Eric Pickles
Hyperlocal bloggers and citizen journalists should be given the same routine access to council meetings as the mainstream media, local government secretary Eric Pickles urged local authorities this week.

According to a report by the Department for Local Government and Communities, Pickles also called on councils to open up their public meetings to online broadcasters and routinely allow filming of public discussions. Local government minister Bob Neill has written to all councils calling on them to adopt this "modern day approach" and encourage greater openness.

Commenting in the report, Pickles warns that some councils which apply an "analogue interpretation" of press access rules and limit this to more traditional forms of the press are "holding back a new wave of local scrutiny".

"Fifty years ago, Margaret Thatcher changed the law to make councils open their meetings to the press and public. This principle of openness needs to be updated for the 21st century. More and more local news comes from bloggers or citizen journalists telling us what is happening at their local council.

"Many councils are internet-savvy and stream meetings online, but some don't seem to have caught up with the times and are refusing to let bloggers or hyper-local news sites in. With local authorities in the process of setting next year's budget this is more important than ever.

"Opening the door to new media costs nothing and will help improve public scrutiny. The greater powers and freedoms that we are giving local councils must be accompanied by stronger local accountability."

In the letter sent to councils yesterday, Neill reminded councils that local authority meetings are already open to the general public, which "raises concerns about why in some cases bloggers and press have been barred".

The letter also sought to reassure councils that giving greater access "will not contradict data protection law requirements following concerns over personal information".

Reacting to Pickles' comments on his blog David Higgerson, who is head of multimedia for Trinity Mirror Regionals, warned that on the while the issue is not about who has what access, but the way in which local government operates.

"Liveblogging from council meetings should be an essential part of a political journalist’s job – but it’s important that we don’t confuse being able to liveblog with believing we’re holding a council to account," he said.

"So, even if we now have a situation where hyperlocal bloggers and the mainstream media are treated on an equal footing when it comes to what you can do in the council chamber,  we won’t actually be any closer to what Pickles described as scrutiny of local government.

"Any local government journalist will tell you that the real stories from councils aren’t generally found in the council chamber. Some stories begin life on a council agenda, but it’s probably always been the case that the best stories come from hanging around in corridors and getting your face known."

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