Sunday 7 August 2022

Banning of Local Democracy Reporters by City Mayor a Threat to Democracy

When Local Democracy Reporter (LDR) Alex Seabrook, during a regular press briefing, questioned Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees about his flying all the way to US to speak at a TED conference on climate change, the response was somewhat unexpected. The clip of his exchange with the Mayor went viral as was the dressing down received from Bristol City Council’s Head of External Communications Saskia Konynenburg. The furore that followed resulted in a ban on LDRs from attending or participating in his briefings to the press. 

This affront to local democracy, where transparency is vital especially during these challenging times, has put the Mayor and Bristol City Council directly in conflict with the local media. With the ban in place over a month later, and Mayor Rees showing no signs of flinching, the question has to be asked is local democracy under threat?

What is an LDR?

Local Democracy Reporters came about from an agreement between the BBC and other local media to fund reporter positions specialising in local politics. Whilst the BBC was fund these positions the reporters are employed by the broadcaster or newspaper. There are currently around 170 LDRs nationwide and their main roles is to report on the workings of local government. Like any other journalist the LDR’s role can be as a reporter or take an interrogative function in scrutinising local authority decisions and policies.

The role provides more transparency to the public in local government machinations, meetings, and decisions. To carry out this important function LDRs have all the technical and instinctive writing and research skills — they are often NCTJ (National Council for Training Journalists) qualified though some employers accept a similar qualification. Ultimately the LDR has to be a good listening and know to establish and make effective use of their contacts network. In the process an LDR can give platforms to an assortment of community voices to take issues forward that usually have a hard time getting heard in the daily grind of local government business.

The Media vs Marvin Rees

During his tenure as the city’s leader, one that will soon come to an end, Mayor Rees has found himself at odds with local media, in particular certain local journalists both on staff and freelance. Local reporters are regularly shinning the spotlight on a number of his controversial policies from urban planning decisions to the fall of local energy concern Bristol Energy, and the Bristol Arena debacle. The response has been a full frontal attack on any individual or journalist scrutinising mayoral policies and their implementation by Bristol City Council. One local reporter, Joanna Booth has documented the attacks she received for investigating local spending that is without doubt in the public interest. This is just one example of many. When it comes to dealing with his critics Mayor Rees’ go to tactic is to block on social media, and restrict access. The latest target in his cross-hairs are the city’s LDRs and it all started with a simple and necessary question.

Marvin Rees held one of his regular press briefings over Zoom, this one on 8th June during which he discussed amongst many things his TED Talk on how Bristol was tackling the climate crisis. Present on behalf of Bristol Live was LDR Alex Seabrook who had two questions for the Mayor. The first question was whether or not he saw the irony in flying over 9000 miles to give a talk on climate change when air travel has been reported as a significant contributor to adverse climate change. What followed was a tense exchange between a city leader avoiding the questions and reporter doing his job pressing for an answer. Still the Mayor held his nerve and answered both of Alex’s questions though it was apparent the Mayor was not happy with the questioning. That was nothing however compared to what followed, since the average public is used to politicians dodging questions. Bristol City Council’s head External Communications Saskia Konynenburg who questioned the appropriateness of Alex’s question. You can watch the exchange in full below.

This patronising behaviour quickly went viral thanks to journalist Conor Gogarty with this Tweet on 21st June drawing ire citywide and across social media. People demanded answers as to why a public servant berated a reporter for doing his job and the mayor responded in a manner in keeping with his usual tactic of disdain for his critics. The next day it was reported that the Mayor had banned all LDRs from attending his press briefings, a move that drew widespread condemnation from all local media including the BBC and Society of Editors. With the purpose of pressuring the mayor to withdraw the ban, local media outlets and journalists showed solidarity with Alex Seabrook by boycotting mayoral press events. It seemed as if the Mayor was truly at war with the media, though it didn’t stop him trying to downplay the situation with this response;

“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.”

Yet as Joanna Booth pointed out the public pay the Mayor’s salary and so being held to account is not an invitation to be revoked.

The Free Press Standoff

In his essay ‘The Prevention of Literature’ the great George Orwell wrote

“Freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticise and oppose.”

Of all of Orwell’s work this one appears to have been overlooked by political leaders, and their communications teams in particular the Mayor’s office. Saskia Konynenburg couldn’t see the relevance of Alex Seabrook’s question and that it didn’t fall in his remit. Yet an LDR is a journalist and telling truth to power is well within their scope of questioning and basic reporting role. There now exists a stand off between the Mayor and Bristol media as the LDR ban stays in place and reporters maintaining their boycott. The recent revelations of Bristol council staff monitoring social media posts and photos of SEND parents — a story broken by local news outlet ‘The Bristolian’ and later reported by Alex Seabrook — indicates the feud between the Bristol Mayor’s office and the city’s media is far from over. Speaking to truth to power is the cornerstone of a free and open democracy. When local government excludes that voice because they ask a disagreeable question it goes against the very fabric of democracy undermining its very foundations.

Mayor Marvin Rees’ tenure in office has shaken the city’s trust in the Mayoral system so much so it voted in a referendum to dismantle the Mayor’s office inf favour of a committee system. Until such time as the Mayor leaves office in 2024, or when Marvin Rees capitulates to the boycott and lifts the ban (whichever is first) LDRs face an uphill battle to continue their mandate.

“When the public’s right to know is threatened, and when the rights of free speech, and free press are at risk, all of the other liberties we hold dear are endangered.” — Christopher Dodd

Image Credits

EU Neighbours

Bristol Live

Bristol 24/7


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