Bristol mayor excludes local democracy reporters

Bristol City Hall - Julian Greenbank
Bristol City Hall – Julian Greenbank

A few months ago, Marvin Rees (The Bristol Mayor) flew 9,000 miles to Canada to do a TED Talk about what a city can do tackle the climate crisis. Yes, you read that correctly! The mayor of the first city in Europe to declare a climate crisis decided to fly to give a talk about fighting climate change, rather than doing it remotely which would’ve been a sensible option. The mayor says that TED do not offer that as an alternative so he had to make the talk in person.

He echoed the actions of our prime minister, Boris Johnson, made in November last year, when he flew to the COP26 conference to talk to world leaders and diplomats about doing more to fight the climate crisis.

Local democracy reporter holds Bristol mayor to account

However, a local democracy reporter by the name of Alex Seabrook, a BBC-funded journalist currently working at Bristol Live, challenged such a decision. Seabrook is a part of a BBC scheme called the Local Democracy Reporting Service. It funds a total of 165 reporters across the UK to report on local news and events, mostly working with local media companies, in this case, organisations like Bristol Live.

At a press conference last month (May 2022), he asked the mayor about his decision to fly to Canada. Rees justified it, saying that the company offered no alternative but to fly and give the talk in person. The mayor’s head of external communications, Saskia Konynenburg, then asked the validity of asking such a question, saying

“Marvin was fully funded by TED to attend this conference, so I couldn’t quite understand what your role as an LDR in asking those questions”

Seabrook replied:

“Why? Because it’s holding the leaders of local authorities to account, Marvin being the leader of Bristol City Council. And there are obviously questions with the huge amount of carbon emissions from flying so far”.

After that the Mayor’s office informed all LDRs that they could no longer attend press conferences.

Solidarity from local journalists

It’s not the first time he has pulled such a move. In the early days of the pandemic Bristol Cable requested that it attend these press conferences but weren’t allowed because the council “couldn’t accommodate everyone”.

Even if they use this excuse again, it’s significant that a journalist has been excluded after asking a question the mayor didn’t like.

As a result, all the companies that are allowed to attend the mayor’s press conferences are pulling out. Local online papers such as Bristol 24/7 and Bristol Live have withdrawn, saying, “We believe it is an important shared resource and we are very concerned by the long-term implications of councils choosing to exclude reporters”.

Bristol World voiced its opposition to the move, saying, “To stop access to the LDR reporters indicates control on who can and who cannot ask those question, which we say is wrong”.

The BBC confirmed its support for the LDRs saying it would be joining in the boycott of the press conferences. Their statement said:

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

ITV West Country has also withdrawn from these press conferences, giving its support to Bristol’s Local Democracy Reporters, Alex Seabrook and free press:

“We will not attend the fortnightly press briefings held by the Mayor until the exclusion of Local Democracy Reporters is lifted.”

Undemocratic moves by elected politicians

As you can see, this move by the mayor’s office has been unpopular and widely derided by local journalists. It’s not hard to see why Bristolians voted to get rid of the mayorship altogether, as this is just another in a wide variety of unpopular moves made by the mayor.

People in authority, especially elected ones, shouldn’t ever get to decide who can report on their actions. That would lead to biased reporting, with selected reporters getting exclusives whilst not holding those people to account.

We also saw it frequently at the last election, when the prime minister refused to go on the BBC because they were going to ask him the about the logic behind his promises, even to the extent of hiding in a fridge to avoid tough questions from journalists.

While Rees has yet to find a fridge to hid in, it’s always a bit troubling when a politician at any level emulates our controversy-ridden prime minister in dealing with tough questions.

While West England Bylines does not attend these press meetings, please allow me to voice my support:

  • To Alex Seabrook for holding the mayor to account,
  • To the other local democracy reporters for doing their jobs and
  • To the other local organisations who are just as horrified as I am about the mayor’s actions.

Journalism’s aim is to report the facts and hold people accountable for their actions. Our leaders should not decide who may ask questions or what questions should be asked. They must allow those difficult questions to be asked.

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