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‘A Deeply Concerning Precedent in a Democratic Society’: Council of Europe Shares Criticism Over Charging Journalists to Cover Party Conference

The move from the governing party has sparked concerns over press freedom

Rishi Sunak at the 2019 Conservative Party Conference. Photo: Allstar Picture Library Ltd/Alamy

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The Council of Europe has shared a damning rebuke of the Conservatives charging journalists at least £137 to attend its conference this autumn. 

The party sparked a row over press freedom after introducing fees for each journalist’s application. The Council of Europe – the pan-European body of which the European Court of Human Rights is a part – has now shared a “media freedom warning” from Reporters Without Borders (RSF), noting that the policy “sets a deeply concerning precedent in a democratic society”.

In a statement on the Council of Europe’s website, the group pointed to the “ruling Conservative Party” sparking anger from “journalists and outlets from across the world”. 

The News Media Society, the Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association are among around 300 reporters and organisations to protest the fees, saying that it is “wrong in principle, a serious media freedom issue and a barrier to open democracy”.

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The £137 charge comes on top of a further £125 charge for using a dedicated media room within the conference centre.

However, the Conservatives have faced questions after confirming to Byline Times that they are exempting selected media outlets from the charges.

Despite initial suggestions the charges would apply to all, Byline Times reported that the party has given some media outlets a “waiver code” which disapplies the entry charge. 

In a statement, a Conservative Party spokesperson previously confirmed that it had applied a “range of exemptions” for some “local” media outlets, suggesting that this was due to “the challenging financial situation many local outlets face”.

However, a party source then told this newspaper that the exemptions had also been extended to some major broadcasters too. Previous statements by the party did not mention that the waiver had also been applied to some broadcasters.

Last month, a party spokesperson failed to respond to multiple requests for comment regarding which national newspapers or magazines had been given waiver codes.

Hundreds of Foreign Press Association members have signed an open letter noting that allowing journalists to report freely on matters of public interest is a “fundamental tenet” of a free and democratic society and that “no such fee exists elsewhere”.

Other political parties allow journalists to attend their conferences for free, on the principle that it is in the public interest for such organisations to receive scrutiny.  

Conservative Party Exempts Selected Media Outlets From Paying To Cover its Conference

The decision to charge journalists to cover the event has been condemned as a threat to media freedom

Deborah Bonetti, director of the Foreign Press Association in London, said: “With close to 300 news organisations from all over the world calling out the Tory Party – with no response from them – now the Council of Europe has [shared] what can only be seen as a deeply embarrassing if not humiliating media freedom warning.”

She added: “For a ruling party to ask journalists to pay to report on their national conference is pretty shameful. It effectively shuts out anyone who cannot pay to attend and puts freelancers, local journalists and foreign correspondents at a clear disadvantage.

“This is likely to have an effect on the UK’s position in the next World Media Freedom Index and, more dangerously, may well inspire other countries to put up similar barriers to media scrutiny.

“If they don’t scrap or refund these fees, the UK should be kicked out of the Media Freedom Coalition. And all for £137.”

Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, welcomed the Council of Europe’s statement: “The cynical and shameful decision of the Tories to impose charges on journalists to attend their party conference, is a clear undermining of press freedom from a Government that is now facing international criticism as a result.”

“No political party should be allowed to introduce costs that effectively filter attendees and prevents public scrutiny of their policy making and activities,” she added.

The NUJ has previously challenged the party on fees, flagging the particularly damaging impact costs will have on smaller local news outlets and freelance journalists.

Reporters Without Borders warned that charging journalists to access an important political gathering “not only interferes with the process of holding politicians to account and keeping the public informed, but also sets a dangerous precedent for other countries”. 

The media freedom warning shared by Council of Europe demands action from the Conservatives to “scrap and refund” the charges for accreditation to the annual conference in Manchester this October. It has asked for a response by 30 September.

A Council of Europe spokesperson said the charges for Conservative Party conference was a “major press freedom issue”.

The Conservative Party was contacted for comment. 

Update 17th July: This piece was amended to note that the warning on the Council of Europe’s website was uploaded by Reporters Without Borders, a CoE partner.

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