Anyone who has reported on council business will know how important it is to have access to different sub committees and minutes of meetings, as well as to the full council meetings. Increasingly, some councils attempt to keep sensitive issues private by discussing them in committee. The role of the media to report on democracy in action and although district (or local) councils have limited powers, the press have a duty to report on the actions of councillors and to take them to task when necessary. I was therefore surprised to see that there is a proposal by Strabane District Council to restrict the attendance of press representatives at its weekly committee meetings. According to the interim chief executive Daniel McSorley
(for whom I have a lot of admiration following the excellent job he has done during often difficult times in Omagh) quoted in the Strabane Chronicle, the proposed change in committee proceedings “would lead to more openness and transparency”. He added that no decision has yet been taken. I for one hope that the council does not decide to go down this route. I am glad to see a statement on the issue from the President of the National Union of Journalists, Barry McCall.
Mr McCall says that any attempt to exclude the press from council matters is “an attack on democracy” and he has vowed to take it up with Mr McSorley as a matter of urgency. He said any plans to ban the press from local council committee meetings would be a direct attack on democracy and an attack on press freedom. They are repugnant to an open and democratic society, he said, and would be strongly resisted by the NUJ. The union will raise its concerns with the District Council immediately.
Strabane Chronicle reporter Conor Sharkey said the paper had not submitted an objection at this stage but would probably do so. He told Hold the Front Page:-
“It would be a big deal for ourselves as a newspaper but I think it would be a bigger deal for the ratepayers. The issues that are being discussed are not national security, it is bread and butter issues such as waste management and leisure. It is ordinary issues that affect the men and women in the street. I think the ratepayers have a right to know about them. It is a huge concern to us. We pick up a lot of news stories from these meetings.”
Only eight local authorities in Northern Ireland are believed to restrict access to such committee meetings at the moment.
MICHAEL FISHER is Chair of the NUJ Irish Executive Council Northern Ireland sub-committee