Journalist groups and free speech organisations have criticised the introduction of fees for media attending the UK Conservative party conference.
The Conservative Party has introduced charges starting at £125 for journalists intending to cover its autumn gathering.
Labour was initially part of the complaint for introducing a £5 fee, but has since stated this was a voluntary carbon offsetting charge.
Some 14 industry groups, including the National Union of Journalists, Society of Editors and Open Democracy, have signed a statement calling the charges “a tax on democracy” and asking they be scrapped.
The statement argued: “A fundamental tenet of a free and democratic society is the principle of open government, and we believe this is best served by enabling journalists to freely report on matters of public interest and to stimulate political debate.”
Tickets for media seeking accreditation for the Conservative Party conference start at £125, according to the party website. Tickets purchased after 31 July will cost £800, and those bought after 25 September will cost £1,250. The conference is being held between 2 and 5 October.
The party told Press Gazette it was a “modest” charge designed to stop people from signing up for accreditation and not attending, wasting money on security checks as well as paper and plastic for passes. It said there were exemptions for outlets with financial difficulties.
Labour updated its website on Friday – after the drafting of the statement – to make clear that its £5 fee for the media is a voluntary carbon offset charge. The £5 charge appears on all types of tickets available through the party website.
Media accreditation for the Scottish National Party conference is free, as are media tickets for the Liberal Democrat conference (until 9 August, after which the price rises to £100). Plaid Cymru conference tickets are also understood to be free to the media.
The journalist groups argued that admission fees “could have a particularly profound impact on freelance journalists, smaller outlets, local journalists and foreign correspondents.
“At a time when the UK government continues to assert its credentials globally, as a bastion of media freedom, this decision sets a dangerous precedent for countries around the world who will use this decision to justify financial and other barriers to media scrutiny of the political process.”
A Conservative Party spokesperson told Press Gazette: “A modest charge was introduced this year to discourage over-accreditation by some media outlets.
“At one recent conference several thousand people who applied for free media accreditation failed to collect their passes, generating large amounts of paper and plastic waste.
“In previous years, police security checks for non-attendees have cost the Party tens of thousands of pounds. We do not believe members and other attendees should effectively subsidise this.
“There are a range of exemptions on offer owing to the challenging financial situation many local outlets face.”
As of Sunday morning, the signatories to the statement were:
- The Foreign Press Association
- News Media Association
- News Media Coalition
- Society of Editors
- Article 19
- Association of European Journalists
- Commonwealth Press Union
- European Federation of Journalists
- Index on Censorship
- International Press Institute
- National Union of Journalists
- Open Democracy
- Professional Publishers Association
- Rory Peck Trust.
The signees said: “For any political party to restrict fair access by charging newsgatherers to attend conferences flies in the face of their public commitments to press freedom.
“While we understand staging well administered and secure events is costly, the news industry already contributes significantly by putting its reporting teams on the ground, backed by newsroom operations.”
They added: “Any such attendance fees are a tax on democracy, organisers must scrap the media access charges now.”
The new intervention comes a month after the Society of Editors, News Media Association, News Media Coalition and Foreign Press Association, which together coordinated the new statement, first wrote to the Conservative Party’s director of communications to object to the fee.
They said: “Given the significant public interest in covering party conferences – not least by the governing party – it is imperative that attendance to the media remains free, open and unrestricted.
“By limiting access to only those who can afford to attend, this endangers the principle of a free media and comes at a time when budgets are already significantly stretched.”
Picture: Reuters/Phil Noble