In a follow-up to guidance issued earlier this year, Eric Pickles, secretary of state for communities and local government, has said he will place the rights of the public to "report, blog, tweet and film" into the Local Audit and Accountability Bill. He hopes this would assist journalists in "unlocking the mysteries of local government and making it more transparent for all".
This is the latest in a series of moves by Pickles to highlight the public's right to cover council meetings on digital platforms. In June, Pickles outlined the rights of journalists and others in a "how-to guide", which he said was based on existing rights set out in the 'secondary legislation' Local Authorities Regulations 2012.
Despite this, "many councils are still not complying", the department said today in a release. And, additionally, it stated, the previous legislation only catered for reporting of executive meetings, and not committee meetings, full council or parish council meetings.
Therefore, Pickles is pursuing the inclusion of these reporting rights, to cover all the above meeting types, through the 'primary legislation' of the Local Audit and Accountability Bill, which will receive its second reading in the House of Commons on Monday (29 October). Journalism.co.uk understands this will take the form of an amendment to the bill, and is not yet available to view.
"An independent local press and robust public scrutiny is essential for a healthy local democracy," Pickles says in the release. "We have given councils more power, but local people need to be able to hold their councils to account.
"We are taking action against town hall Pravdas which are undermining the independent free press, but I want to do more to help the new cadre of hyper-local journalists and bloggers.
According to the release, the legislation will also look to "protect local press from taxpayer funding town hall propaganda sheets", another issue Pickles has sought to tackle.
Filming of council meetings is also taking centre stage in Leeds on Monday, where a campaign is ongoing for filming to be permitted.
As reported on Prolific North by Sarah Hartley, also managing director of Talk About Local, a "draft protocol" has been drawn up by councillors in relation to reporting from meetings, and on Monday, this will "be discussed at a meeting of Leeds Council's General Purposes Committee".
Leeds Trinity University lecturer Richard Horsman, who is also part of the Leeds campaign, said: "It’s interesting to see that Eric Pickles will be putting legislation before Parliament to force councils to open more of their meetings to recording on the same day Leeds City Council is debating its own protocol which would allow for limited audio access, and no filming at all.
"I’d much prefer councils to take the carrot of greater openness, and to engage willingly with those seeking to report local government, rather than face the stick of new laws to force cameras in.
"Open democracy should really not be a contentious issue. It’s common sense in an age of digital technology to apply those resources in Town and City Halls across the country".
Hartley added she gave today's news "a cautious welcome ahead of seeing the fine print".
"What we've seen so far is some confusion over the implementation of the guidelines which were initially issued".
"They only extended to authorities which operated an executive structure and many - including parish and town councils - do not work that way.
"Anything that gives journalists and bloggers an actual right to go about their business of reporting local decision-making would be most welcome."
James Hatts, editor of hyperlocal site London SE1, said he does "welcome the sentiment of Mr Pickle's announcement", but added that the release issued by the department today "doesn't make it at all clear what the amendment will cover".
"Without knowing that it's impossible to say what it will mean", he said.
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