Journalists banned from community meeting as Croydon Council chief executive refuses to be 'scrutinised by press'
Croydon Council chief executive Jon Rouse has come under fire for suggesting it was not his job to be scrutinised by the press after he raised serious concerns about reporters being at a community meeting.
Journalists were last night told to leave the meeting in West Croydon after Mr Rouse, said he felt "uncomfortable" with their presence.
Members of the West Croydon Community Forum voted in favour of excluding three journalists, including a Croydon Guardian reporter, after Mr Rouse warned it would "be a very different meeting" if they remained.
The press had been invited by the deputy chairman of the forum to attend what it had described as a public meeting at Croydon Voluntary Action resource centre in London Road, where the council chief was answering questions about the regeneration of West Croydon.
But Mr Rouse, whose renumeration to run the council last year was £248,362 including pension contributions, told the meeting after his arrival: "I just feel uncomfortable about this situation. It's not appropriate for an officer to be placed in this position. It is going to be a very different meeting if the press are here.
"It is not my job to place myself in a position in which I have to defend council policy and have my words scrutinised and reported on by the press. That is the place of our democratically elected politicians."
The move saw one resident who had attended the meeting walk out in protest. About 25 people had attended the meeting.
The leader of the council's Labour group today described it as "deeply disturbing" that Mr Rouse had been unwilling to speak at an open forum in the presence of journalists.
Councillor Tony Newman said: "I have always been a passionate believer of a free press. It is fundamental to our democracy.
"In a week in Croydon that has seen our libraries handed over to property developers in a deal that is shrouded in secrecy, I find this deeply disturbing and I hope it is something I never see the light of again."
Croydon Council did not comment directly on Mr Rouse's comments about press scrutiny but said the meeting was not public. Invites by the forum on social networking site Twitter had said it was an open meeting, and it had been described in the same terms at the meeting before Mr Rouse's arrival.
A spokesman for the council said: "The West Croydon Community Forum (WCCF) and officers had a productive meeting discussing issues such as parking and business support.
"The meeting was scheduled by WCCF as one of their regular discussions with officers. As it wasn’t scheduled to be a public meeting, once the press were there, WCCF members voted on the issue and asked the media to leave.
"It appears that there had been a misunderstanding caused by someone who tweeted invites to the media. WCCF publicises its public meetings on its website and the media and members of the public attend those public meetings, however this meeting was not a public meeting and was not publicised on the website."
Robert Oxley, Campaign Manager at the TaxPayers' Alliance, that campaigns for accountability on how taxpayers' money is spent, said: "Politicians and bureaucrats don't get to pick and chose when they are scrutinised by the media. Strong local journalism is important as it holds councils to account and helps inform residents about how their money is spent."
Some residents reacted angrily on Twitter to the news the press had been excluded from the meeting.
Paul Williams tweeted: 'ah, bless Rouse. Must be awful earning £230k/year & people expect you to be accountable!' and Marzia Nicodemi-Ehik tweeted: Arrogant behaviour of #Croydon Council CEO at WCCF meeting tonight. Press asked to leave. I was asked why I stepped out of my ward."
Councillor Simon Hall tweeted: "Unless very specific reason seems like massive lack of openness & transparency!"