The Oxford Mail‘s Witney reporter has been thrown out of a town council meeting – for the fourth time. On Monday 10th March, the council met to discuss the future of two public buildings, Langdale Hall and the Corn Exchange. But the reporter covering the meeting was asked to leave after town councillors voted nearly-unanimously (with one exception) to exclude the press. This means that discussions of public interest will not be publicly reported. This is the fourth time in less than a year that a reporter has been excluded from a town council meeting.
As a branch, we are concerned that Witney Town Council is not allowing local reporters to do their job. We have written to Cllr Peter Dorward, Mayor of Witney, to ask on what grounds reporters are being asked to leave meetings. We believe there are important issues of principle at stake about transparency in the way decisions are reached on how public money is spent. We have therefore asked the mayor to supply us with information about what guidelines and criteria are being used to decide when it is acceptable to conduct council business in closed session.
If the council was hoping to avoid public scrutiny by this move, the plan has backfired. In the absence of being able to report the actual meeting, the Oxford Mail reported being thrown out and gave a potted history of previous attempts to exclude the press. This was followed up with an angry editorial describing the councillors as “silly burghers” and arguing that “transparency is clearly a dirty word to the secretive folk who run Witney Town Council. ” The story was picked up by the Guardian and by Hold The Front Page. So much for keeping things under wraps.