What Bristol Council did next (soon to be known as ‘How not to do council PR’) Part One

“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.”

When is a ban not a ban? It’s when you’re simply not invited.

Just when you thought that the Mayor of Bristol’s peculiar relationship with the media couldn’t become any more contorted … it did.

As covered extensively on Behind Local News, Bristol’s mayor Marvin Rees didn’t respond well to questions about travelling across the Atlantic to deliver a speech on climate change for 14 minutes.

His PR chief, Saskia Konyenburg, made matters worse by suggesting that holding the mayor to account wasn’t actually part of the brief of the Local Democracy Reporter on this occasion, because the Mayor’s trip hadn’t been funded by the council.

That exchange found its way on to Twitter, prompting widespread criticism of both the Mayor and the council’s approach to PR. Shortly after, it emerged that Bristol City Council’s Mayor didn’t want LDRs — funded by the BBC to provide scrutiny of local government — at his briefings.

The news of the Mayor’s view prompted multiple publishers in Bristol, — including Reach, which employs LDRs in the region, BristolWorld, Bristol 24/7, Bristol Cable, local BBC, ITV and Bauer radio stations — to say they would boycott the briefings too, essentially leaving the Mayor with no-one to ask questions of him.

At a recent full council meeting, the mayor’s approach to media relations was put under the spotlight by councillors.

Mr Rees said: “The whole 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.

“Every press conference I say ‘you can ask me anything you want, anything’. Often at the end of the press conference, when the journalists run out of questions, I say ‘do you have any more’ so everyone gets a chance.

“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.”

He went on to criticise Reach, the company which owns the Bristol Post and Bristol Live, and employs the city’s two local democracy reporters.

The two jobs are funded by the BBC, as part of a nationwide scheme to hold to account local councils, and articles written by the reporters are shared free of charge for other local news organisations to publish as they like.

Mr Rees said: “The local democracy reporters are publicly funded. A private corporation doesn’t employ enough people, and so subsidises its staff with publicly-funded journalists, which is why the National Union of Journalists was opposed to it in the first instance.

“We don’t think that’s appropriate. Every news organisation in the city should properly staff itself at its own cost, not out of the public purse.

“There are other questions about impartiality and competence, but that’s for another occasion. In the world of public commentary, words matter and create images and meaning. Nobody is banned — but they’re not invited. I can invite anyone to interview me I want, that doesn’t mean I need to invite everyone.”

The press conference row stems from a lecture the mayor gave in April at a Ted talk in Vancouver, which was made available to watch online in May. Environmental campaigners criticised Mr Rees’s decision to fly so far for his “ironic” talk on climate change. The talk focused on how cities need finance to help them decarbonise, amid a lack of action from national governments.

After the meeting, editor at Bristol Live Pete Gavan said: “The LDR service has been a huge success since it was launched in 2017 and helps us and partners shine a light on what’s happening across the city.

“Covering the mayor is entirely within the remit, and we hope to find a resolution that sees the LDRs welcome again.”

Despite the Mayor’s efforts to align himself with the the NUJ, the NUJ has been clear in its opposition to democracy bans.

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Behind Local News

Behind Local News

A place to share the stories behind the stories