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Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

Secret mayor’s meeting challenged

Press Release
Release date: 2 December 2019

Chartered Institute of Journalists Information Tribunal Appeal reveals the threat of a serious setback in compliance with laws on open and accountable local government.

The CIoJ’s appeal is seeking the release under Freedom of Information of the legal advice which endorsed the decision by the Mayor of London and Greater London Authority to hold knife crime murder crisis meetings in private.

In the hearing before Judge Paul Holmes & the Lay Members Pieter De Waal & Ms Rosalind Tatam on 26/11/2019, the GLA explained that by calling the Mayor’s meeting ‘a summit’ and classifying the meeting of the London Assembly’s Crime and Policing Committee as ‘informal’ they were not in breach of the 2014 rules on ‘Open and accountable local government: A guide for the press and public on attending and reporting meetings of local government.’

CIoJ Vice-President Professor Tim Crook described this manoeuvre as “disingenuous and cynical.”

The Mayor of London’s summit was held on 10th April 2018 with Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick and then Home Secretary Amber Rudd attending.

The crisis has not abated and the number of teenagers stabbed to death reached an 11-year high on 23rd November 2019. The figure for 2019 exceeds the 22 teenagers who were fatally stabbed in the whole of 2008.

The London Assembly held the meeting of its Police and Crime Committee ‘calling the Mayor to account’ on the following day in private with the media and public excluded.

Professor Crook told the Information Tribunal these were “gross breaches and disgraceful violations of the Article 10 rights of journalists” to be able to attend and report vital public interest principle local government meetings contemporaneously.

He said banning the press and public was disproportionate, stripped away the protection of qualified privilege for defamation which journalists need when reporting accurately and fairly, and was unprecedented.

He said nothing like this had happened in the post second world history of local government in London.

The lawyer for GLA argued that holding meetings in private was necessary to comply with election purdah rules as members of the London Assembly were standing in local London Borough Council elections.

Professor Crook told the Tribunal that “Purdah” had become “Pravda” for the Greater London Authority with their PR resources doing the exact opposite that rules on political neutrality in local government publicity were set up to prevent.

On the day of the Mayor of London’s summit, with the professional media banned and kicking their heels outside, the Mayor of London’s official Twitter account tweeted a full colour composite image of four photographs of the meeting in progress with a quotation from London Mayor Sadiq Khan.

The Institute’s Freedom of Information Tribunal appeal has been supported by the leader of London Assembly’s Liberal Democrats, Caroline Pidgeon who said:

“I was firmly opposed to the London Assembly Police and Crime Committee being forced to meet in secret last year to discuss knife crime. It was quite frankly embarrassing that a meeting of such importance to Londoners had to be held behind closed doors.

“The interpretation of the ‘purdah’ rules are stopping meaningful scrutiny being undertaken for long periods of time, with the rules kicking in almost every year.”

The Institute has discovered by pursuing the FOI appeal that the legal advice was given after the decision was taken to hold the meetings in private.

The Institute has been briefed by a number of news publishers that this interpretation of election purdah restrictions is having a negative impact on journalistic access to information and local government affairs during election periods.

The Information Tribunal has reserved its ruling for later judgement.

Professor Crook said: “The Institute does have an uphill struggle in this case because there is special protection for legal professional privilege in the advice lawyers give to pubic authorities.”

However, we believe the legal advice needs to be revealed, otherwise vital crisis meetings of this kind during any election period will be held in secret again.’