Court battle over right to inspect council data

ITV West is taking Bristol City Council to court next month in a bid to force it to release information about its business dealings. The case could have wide implications for investigative journalism and press freedom.

Appearing at the High Court of Justice in London on 7 May, the broadcaster has called for a judicial review and will challenge the council’s interpretation of the Audit Commission Act 1998, which decrees that access to council records may be given to “persons interested”. The council insisted this did not apply to journalists on the ITV West current affairs programme Barely Serious.

They were prevented from accessing the council’s accounts last autumn as part of an investigation into payments made to a former council officer, Martin Thomas, who was sacked for gross misconduct in 1998.

Thomas provides care to recovering addicts in the Lockleaze area, where he runs a number of residences and is paid by the council for his services.

The programme was investigating complaints against him from local people, and Barely Serious producer Margaret Vrublevskis applied to the council to inspect details of its payments to Thomas. She was turned down, even though the council’s accounts were open for inspection by the public under the terms of the Audit Commission Act. It states: “Any persons interested may inspect the accounts to be audited and all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts related to them.”

James Garrett, ITV West’s head of features and current affairs, said that if Bristol City Council was allowed to keep its books closed, “other local authorities may follow suit and frustrate the attempts of journalists across Britain to hold them to account over the way they spend council taxpayers’ hard-earned cash.

“Our journalists, in common with colleagues across Britain, routinely use the act to investigate council spending,” he added, citing the Bath Spa project, which was built over budget and years behind schedule, as a case in point. “Unlike Bristol, however, Bath & North-East Somerset Council was big enough to provide us with the financial information we requested, despite the poor publicity it must have known would follow.”

By Wale Azeez

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