Back in May, I was not alone in castigating Shropshire Council for actions “worthy of a totalitarian state” when it confiscated cameras from members of the public at the beginning of a council meeting. Now it has backed down. The new guidance was issued three days after my colleague, councillor Vivienne Parry submitted a question about the confiscation for the full council meeting on 23 July.
The new guidance is shorter and in line with government legislation put in place last October. The previous guidance had permitted video and audio recording by the public without notice, but not by the media or commercial interests. Use of still cameras was restricted to the first five minutes of a council meeting and required notice two working days beforehand.
The revised guidance published after Viv’s question, allows all manner of recording and social media reporting. The new guidance “requests” two days’ notice is given of recording but does not require it. As with the previous guidance, “blogging and micro-blogging, including twitter is encouraged during council meetings, so long as this does not distract, or disrupt the proceedings of the meeting and provides a true and accurate representation of the proceedings.” No notice is required for blogging and micro-blogging.
That last phrase, “true and accurate representation” is contentious in my view. Those in power routinely complain about the media and people of other political persuasions distorting what they say. Sometimes that is true, but more often that commentators are just taking a different viewpoint or posing difficult questions those in power don’t wish to answer. I don’t think anyone could agree on what a “true and accurate representation” of any contentious topic at a meeting is. The thought of the council scrutinising every tweet and blog to test its ‘truth and accuracy’ is mind-boggling.
It all seems so much more straightforward over in Telford and Wrekin, where no notice of recording a meeting is requested unless bulky equipment is used. The council does say that recordings shouldn’t be edited to “in a way that may ridicule, or show a lack of respect”. That’s perfectly reasonable and much easier to judge than trying to determine a whether anything is “true and accurate representation” – though I wonder how political satire would be treated under Telford’s rules. The rules are also on an easy to find page on its website with a simple search. Shropshire Council rules are hard to find and are buried in Part 5 of its Constitution.
Nevertheless, the new guidance rather belatedly brings Shropshire Council into a modern world which it at times seems reluctant to embrace.
A meeting held in public is exactly that. It does not matter whether the public is watching a YouTube video, reading an account on a blog, receiving status updates on Facebook, scanning a stream of tweets or sitting in the audience.
I don’t think that councillors need to know in advance that a meeting is being reported or broadcast as some have suggested. The only reason I can think of for them wanting to know is to change their behaviour. If that’s the case, then their behaviour is wrong in the first place.
Councils exist to use public money to deliver public services for the public good, and they must do this is in a public way.
On a final point, the answer to the second part of Viv’s question below still blames the confiscation of cameras at the May council meeting on the behaviour of members of the public. I don’t think this account is correct. Members of the pubic protested, but I would not say disruptive, after their cameras were taken away. Another camera was confiscated during the meeting itself at a point when the public was silent. As I have said before:
I find this… utterly risible. Shropshire Council was breaking the law by banning cameras… To blame members of the public for the council’s failure to act within the law is totally unacceptable.
Question to Council 23 July 2015
MRS VIVIENNE PARRY will ask the following question:
To the Leader:
1) When will Part 5 of the Council’s Constitution be updated to bring it into line with the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014?
2) Was removal of cameras from members of the public at the 14 May Council meeting legal, given that these regulations came into force on 6 August 2014?
MR KEITH BARROW, Leader of the Council will reply:
1) Amendments consequential to the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014 have now been made to Part 5 of the Council’s Constitution and are available to view on the Council’s website
2) I was not in the chamber at the time this happened, but I am advised that the Members of the public were asked to leave their cameras at the desk where the minute takers sit in order to calm the meeting down as the atmosphere was beginning to get quite tense. There is nothing unlawful in asking someone to do this. It remains the Chairman’s responsibility to ensure that the use of such equipment does not interfere with the overall integrity of a meeting. In such circumstances and in accordance with relevant legislation, the council may use its “power of exclusion to suppress or prevent disorderly conduct or other misbehaviour at a meeting.