalist and any citizen can watch them.
“My press conferences are not statutory and are actually offered voluntarily, along with my weekly phone-in on Ujima. When I hold a press conference, I invite the seven main news outlets in Bristol to attend. Six of them send their own journalist but the biggest corporate media company, Reach PLC, does not have enough staff to send one. Instead Reach wants to replace them with a publicly funded LDR reporter whose remit is very clear and very narrow and relies on impartial coverage of council business.
“In addition, we have had several meetings with former editors of Bristol Live, senior managers at BBC West and the National Manager of the Local Democracy Reporting Service. At those meetings we tabled substantial evidence of a lack of impartiality by Local Democracy Reporters in the city and these were taken seriously by managers who undertook to improve the service.
“The press conferences are not impartial and are an open exchange of views, questions and answers. Furthermore, the local media which has such a weak record on diversity and inclusion, locks many communities and voices out of democracy both in the way they select and tell their stories and their failure to employ people from Black, Asian and working class backgrounds over the last decades. This latter point is particularly important to me, and I’m not surprised that some elements of the media have closed ranks.”