By Andrew Allison, Chief Executive
Bristol's Labour Mayor, Marvin Rees, is so concerned about climate change that he decided to accept an invitation to fly 9,000 miles to Canada to give a short TED talk on, erm, climate change. Rees is hardly the only hypocrite in the world. Harry and Meghan have a habit of bleating about climate change whilst continuing to accept invitations to fly in private jets. Hollywood actors have been known to fly in their private jets to accept awards for their work promoting climate change. It's a long list, but what has rightly annoyed journalists in Bristol is that Local Democracy Reporters (LDRs) have been banned from attending the mayor's press briefings.
Alex Seabrook, a LDR who covers local democracy for Bristol Live and the Bristol Post, asked a question about the irony of the mayor flying such a long way to give such a short talk. A perfectly reasonable question and part of the LDR remit of holding UK authorities to account.
For having the "audacity" to do his job, he was told by Saskia Konynenburg, the council's Head of Communications, that he was not a “journalist from a newspaper” so didn’t have the right to ask the question. When another LDR asked to attend the mayor's next press briefing, his request was turned down.
Journalists and media organisations, including the BBC and ITV, have supported their colleagues by deciding to boycott the mayor's press briefings until further notice. Good on them. A free press, asking politicians awkward questions, is an essential part of an open and free society. Council officials, such as Ms Konynenburg, are paid for by local taxpayers. They are public servants. One cannot serve the public by banning reporters because one doesn't like the questions they are asking.
But I can't say that I am surprised by this high-handed response from the council. It is typical of most councils the length and breath of the country. Trying to get information out of them, even using the Freedom of Information Act, can be like pulling teeth. If there is something they don't want you to know, they will do everything in their power to prevent you from finding out. I successfully campaigned for a change in the law which gave residents the right to record, tweet, and blog about the meetings they were attending. Some councils were determined to prevent residents from having this right which was why the law had to be changed.
Bristol City Council must allow Local Democracy Reporters to do their job, and as the council has managed to annoy every local journalist, a U-turn is very likely. The sooner the better.