Serving professional journalism since 1912

Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

How the Chartered Institute of Journalists challenged the Mayor of London and Greater London Authority for turning ‘purdah into Pravda’

The Chartered Institute of Journalists is urging the Secretary of State for local government to take action to stop councils using ‘Purdah Rules’ to shut out the media and public from important meetings during election campaigns.

The Greater London Assembly building on the south bank of the River Thames. Image: Tim Crook

This follows the handing down of a 24 page Tribunal judgement on April 21st 2020 highlighting that the Mayor of London’s office and Greater London Authority (GLA) did not seek legal advice before deciding to hold a knife crime summit and follow-up police and crime scrutiny committee meeting in private.

They only sought to find out if their decisions relating to the meetings 10th and 11th April 2018 were lawful when challenged by news organisations such as Sky, ITV, the BBC and LBC, and one of their own assembly members.

The Mayor’s summit hosted by Sadiq Khan included participation by the Home Secretary, who was then Amber Rudd, and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick.

There was consternation about the decision to exclude the media and public on the grounds of local Borough elections because these high-profile meetings tackling the terrible rising toll of knife murders of young people were being organised by a regional government body that was not up for election.

While journalists had to kick their heels outside, the Mayor of London’s own public relations machinery was happily taking photographs inside which they tweeted immediately afterwards; hence Professor Crook’s quip during the Information Tribunal hearing that ‘purdah had turned into Pravda.’

Mayor of London’s Tweet from knife crime murder summit in April 2018 that excluded the media and the public.

Many aspects of this lamentable affair came to light as a result of the Institute’s request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

The Chartered Institute of Journalists launched a Freedom of Information appeal to find out what that legal advice was in order to prevent other local authorities doing the same thing when elections take place at any level involving serving councillors.

Liberal Democrat Assembly member Caroline Pigeon provided a statement of support which was handed to the Tribunal during a public hearing where the GLA were represented by counsel Christopher Knight.

Caroline explained: ‘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.

She added: ‘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.

‘Some restrictions should apply specifically to Assembly Members who are candidates standing for election to another body, but I fail to see why it is necessary to totally suspend key activities or to force meetings to be held in private.

‘Far from upholding confidence in the political system the interpretation of the rules simply brings elected politicians into ridicule. The basic principle that open government is good government must be upheld.’

Judge Holmes said in his ruling released 21st April that Institute President Professor Tim Crook had submitted that the holding of these meetings in private was unlawful and a ‘disgraceful breach’ of Article 10 Freedom of Expression:

‘He referred to the number of young persons who had been the victims of knife crime, and drew analogies with the Grenfell Fire enquiry. He disputed the propriety of the GLA calling informal meetings to circumvent their obligations of transparency and accountability.

As he put it, “Purdah” had become “Pravda”. It was not enough that the participants could send tweets from the meetings or could be questioned about what happened after the event. The GLA account after the event was more “Pravda”, and was spin doctoring.’

Judge Holmes decided that the high threshold of preserving legal professional privilege meant the FOI appeal could not succeed.

This was because the legal advice was sought after GLA feared the news media would take them to judicial review.

The Judge appreciated this was something the Institute, a charity and trade union for journalists, did not have the financial resources to pursue.

Ruling in Institute’s FOI appeal challenge for legal advice over excluding media and public from significant Greater London Authority knife-crime meetings.

The Institute has been at the forefront of challenging this disturbing trend of public authorities deciding to hold significant decision-making and consultative meetings behind closed doors simply because elections are taking place.

The appeal heard on November 26th last year elucidated the fact that these decisions are being taken without even seeking legal advice beforehand:

Judge Holmes explained: ‘The advice, however, was not the source or origin of the decision, nor did the legal opinion persuade the GLA to do anything. The GLA took the decision before, and without obtaining, any legal advice, and then took legal advice when that decision was questioned, initially by a Member, and then by representatives of the media.’

The Institute presented a robust and significant challenge on behalf of journalists’ rights and freedom of expression and this was acknowledged by the ruling:

‘(a)Factors in favour of disclosure:
The need for transparency and openness in public affairs
The unusual and controversial nature of the decision to exclude the press and the public from the meetings
The considerable and legitimate public interest in the subject matter of the meetings The qualified Article 10 rights of the press to information held by public authorities.’

The Tribunal concluded that the exemption on legally privileged advice should remain because of:

‘The fact that the advice was given after the decisions to hold the meetings in private had been taken, and was not the reason for the decisions being taken;
The timing of the request so close to the decision, which was at the time when the decision could have been the subject of legal proceedings in which the public authority would be prejudiced by having to disclose its legal advice.’

The problem here for media freedom is that powerful and well-resourced news media publishers threatened judicial review, but did not follow it up.

CIoJ President Tim Crook said: ‘We have sought to fight for the interests of professional journalists, challenge and shine a light on these by challenging grotesque abuses of open government and we exposed exposing a practice that needs to be stopped.’

‘The lesson to be learned here is that mainstream and well-resourced news organisations should follow-up these instances of local government behind closed doors with immediate judicial review.’