Councillors have objected to having their pictures taken and being questioned about the secret vote to increase ratepayer-funded food by citing a harassment clause set up in the wake of Princess Diana’s death.

This clause for all newspapers is governed by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) after the Princess of Wales died in a car crash in Paris in 1997 due to the “grossly negligent driving of the paparazzi” who had been pursuing her.

Now, the Council is citing this clause because, last month, a reporter and photographer from The Impartial Reporter stood outside a Council building as they arrived for a Council meeting and asked them about indulging in free food such as peppered chicken and quiche.

It is the toughest and most explicit clause in the Editors’ Code of Conduct which states that journalists must not engage in “intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit”.

In a leaked e-mail to councillors, seen by this newspaper, the Council is claiming that questioning and photographing councillors on their way to a Council meeting constitutes “persistent pursuit” – which is listed in the Code relating to the death of the late British Royal who was often referred by the media as ‘The People’s Princess’.

The Council official who sent the e-mail advised councillors to provide their “individual consent” to make an official complaint to the press regulator. Two of the councillors mistakenly ‘replied all’ including Stephen McCann and the Ulster Unionist’s Allan Rainey who hadn’t even been photographed.

While Princess Diana was chased relentlessly by members of the press, often in cars, our councillors were asked questions by reporter William Smith who walked alongside them.

Instead of asking the councillors about their private lives, McVitty took their photographs and Smith asked three questions that were in the public interest:

  • Do you think it is right that ratepayer’s money is spent on food for Councillors while other services are in difficulty?
  • Is it right that the vote was made in secret
  • What are you eating tonight - on the ratepayer?

Councillor Greene, shut down the debate before he could be asked the first question.

“It’s that pathetic I wouldn’t even answer it,” he said.

Councillor McCann, said: “The health service is falling apart. GP services are about to collapse locally. People can’t get a GP. On the A5, people are getting killed, day in and day out. And you want to talk about food?”

In January, councillors tucked into 10 chicken curries, and six beef stews before the Council meeting. During an Environmental Services meeting, two of them had soup and sandwiches while six had soup and sandwiches before a planning meeting later in the month.

In February, 10 councillors ate peppered chicken and six had beef stew before the council meeting and five had soup and sandwiches before Environmental Services. Before the Planning meeting, six had soup and sandwiches – but 13 tucked into a “hot buffet” before a “Special Council” meeting.

As previously reported the Council has been searching the email accounts of its councillors and staff to find out who leaked information on its free food to this newspaper.

Chief Executive Alison McCullagh wrote to all councillors to confirm that the council had reported The Impartial Reporter to IPSO and the Information Commissioner after we reported how a vote to increase its hot food servings was held in secret. It is one of a number of complaints by the Council to the regulator about this newspaper in recent months.

On Tuesday night’s Council meeting, Sinn Féin John Feeley hit out at journalists, saying “some in the media are taking cheap shots at us”.

Hours earlier his party colleague Sinn Féin MLA Linda Dillon spoke generally about journalism, saying, “press freedom is a key pillar of any healthy democracy”.