The annual Conservative party conference in Manchester this autumn may see empty seats in the press rows, as media organizations across the political spectrum refuse to pay the recently imposed fees. Last year, the Conservative party introduced a fee of £137 for each journalist’s application, making it the only British political party to charge for press accreditation. This summer, a broad coalition of newsrooms is challenging the charge, arguing that paying for media access sets a bad and undemocratic precedent.
The News Media Association, Society of Editors, News Media Coalition, and Foreign Press Association are among the industry bodies concerned about the new price tag on reporting the internal political debates of the ruling party. In a joint statement issued on Saturday, the groups challenging the charges said that in a democratic society, all party conferences are of considerable political and public importance. Therefore, 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.
Normally attended by hundreds of columnists, editors, and reporters, this year’s Conservative party conference may see a widespread boycott. The joint statement explained that a promised review of the fees had not happened. For more than a year, they 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 they view as undemocratic and detrimental to the interests of society and the party itself.
A Conservative party spokesman described the charge as “modest” and said it was to discourage over-accreditation. They added that 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.
The row comes after the culture secretary vowed to protect “fearless truth-telling.” In a speech earlier this month, Lucy Frazer said the government was taking steps to increase press freedoms and make sure journalists can do their jobs effectively. Speaking to a media conference in London, she said that no government has all the answers to all the challenges the media faces, but her approach would be guided by the following principles – protect public service broadcasters, stand up for independent voices, and nurture a thriving media landscape that upholds and champions fearless truth-telling.