A fortnight ago, Roy Greenslade, the Guardian’s media commentator and professor of journalism at City University, reported here the view of Communities Secretary Eric Pickles that members of the public could film council meetings.
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 hyper-local 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.
His comments came as he issued new guidance on what councils should do to make their meetings more transparent.
Here’s the relevant section from that guide on filming:
Can I film the meeting?
Council meetings are public meetings. Elected representatives and council officers acting in the public sphere should expect to be held to account for their comments and votes in such meetings. The rules require councils to provide reasonable facilities for any member of the public to report on meetings. Councils should thus allow the filming of councillors and officers at meetings that are open to the public.
The Data Protection Act does not prohibit such overt filming of public meetings. 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.
Just a few hours before its full council meeting tonight, the most senior officer at Tower Hamlets, Stephen Halsey, has just given the minister a two-fingered rebuff.
Here’s a letter he’s just sent to senior councillors:
Dear Mayor Rahman & Group Leaders
Council Meeting 26th June 2013
I thought it would be useful to clarify a couple of points where questions have arisen in relation to Wednesday evening’s Council meeting.
Monitoring Officer advice
Some Members expressed concern at the April Council meeting that no officer was present with delegated powers from the Monitoring Officer to advise on a potential amendment to the Constitution.
The Monitoring Officer is currently on leave and will not be present at Wednesday’s meeting. A senior legal officer will be in attendance with delegated powers to advise on legal matters but this does not include power to agree any changes to the Constitution.
This is in line with the requirement in the Constitution itself, that such changes may only be made by the Council after consideration of the proposal by the Monitoring Officer. Unless the proposed change is considered to be ‘trivial’, some time will be required for this consideration. It would be helpful if Constitutional changes were not the subject of late motions moved with little or no notice. If such changes are moved, it may be necessary for officers to take the proposal away and report back to a subsequent meeting.
More generally, the submission of late motions or other items without notice to the Council meeting does not promote considered decision making or transparency. The rules around giving notice of proposals are there for a reason, and all proposals put to the Council should be subject to appropriate officer advice.
I would therefore ask all Members to refrain from moving late items on any subject unless it relates to a genuine emergency.
I am aware that there are comments circulating on the web suggesting that Wednesday’s Council meeting will be filmed, presumably by someone in the public gallery. These follow a statement issued by Eric Pickles MP in which he apparently indicated that the Government has changed the law so that Councils must allow people to blog, tweet and film meetings.
I should clear up a misapprehension in this regard, in relation to the Council meeting nothing has changed and there is no obligation for the Council to allow members of the press or public to film the meeting. The Council’s Constitution provides that ‘No photography or video or audio recording of any kind by Members, guests or members of the public may take place at any Council meeting without the express permission of the Speaker’ (Council Procedure Rule 27.1), and this remains the case.
Where requests have been made to previous Speakers to give such permission, officers have advised that this should not be agreed and this remains my position for a number of reasons. These include possible reputational damage to the authority – or worse, action against individuals – resulting from publication of material that may be a partial record of events, presented out of context or even edited to be misleading; and the potential infringement of individuals’ rights to privacy, including members of the public and officers who have not given their permission to be filmed.
Officers have therefore advised the Speaker that, in their view, she should not agree any request from a third party to film the meeting and I understand that the Speaker has supported that position.
Looking forward it may be possible to agree arrangements for the Council’s own video service to address the above points in a considered way and promote the transparency that we all support. However I do not consider that allowing unregulated and potentially damaging third party filming is the best way to achieve this, particularly as there is, in fact, no requirement to do so.
Head of Paid Service & Corporate Director Communities, Localities & Culture
Reputational damage?? To Tower Hamlets council??
So, he’s saying the council’s constitution specifically bars filming. And any change to the council’s constitution would need the consideration of the Monitoring Officer. But because she (Isabella Freeman, who is in the middle of suing her employer, remember) has been allowed to take a holiday on the night of full council meeting, any proposed amendment would not likely see the light of day.
And with that decree (sent, ironically, just a few hours before proceedings), our highly paid officers have ensured darkness remains over the monthly disgrace that is our full council meeting.