ITV half opens door to council accounts

ITV West has won a High Court “semivictory” against Bristol City Council to gain access to its public accounts, but the judge ruled out giving the media an automatic right to the information.

The broadcaster went to court to legally determine its status as a “person interested” in Bristol City Council accounts, as defined by the Audit Commission Act 1998, allowing it to access and copy them.

However, Justice Elias allowed access but ruled that ITV West – and therefore media organisations in general – did not automatically qualify as “persons interested” by definition, in agreement with the council.

He decided it was only by virtue of its status as a local “non-domestic rate council taxpayer” within the city that the broadcaster was entitled to access Bristol City Council’s books.

ITV West, formerly HTV West, brought the case against the council after it refused access last autumn to journalists from the regional current affairs programme Barely Serious.

They were looking into council payments made to a former council officer, Martin Thomas, who was sacked for gross misconduct in 1998.

After the ruling on 14 May, James Garrett, ITV West head of features and current affairs, told Press Gazette that while he was pleased the ban on accessing and copying the council’s accounts had been overturned, he was disappointed “the judge didn’t recognise that a media organisation is the eyes and ears of the local population and said it should not be recognised as ‘a person interested’ per se.

“As a consequence of the ruling, ITV West wouldn’t automatically be entitled to see the accounts of neighbouring Bath and North-East Somerset Council, because it is not a nondomestic rate payer there,” he said.

Only ITVWest journalists who live in Bath and North-East Somerset would be able as individual council taxpayers to examine the books, without a distinction being made between their status as a journalist and as a local citizen.

“What this means is that only media organisations with offices in that particular locality are automatically entitled to get access to the information,” Garrett added.

“However, the fact he has found in our favour is good enough for me.

Importantly, he said a local authority couldn’t discriminate against a media organisation on the grounds that it didn’t like what it planned to do with the information.”

The judge awarded ITV West its costs and gave the council permission to appeal.

By Wale Azeez

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