Publishers unite to boycott mayoral press conferences after ban on local democracy reporters

Marvin Rees — once dubbed the ‘ask me anything’ mayor according to journalists, but now is now longer welcoming LDRs to his briefings

A mayor known for his motto of ‘ask me anything’ has banned local democracy reporters from attending his fortnightly briefings.

Bristol City Council, led by mayor Marvin Rees, has told journalists that BBC-funded Local Democracy Reporters are not welcome to take part in his fortnightly Zoom briefings with journalists.

The move comes after council communications boss Saskia Konyenburg, who was fielding questions at the last mayoral briefing, began quizzing local democracy reporter Alex Seabrook about the topics of the questions he in turn was putting to the Mayor.

Ms Konyenburg argued that it was wrong for Alex, employed by the Bristol Post and BristolLive as part of the LDR scheme, to be asking the Mr Rees about the reaction to a 4,900-mile air trip the mayor took to deliver a short TED talk about climate change recently.

The Mayor’s trip to Vancouver saw him talk about climate change for just 14 minutes. When asked about it by Alex, the mayor dodged a direct answer, instead trying to ask Alex if he understood what the issues were.

While it’s entirely clear what Ms Konyenburg’s complaint was, it appears she felt that as Mr Rees’s trip was funded privately, it therefore fell outside the remit of the Local Democracy Reporting Scheme because it didn’t directly relate to council business — a point which has been roundly rejected by those responsible for running the scheme at the BBC and within the wider regional press. To add to confusion, Ms Konyenburg said it was a question she would have expected from a journalist employed by a newspaper, despite the fact LDR stories are primarily used by local newspapers.

The video of Ms Konyenburg’s critique of Alex’s questioning, and his understanding of the scheme for which he has worked for several years, has been viewed over 200,000 times on social media since being posted earlier this week.

Bristol City Council has now confirmed local democracy reporters funded by the BBC scheme are now no longer welcome at the fortnightly briefings. It is understood the council’s argument is that because the briefings are not formal public meetings, they can decide who attends. The council has not said whether the briefings will be funded, and facilitated, by public funds.

An article published on the LDR Wire yesterday confirmed: “Bristol City Council has now reiterated that local democracy reporters are not welcome to attend the mayor’s fortnightly media briefings. A video from the meeting went viral on Twitter yesterday, with widespread support for Alex and the scheme from local and national journalists.

BristolLive, which employs two BBC-funded Local Democracy Reporters, has decided it will not attend or cover any of the mayoral briefings until this ban is lifted.”

That stance was quickly backed by independent website Bristol 24/7 and regional publisher NationalWorld, which operates the Bristol World website in the city.

In an editorial, Bristol 24/7 wrote: “Bristol24/7 will not be attending Marvin Rees’ fortnightly mayoral press conferences while the city’s local democracy reporters are barred from taking part.

“It is not a decision that we have taken lightly but it is one that we feel that we must take in solidarity after the BBC-funded reporters — who write stories that are published by organisations including Bristol24/7 — were banned following accusations of unfair bias from members of the mayor’s close-knit inner circle.”

Editor Martin Booth added: “It is a slippery slope indeed if we allow Bristol City Council to choose which journalists they want to attend briefings and who they want to exclude.

“It is the role of all journalists from print, online and broadcast to ask tough questions to our elected officials, and I share the concerns of Bristol Post editor Pete Gavan about the long-term implications of the city council choosing to ban a reporter after he has simply done that job of asking tough questions.

“At Bristol24/7, we rely on the excellent work of our city’s two LDRs to cover stories that we would otherwise not be able to publish, and I have the upmost respect for the professionalism and integrity of Alex and his LDR colleague Adam Postans.

“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.”

BristolWorld posted on Twitter: “In the interests of openness and transparency, it is vital journalists are allowed to question Marvin Rees on all issues impacting our city.

“We will not be sending representatives to the mayor’s fortnightly press conferences while the region’s local democracy reporters are barred from attending.”

It’s not the first time Bristol’s mayor has been at odds with local democracy reporters.

Former Bristol Post editor Mike Norton was forced to defend another LDR, Adam Postans, after a series of barbs and ‘jokes’ made by the mayor during a council meeting. The mayor appeared to be irritated by Mr Postans describing a new recycling centre as ‘a city dump’ in an article.

Mr Rees’ term as mayor is due to end in 2024 after the city’s residents voted to scrap the directly elected role in a referendum held in the summer. The city’s residents voted instead to return to the conventional leader-and-committee system.

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