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News media in stand-off with Tories over ‘undemocratic’ fees for journalists to attend Conservative conference

Editors are calling on the Conservative Party to scrap “undemocratic and detrimental” fees imposed on the media for attending its annual conference.

National, regional and international news organisations are refusing to sign up to cover the event in the autumn following the party’s decision to impose a fee on attending reporters.

Editors regard the fee as “draconian” and have said it contradicts the party’s claim to be a defender of press freedom. It costs £137 for a journalist to book up until 31 July, rising to £880 after that date.

The issue of the fees has caused deep concern among a coalition of industry bodies including the News Media Association, Society of Editors, News Media Coalition and Foreign Press Association.

The industry bodies have challenged the fees on the basis that any fee for media attendance at party conferences – regardless of the political party – sets a “deeply concerning precedent in a democratic society”.

The organisations said the decision by newsrooms to withhold booking for the event is also being supported by the Press Gallery of Westminster political correspondents.

Prime Minister Liz Truss with husband Hugh O'Leary following her keynote speech on the final day of the Conservative Party Conference (Photo: Leon Neal/Getty)
Liz Truss with husband Hugh O’Leary following her keynote speech on the final day of the 2022 Conservative Party conference (Photo: Leon Neal/Getty)

In a joint statement, the coalition of industry bodies said: “For more than a year, we have been seeking discussion with the Conservative Party to review these charges, as promised.

“This was to find an alternative solution to supposed concerns which the party seeks to address by charging the media for attendance – a decision which we are united in viewing as undemocratic and detrimental to the interests of society and the party itself.

“In a democratic society, all party conferences are of considerable political and public importance and, as such, there should be no charging barrier for journalists to be able to act as the eyes and ears of the public by freely reporting at such events.

“Through objective journalism, the conference also provides a window for the global community to see UK democracy in action.”

The statement comes after the Culture Secretary vowed to protect public service broadcasters and “fearless truth-telling”.

In a speech on 18 May, Lucy Frazer said the Government was “taking steps to increase press freedoms and make sure journalists can do their jobs effectively”, including by guaranteeing the long-term future of “first-class public service broadcasters”.

Speaking at a media conference in London, she said a free press played a “vital role” in protecting democracy, but was “under threat across the world” with the arrest of journalists in places such as Russia.

She added: “No government has all the answers to all the challenges the media faces, but what I can promise you is that my approach will be guided by the following principles – protect our public service broadcasters; stand up for independent voices; and nurture a thriving media landscape which upholds and champions fearless truth-telling.”

The governing party has previously claimed the fees cover admin costs, which it says have risen because of the number of press pass applications from journalists who do not ultimately attend.

But the letter pushed back: “The issue of so-called no-shows is a factor experienced by all popular events of press interest often due to changing daily news agendas.

“We have offered alternative ways to reduce the impact and cost of speculative applications, which have fallen on deaf ears.

“To live up to the Conservative Government’s mantra on press freedom, the accreditation fee for attending the conference must be scrapped.”

A Conservative Party spokesman said: “A modest charge was introduced to discourage over-accreditation by some media outlets.

“At one recent conference, several thousand people who applied for free media accreditation failed to collect their passes, generating large amounts of paper and plastic waste.

“In previous years, police security checks for non-attendees have cost the party tens of thousands of pounds. We do not believe members and other attendees should effectively subsidise this.

“There are a range of exemptions on offer owing to the challenging financial situation many local outlets face.”

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