The chief executive of a London council reportedly claimed it was not his job to defend council policy and “have my words scrutinised and reported on by the press”.
The comments by Croydon Council chief Jon Rouse saw three reporters – including journalists from local weeklies the Croydon Advertiser and Croydon Guardian – 'banned' from what they claim was a public meeting.
Rouse said he was “uncomfortable” answering questions in the presence of journalists.
According to a report in the Guardian, Rouse told the meeting:
I just feel uncomfortable about this situation. It's not appropriate for an officer to be placed in this position. It is going to be a very different meeting if the press are here.
It is not my job to place myself in a position in which I have to defend council policy and have my words scrutinised and reported on by the press. That is the place of our democratically elected politicians.
A report in the Advertiser attributed these comments to Rouse:
It’s going to be a very different meeting if the press are here because I'm going to give very factual and very closed answers.
It isn't my job or my officers to place ourselves in a position which is rightly the position of democratically elected politicians.
We will have a meeting but it's going to be quite stilted.
In an update a spokesman for Croydon Council said late on Monday afternoon:
Jon did not ask the press to leave the West Croydon Community Forum meeting.
He raised reservations that he would not be able to get involved in a debate about policy matters in a public forum, which were more properly a matter for elected politicians.
The Forum’s community representatives voted to exclude the press. Jon would have abided by whatever decision they made.
Members of the West Croydon Community Forum went on to vote in favour of excluding the three journalists.
The Guardian reports that the press was invited by the deputy chairman of the forum “to attend what it had described as a public meeting at Croydon Voluntary Action resource centre in London Road”.
The leader of the council's Labour group told the paper:
I have always been a passionate believer of a free press. It is fundamental to our democracy.
In a week in Croydon that has seen our libraries handed over to property developers in a deal that is shrouded in secrecy, I find this deeply disturbing and I hope it is something I never see the light of again.
A spokesman for the council said:
The West Croydon Community Forum (WCCF) and officers had a productive meeting discussing issues such as parking and business support.
The meeting was scheduled by WCCF as one of their regular discussions with officers. As it wasn’t scheduled to be a public meeting, once the press were there, WCCF members voted on the issue and asked the media to leave.
It appears that there had been a misunderstanding caused by someone who tweeted invites to the media. WCCF publicises its public meetings on its website and the media and members of the public attend those public meetings, however this meeting was not a public meeting and was not publicised on the website.
Nitin Mehta, who runs a business in Croydon, walked out of the meeting after the vote was taken to exclude the press, according to the Advertiser:
I really felt bad that somebody who is there is then asked to leave without any genuine reason. I thought that it was out of order.
I had to show my support and walk out.
I cannot understand the logic behind it. I could understand if it was a really difficult or controversial subject we were going to talk about.
But it was just a small meeting talking about how we're going forward and making things better.
It was nothing top secret that the press shouldn't be there.
The third reporter was from hyper-local blog Inside Croydon. An article reporting on the event said:
Only in the dystopian, secretive world of Croydon in 2012 could an open meeting begin with a public servant, the £248,000 council chief executive, demanding that the press must leave.
That’s exactly what happened yesterday at a West Croydon Community Forum, with Jon Rouse refusing to discuss matters of great public interest in terms of post-riots recovery work along London Road until Inside Croydon and other media left the room.
West Croydon Community Forum is an organisation set up to rally the community in the London Road area since the 8/8 riots. Rouse had kept the 25-strong audience at the Croydon Voluntary Association waiting for 40 minutes, and after he finally turned up, he took exception to the first question from a local resident about regeneration efforts and parking matters, stating that he is “accountable only to scrutiny committees of the council”.
Rouse said such questions should be addressed to a meeting populated by “democratically elected politicians” and that it was not appropriate for such a question to be posed to “professional officers”.