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July 8, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:28am

Bristol mayor: Reporters are not banned – they just aren’t invited to briefings

By Andrew Kersley

Update 8/7/22: Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees has insisted he has not banned BBC-funded local democracy reporters from his press briefings – but said they are not invited.

“There’s no ban but they’re not invited,” he said at a council meeting, according to a report on BBC News from one of Bristol’s local democracy reporters.

Rees, whose alleged ban of LDRs led most local media to boycott attending, said: “The whole fortnightly press conferences were set up by me. There had never been a practice like that in the council of setting up press conferences on a regular basis to give the city’s journalists easy access.

“Nobody’s been banned. I didn’t invite you to my birthday party, but I didn’t ban you from it.

“It’s up to me. It’s not statutory, I’m not required to do it, we do it to give journalists easy access to me to ask whatever they want, and we can invite whoever we want.”

Update 27/6/22: The South West Local Voice network of newspapers has joined the boycott of mayoral press briefings.

Though not a usual attendee of the briefings, the group said as a publisher of hyperlocal publications its titles “rely on LDRs” for information “and also reach tens of thousand of Bristol homes each month”.

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Update 24/6/22: ITV’s regional newsroom in the Bristol area is the latest to join the media boycott of the Bristol mayor’s press briefings.

Ian Axton, head of news at ITV West Country, said: “ITV News West Country stands by other media organisations on this issue.

“We will not attend the fortnightly press briefings held by the mayor until the exclusion of local democracy reporters is lifted.”

Original story 23/6/22:

Bristol mayor Marvin Rees is facing a widespread boycott of his briefings after his comms team allegedly banned Local Democracy Reporters (LDRs) from attending these press conferences.

Reach-owned Bristol Live, independent outlet Bristol 24/7 and National World-owned Bristol World have also all said their entire newsrooms would now boycott press briefings from Rees (pictured) in solidarity with the city’s banned LDRs.

Another independent outlet, The Bristol Cable, said its team “stand in solidarity” with the boycott but as they were already stopped from attending these briefings they were not able to participate.

Press Gazette understands that this is likely to represent an almost total boycott of the mayoral briefings, although ITV regional news and Global Radio have not yet publicly said whether or not they will attend.

Why did Bristol Mayor’s team ban local democracy reporters?

The row was sparked after Alex Seabrook, who started six weeks ago as one of two local democracy reporters working for Bristol Live and the Bristol Post, was chastised by Bristol Council’s head of communications Saskia Konynenburg.

Konynenburg was responding to a question from Seabrook on the irony of the mayor’s decision to fly 9,000 miles to Canada to give a 14-minute TED talk on climate change.

She told Seabrook he was not a “journalist from a newspaper” so didn’t have the right to ask the question.

A video of the exchange uploaded to Twitter on Tuesday has since gone viral, being viewed more than 250,000 times.

When the Post’s other LDR Adam Postans asked to attend the next briefing he was told LDRs were now not allowed to attend, in a move that has been branded as “anti-democratic” by the National Union of Journalists.

The council has since denied the claim, saying LDRs have not been banned from the briefings but that it was part of a “long-standing agreement” for them not to attend.

Bristol journalists boycott mayor’s briefings

However, that did not stop the BBC, Bristol World and Bristol 24/7 as well as Bristol Live saying they would boycott future meetings until the LDRs are allowed to attend.

The local democracy reporting service sees the BBC fund 165 local democracy reporters across the UK to report on local authorities in partner newsrooms, like Bristol Live.

A BBC spokesperson said: “We are deeply disappointed by the decision taken by the mayor’s office to not allow the Bristol LDR into his fortnightly press conference.

“It is an essential ingredient of local democracy that journalists should be able to ask robust, challenging questions to people in power.

“We have today informed the mayor that the BBC won’t be attending the fortnightly mayoral briefings until this important issue is resolved. We will continue to report on the city council and mayor as normal by attending all other meetings.”

Bristol Live senior editor Pete Gavan told Press Gazette it was “great to get this support” in boycotting the mayoral briefings and challenged the council’s claim that they had agreed not to send LDRs. Instead, according to Gavan, they had said they would send other reporters “when possible” but reserve the right to send LDRs.

“We do not accept that any reporters should be banned from attending meetings at the behest of the council, nor from asking relevant questions on behalf of our readers and council taxpayers at any time,” he added.

The National Union of Journalists’ Reach national coordinator Chris Morley argued that the actions of the council were “arrogant, high-handed, and essentially anti-democratic” and said “the slur it implies on the professionalism of our LDR members is thoroughly rejected”.

Bristol24/7 editor Martin Booth said it was a “slippery slope” if journalists let the council choose who “they want to attend briefings and who they want to exclude”.

He added: “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, Bristol24/7 will neither be attending nor covering any mayoral press conferences.”

Bristol Council said in a statement: “Any suggestion that LDR attendance had been banned as a result of recent reporting is completely false, and we continue to work day-to-day with its LDRs in support of their role.

“All mainstream local media outlets are invited to the mayor’s briefings. There has been a long-standing mutual agreement between the Mayor’s Office and the Post about personnel attending press conferences whenever they are announced and held, and that LDRs would not be sent due to the narrow definition of their role as an impartial service.”

Press Gazette understands the deal cited by the council pre-dates the current editorial leadership of Bristol Live.

Picture: Finnbarr Webster / Getty Images

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