The council boss who tried to decide what a local democracy reporter was allowed to ask a mayor about…

It is, apparently, the golden rule of public relations or communications: Don’t become the story.

For Bristol City Council communications head Saskia Konyenburg, the story in question is a very curious hill on which to plant a flag — trying to determine what sort of topics a local democracy reporter is, and apparently isn’t, allowed to ask questions about.

It might be a stretch to say Ms Konyenburg’s intervention during a media briefing led by city council mayor Marvin Rees has gone viral on Twitter since it was posted by WalesOnline journalist Conor Gogarty, although many council press offices would give their right arm to have a council view of an issue watched 150,000 times on Twitter in 24 hours…

Ms Konyenburg took issue with Bristol Local Democracy Reporter Alex Seabrook asking Mayor Rees about his long flight to deliver a short TED talk about climate change.

Mayor Rees didn’t seem particularly keen to talk about whether, in the words of ITV News at the time, travelling 4,600 miles by plane to deliver a talk on climate change, was the right thing to do:

Ms Konyenburg, however, had other concerns, asking Alex whether he should be asking that sort of question, which she felt should rather come from a newspaper reporter instead. It’s an intervention which left many baffled.

Alex is employed as a Local Democracy Reporter with BristolLive and the Bristol Post. His work, like that of the other 164 LDRs employed via the BBC-funded scheme, is used in newspapers across the country, as well as on TV and radio.

Ms Konyenburg, however, felt asking the mayor about a trip he undertook at the expense of the TED Talks organisation, fell outside the remit of the LDR scheme.

She said: “From my understanding, it would be to report and provide impartial coverage regarding the regular workings of local authorities and public sector bodies.

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

Alex replied: “There are obviously questions with the huge amount of carbon emissions from flying so far, so I think it’s a legitimate question to ask.”

To which Ms Konyenburg responded: “I think it is from probably a journalist from a newspaper etc, but I can’t quite see the link to LDR.”

The link between a local democracy reporter asking a democratically-elected local representative to answer questions about what he has been doing as mayor was seemingly not obvious enough for Bristol City Council.

Journalists on Twitter were quick to help out, with Matthew Barraclough, the BBC editor responsible for the scheme, saying: “This tweet makes the case for the Local Democracy Reporting Service in a nutshell.

“Without LDRs working hard on behalf of local news media and their audiences, these “comms bosses” can control the narrative.”

BBC Nations and Regions editor Jason Dean added: “Make no mistake.

“The BBC funded network of superb Local Democracy Reporters serving regional outlets across England is recognised and valued by most as being an important part of local journalism & holding those in power to account.”

Martin Booth, editor of Bristol website Bristol247 referenced a difference rule of news management: “The Streisand effect in full force here. This video has now got more than 135,000 views.”

The Streisand effect is a phenomenon that occurs when an attempt to hide, remove, or censor information has the unintended consequence of increasing awareness of that information, often via the Internet. Something Boris Johnson and his team have felt in the last week in the row over whether or not he encouraged Whitehall officials to give his now wife a high-ranking job when he was foreign secretary.

Former Northern Echo editor Peter Barron added: “I think Peter Barron needs to explain to its communications department what a Local Democracy Reporter is. They clearly think they’re not real journalists and, therefore, shouldn’t be asking pertinent questions in the public interest. God help us.”

Marc Reeves, marketplace publisher for Reach, whose titles include the Bristol Post, said: “By all means criticise what an LDR publishes (or any other journo for that matter) but questioning their right to ask a question in the first place is rather chilling, to say the least.”

Bristol Council, not surprisingly, was sticking to its guns today, or perhaps digging a deeper hole, depending on your point of view.

They told HoldthefrontPage: “We welcome public discourse as part of a healthy local democracy and respect the vital role of local journalists within that.

“The mayor holds a regular press conference for news outlets in the city to provide for media scrutiny and transparency.

“Relationships with journalists involve two-way dialogue and we will sometimes ask questions ourselves. In this instance, the journalist’s question had already been answered by the mayor when an officer politely queried their remit, given the specific nature and focus of the LDR role, and the fact that the story had already been widely covered and responded to two weeks previously.

“The clip being shared online does not represent the full context of the exchange.”

That two-way dialogue previously involved the same mayor ridiculing another LDR, Adam Postans, before a council meeting. He was recorded saying it would be ‘great to have a journalist attending.’

The mayor at the time seemed upset by the fact BristolLive had called a recycling centre a ‘city dump.’

At the time, BristolLive said it seemed that Bristol City Council was taking exception to the new scrutiny being brought to bear by the LDR scheme.

In the days after the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was pulled down by protestors in Bristol, the city council came under fire for failing to invite even the Press Association to document the historic moment the statue was pulled from one of the city’s docks. The council cited health and safety concerns at the time, although documents shared by the council on FOI website theyworkforyou do show the council did have in-house teams on hand to film and photo the occasion, and were working to avoid the media ‘getting wind of it and turning up.’

Of course, this is very much as ‘Media Twitter’ story. But it’s also at least 150,000 people aware of Mayor Rees’s decision to travel thousands of miles by plane to deliver a short speech about climate change, a decision he seems particularly sensitive about justifying. As PR success stories go, it appears to have been a very good day for Local Democracy Reporters…

  • In 2022, Behind Local News aims to celebrate local journalism in all its forms through our 365 Acts of Local Journalism Project. Lets us know what you think should be included. You can email us here or contact us via Twitter on BehindLocalNews or on Facebook here.

>> See the series so far, here

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