Saturday, 9 March 2013

The right to report, film and tweet from council meetings in England

Further to the topic of the right of citizen journalists to report directly from court with permission. What about the right to report, film and tweet from council meetings?

In August 2012, Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP announced greater openness and transparency in executive councils meetings. Full announcement here

Eric Pickles said:

"Every decision a council takes has a major impact on the lives of local people so it is crucial that whenever it takes a significant decision about local budgets that affect local communities whether it is in a full council meeting or in a unheard of sub-committee it has got to be taken in the full glare of all the press and any of the public. 
Margaret Thatcher was first to pry open the doors of Town Hall transparency. Fifty years on we are modernising those pioneering principles so that every kind of modern journalists can go through those doors - be it from the daily reporter, the hyper-local news website or the armchair activist and concerned citizen blogger - councils can no longer continue to persist with a digital divide."
  • New legal rights for citizen reporters: Local authorities are now obliged to provide reasonable facilities for members of the public to report the proceedings as well as accredited newspapers (regulation 4). This will make it easier for new ‘social media’ reporting of council executive meetings thereby opening proceedings up to internet bloggers, tweeting and hyperlocal news forums.
  • Holding private meetings: In the past council executives could hold meetings in private without giving public notice. Where a meeting is to be held in private, the executive or committee must provide 28 days notice during which the public may make representations about why the meeting should be held in public. Where the notice requirements for a private meeting and an agreement of the chairman of the relevant overview and scrutiny committee or chairman of the relevant local authority has been obtained, the decision-making body must publish a notice as soon as reasonably practicable explaining why the meeting is urgent and cannot be deferred (regulation 5).
Chris Taggart, of, which has long championed the need to open council business up to public scrutiny, added:

"In a world where hi-definition video cameras are under £100 and hyperlocal bloggers are doing some of the best council reporting in the country, it is crazy that councils are prohibiting members of the public from videoing, tweeting and live-blogging their meetings."
Here's the Thanet District Council Page on OpenlyLocal

This announcement from Eric Pickles had come well after the advice that was sent out to all local authorities by Bob Neill MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department for Communities and Local Government in February 2011. Original PDF of the letter here:
Bob Neill MP
Parliamentary Under Secretary of State
Department for Communities and Local
Eland House
Bressenden Place
London SW1E 5DU  
 Tel: 0303 444 3430
Fax: 0303 444 3986   
23 February 2011  
To All Council Leaders
cc Monitoring Officers   
Dear Colleague,   
Access to Meetings  
As part of the Government’s transparency drive I want to highlight the
importance of your council giving citizens the opportunity to access and
experience their local democracy using modern communication methods. It is essential to a healthy democracy that citizens everywhere are able to feel that their council welcomes them to observe local decision-making and through modern media tools keep others informed as to what their council is doing. 
The mainstream media also needs to be free to provide stronger local
accountability by being able to film and record in meetings without obstruction.  Councils are now faced with important budget decisions affecting the day to day lives of people living and working in their communities. Council meetings have long been open to interested members of the public and recognised journalists, and with the growth of online film, social media and hyper-local online news they should equally be open to ‘Citizen Journalists’ and filming by mainstream media. Bloggers, tweeters, residents with their own websites and users of Facebook and YouTube are increasingly a part of the modern world, blurring the lines between professional journalists and the public. 
There are recent stories about people being ejected from council meetings for blogging, tweeting or filming. This potentially is at odds with the fundamentals of democracy and I want to encourage all councils to take a welcoming approach to those who want to bring local news stories to a wider audience.
The public should rightly expect that elected representatives who have put
themselves up for public office be prepared for their decisions to be as
transparent as possible and welcome a direct line of communication to their electorate. I do hope that you and your colleagues will do your utmost to maximise the transparency and openness of your council.  I do recognise that there are obligations on whoever is filming or publishing information – be it the council itself or a citizen or mainstream journalist – under the Data Protection Act 1998. But I do not see these obligations as preventing access for journalism. Nor are there grounds for any council seeking to obstruct a citizen or other journalist from processing information. 
The Information Commissioner’s Office has told us that:  
‘ In the absence of any other legal barrier to comment, publication,
expression and so on, the Act in and of itself would not prevent such
processing of information.   
In the majority of cases the citizen blogging about how they see the
democratic process working is unlikely to breach the data protection
In the context of photographing or filming meetings, whilst genuine
concerns about being filmed should not be dismissed, the nature of the
activity being filmed – elected representatives acting in the public
sphere – should weigh heavily against personal objections’.   
Moreover there are within the Act itself exemptions from the data protection principles which might apply in the circumstances of the citizen journalist. The first exemption relates to processing of information for journalistic purposes (section 32), the second for the processing of information for domestic purposes (section 36).   
In short transparency and openness should be the underlying principle behind everything councils do and in this digital age it is right that we modernise our approach to public access, recognising the contribution to transparency and democratic debate that social media and similar tools can make.   
I copy this letter to your monitoring officer given their responsibility for advising on your council’s procedures and decision-making arrangements.  
Eric Pickles recently clarified via twitter the right to of the public to report film and tweet council meetings in England: 


