Media anger at 'draconian' Oldham count rules

A council’s “draconian” ban on journalists and photographers at last night’s crucial Oldham by-election count has come under attack by media organisations.

Town Hall officials ruled that the press and media would only be able to watch the count from a balcony at the venue – and that and any access to candidates must go be done through a council press officer.

Reporters are normally allowed on the floor of election counts to speak to candidates while reporting on the action first-hand.

The Press Association and the BBC both made complaints about the running of the event by Charlie Parker, the Acting Returning Officer and chief executive of Oldham Council.

Both organisations asked Parker to reconsider the limited access and to overturn the ban for the count at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at Oldham Civic Centre.

Oldham council says it has always run elections this way – but the by-election has come under media focus after a legal challenge unseated Phil Woolas, who won last May’s poll by just 103 votes.

An election court declared last year’s contest void after finding Woolas had made false statements about Liberal Democrat candidate Elwyn Watkins.

Prime Minister David Cameron, his Lib Dem deputy Nick Clegg and Labour leader Ed Miliband have all visited the Oldham East and Saddleworth constituency during the campaign.

Under election laws the returning officer can permit press on to the count floor, as is customary, as long as it does not impede the counting of votes.

Mike Dodd, legal editor at the Press Association, said the ban was contrary to the right of freedom of expression guaranteed by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights because it was unnecessary and disproportionate, and placed restrictions on the media’s ability to do its job properly.

The BBC’s litigation department told Parker such “draconian action” was not taken by any other returning officers at the general election and his rules are “neither a necessary nor a proportionate” response to ensure the count was done efficiently.

In response Parker said in a statement last night: “I am allowing media representatives significant capacity to observe and undertake their important work from the balcony of the Queen Elizabeth Hall which directly overlooks the count floor and which affords clear and uninterrupted views of the stage where the declaration takes place.

“Candidates and agents will be able to speak to the media freely in the areas away from the count hall which do not impact on the work of the count team.

“Several members of staff will be dedicated to assist the media this evening, in order to provide any information you require, and help facilitate interviews when requested.”

In an e-mail to media organisations detailing the restrictions, the local authority told reporters:

Do not attempt to enter by the Queen Elizabeth Hall entrance itself.

Oldham Council will have a team of press officers and staff available to assist you on the night. If you wish to speak to a candidate/agent who is located on the count floor then you should ask them to facilitate this for you.

Photographers must observe the count from the balcony but you will be taken down to the floor just prior to the declaration of the result … do not take any photographs that could in any way endanger the secrecy of the ballot.

In particular, there should be no long lens photography of counting tables and ballot papers.

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