Councils should allow public meetings to be reported via social media and recorded on film, guidance published by the secretary of state for communities and local government, Eric Pickles, states.
The guidance aims to set out the rights of the public - including, as specified in the overall announcement, "journalists and bloggers" - to access public council meetings and document the proceedings. This is based on The Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations, which applied from September last year.
"The new guidance explicitly states that councillors and council officers can be filmed at council meetings, and corrects misconceptions that the Data Protection Act somehow prohibits this", the department for communities and local government said in a release. The 14-page guide "also outlines the assorted rights that taxpayers have to access council papers and documents".
According to the guidance, members of the council "should expect to be held to account for their comments and votes in such meetings", and should also "provide reasonable facilities for any member of the public to report on meetings".
The guide adds that the Data Protection Act should not be used as a reason to "prohibit such overt filming of public meetings", although "councils may reasonably ask for the filming to be undertaken in such a way that it is not disruptive or distracting to the good order and conduct of the meeting".
"As a courtesy, attendees should be informed at the start of the meeting that it is being filmed; we recommend that those wanting to film liaise with council staff before the start of the meeting.
"The council should consider adopting a policy on the filming of members of the public speaking at a meeting, such as allowing those who actively object to being filmed not to be filmed, without undermining the broader transparency of the meeting."
Social media reporting
As well as establishing the fact that councils should allow public meetings to be filmed, the guidance also refers to social media coverage, adding that: "bloggers, tweeters, Facebook and YouTube users, and individuals with their own website, should be able to report meetings."
"You should ask your council for details of the facilities they are providing for citizen journalists."
While the regulations apply only to courts in England, Pickles also makes a point to call specifically on the Welsh authorities to offer "the same rights as those in England now have".
In January, Journalism.co.uk reported on the difficulties local media and bloggers had reported when trying to gain permission to tweet from a Wrexham County Borough Council meeting. The Daily Post launched a Right to Tweet campaign in response.
At the time the north Wales council said "proceedings at meetings may not be photographed, videoed, sound recorded or transmitted in any way outside the meeting without prior permission of the chair", as set out in its constitution. However, the council last month agreed a change to this part of its constitution "to allow the use of social media in its meetings".
The section now states that "use of text based social media such as Twitter, Facebook etc., and SMS text messaging by members who are not appointed to the body whose meeting they are attending, the press and the public is permitted during meetings provided that this does not cause a nuisance or annoyance to others attending the meeting".
The council also added in a statement today that it "has also been allocated some funding to assist with the development of webcasting council meetings and the council is actively considering all its options to make best use of this funding".
Local media response
Along with the release of today's guidance, Pickles added in a statement: "I want to stand up for the rights of journalists and taxpayers to scrutinise and challenge decisions of the state. Data protection rules or health and safety should not be used to suppress reporting or a healthy dose of criticism.
"Modern technology has created a new cadre of bloggers and hyperlocal journalists, and councils should open their digital doors and not cling to analogue interpretations of council rules.
"Councillors shouldn’t be shy about the public seeing the good work they do in championing local communities and local interests".
Reflecting on the latest direction from Pickles, managing editor of hyperlocal site The Lincolnite, Daniel Ionescu, said "this is welcomed news".There is no excuse now for councils to ban people from reporting council meetings, whether it's via Twitter, liveblogs, or even filming and recording, which have been contentious issues before in some areas of the countryDaniel Ionescu, the Lincolnite
"There is no excuse now for councils to ban people from reporting council meetings, whether it's via Twitter, liveblogs, or even filming and recording, which have been contentious issues before in some areas of the country," he said.
"Some local authorities still have some work to do in making the documents available well in advance of the meetings, but this is a great step towards a more open local government.
"While here in Lincolnshire councils have been open to the modern ways of reporting, this is welcomed news for journalists at local papers across the country, as well for independent new media publications and hyperlocal bloggers."
Digital publishing director for Trinity Mirror, regionals, David Higgerson, added that the guidance published today acts as "more than a clarification".
Until today local authorities had "too much wiggle room". The new guidance has "put the ball clearly in the court of local authorities to make it possible for people to film".
He added that there remain "many grey areas within the regulations", such as the procedure if several people want to film a meeting. But he added that the reiteration of the rules and council's responsibilities by Pickles "is a really good sign".
He also highlighted the fact there are councils which "are very proactive" when it comes to transparency and accountability, citing the example of Birmingham Council, which offers a livestream of its meetings.
Head of online editorial development at Newsquest Digital Media Nigel Vincent also welcomed the guidance.
"No longer will councils be able to use spurious justifications to prevent local journalists from filming their meetings," he said.
"While not every episode from the chamber will be a ratings winner, the fact we are now free to film the big decisions and provide our audiences with real-time footage of their elected representatives in action is frankly overdue.
"There’s no hiding behind closed doors anymore – could be an eye-opener for some!"
Editor of the Daily Post in north Wales Alison Gow said the latest information on what is expected of councils, is "good news for England's mainstream press and hyperlocals".We know short, relevant video clips are hugely engaging when embedded in articles as are live streams, and this is only going to add to people's perception and understanding of their local authority's workAlison Gow, the Daily Post
"I hope we see something similar being introduced in Wales. Councils need and want more people engaged in local democracy, and I see this move as mutually beneficial – allowing different and more detailed ways of telling a story, and putting the audience 'in the room'.
"We know short, relevant video clips are hugely engaging when embedded in articles as are live streams, and this is only going to add to people's perception and understanding of their local authority's work.
"I'd hope Assembly Members and councillors will be asking when this is coming to Wales. The success of the Daily Post's 'right to tweet' campaign shows that authorities are open to change. We managed to get more people and authorities talking and thinking about the importance of reporters covering meetings live, and that led to agreements being reached.
"Allowing filming is the next step on the road."
Damian Radcliffe, who is an honorary research fellow at Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, and also produced a report on the state of hyperlocal media in the UK for NESTA last year, questioned how much of an impact today's development will have in reality.
"This move by CLG will be welcomed by citizens and hyperlocal publishers alike, but to some extent we've heard it all before," he said.
"Back in 2011 Eric Pickles called on councils to let hyperlocal bloggers tweet as well as film council proceedings and local government minister Bob Neill wrote to all councils encouraging them to offer the same level of access as traditional media.
"In many cases this clearly hasn't happened, just as we continue to see many council publications flagrantly breaching the government's publicity code; despite frequent promises to crack down on town hall Pravdas.
"CLG needs to show some teeth and enforce their guidelines, otherwise the full democratic potential of hyperlocal media will continue to go unrealised."
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