  1. Do TDC even allow their cllrs to tweet? I recall there being some fuss made by Shirley Tomlinson a couple of years back because (then) cllr Mark Nottingham was using some sort of digital device to take notes.

  2. Yes, Cllrs can tweet I believe. Why not? Things have moved on lots in last two years.

    1. Oh I'm not saying they shouldn't, and I also think it's a great idea that the public can too. I just know how outdated they are there...

  3. I think they do. I've seen tweets from Will Scobie in meetings. If they can tweet at Leveson Inquiry, am sure it's ok at Thanet Council!

  4. "One Tory councillor in East Devon, Graham Brown, boasted: “If I can’t get planning, nobody will.”

    The councillor claimed he preferred to keep a low profile, but had “access to all the right people for the right clients”. He added: “[I] don’t come cheap. I mean, there are jobs that I do for £1,000, and there are jobs that I do for £20,000 … if I turn a greenfield into a housing estate and I’m earning the developer two or three million, then I ain’t doing it for peanuts.” "

    Seen this Louise?

  5. Yes, have seen that article, Bill. I tweeted about it yesterday. It's a serious issue for Councils to manage.

  6. Louise the world of citizen journalism, that you commendably pioneer, can have an impact. But only if you do investigative journalism. (If you do this you will find yourself being asked to do dangerous or difficult inquiries by the Gazette BTW but that only ends up with them knowing, and who do they tell, and never reporting ask Mike)

    But I predict that you will weary. You may find succour and admiration from a few like minded souls and from toadies.

    But all that ever counts in doing right by all manner of people is the strong man. The rest are those poor timid souls who mock how the strong man stumbles (Roosevelt) Those poor timid souls who troll and pronounce.

    The know alls who will never know victory nor defeat because they fear to enter the arena.

    Occasionally such a timid soul may email telling you facts. But always with the proviso they don't want to get involved. Perhaps you would take the risks and they enjoy any benefits whilst avoiding any consequence.

    I have even been sent facts by trolls who call me for everything on threads. Honestly. One email even said sorry for what I call you on the blog but you should know this ..........

    Best of luck. But you may find that you are more effective if you forego public approbation.

  7. Has TDC ever explained why they do not want the 'Citizen Journalist' to film and tweet from Council Meetings, and why they consider it reasonable to defy Ministers' guidance and requests?

    They may have a very good reason and if so they should tell the electorate.

    I can understand why some in TDC do not want their meetings filmed. They recognise that their antics will wind up on YouTube and they don't want that. To be there amongst the singing dogs, parrots and drunks falling over at weddings would be an affront to their self regard.

    Though it may sound cruel, I always bear in mind that with TDC, save for one or two notable exceptions, we are dealing with pygmy politicians. Politicians who would be out of their depth in a puddle.

  8. Do you think I should ask for an apology for being thrown out for filming? I was suprised that they insisted I go even when I said I'd stop filming and was prepared to give the camera to security.
    Christine Tongue

    1. No apology is due, Christine, rather you should thank them for giving you the martyrdom that you so desperately sought.

    2. At the very minimum an apology is needed.

  9. going to tdc today to make official complaints on the situation that took place tuesday just gone with a certain cllr being pugnasious in his manner for over 30 mins...what is he hiding I question?

  10. The irony is that most press associations provide legal support to their members so if the member had done something actually wrong the redress through the courts would be far better defended.Press associations are not exactly a regulatory body in the way the objecting councillor was hoping. It smacks to me more of point scoring than actually needing protection.