A year or two ago, I blogged a lot about getting local councils to transmit their meetings online, for voters to see what was going on. This was sparked by the event of @caebrwyn being arrested for filming at a council meeting at Carmarthenshire county hall.
I found it strange that a council would go to the trouble of calling the police on someone filming a meeting, which was open to the public. Surely the public should be allowed to see and hear what was being discussed and decided in their name at county hall.
As a result of this, I, and a few others went about making requests under the freedom of information act for information on what councils were doing to allow filming, and broadcasting in council meetings. As I recall, it was allowed at the discretion of the chairperson, although few councils bothered to broadcast their meetings online.
It was good to read this article today, and encouraging to see that more councils are now attempting to use the internet to open access to local democracy. This certainly makes democracy far more transparent, especially at the level that impacts on citizen’s every day lives. It would seem that £1.25m will be available to install broadcasting equipment at county halls.
Although this blog made it to the longlist of best political blog in the Welsh Blog Awards; it has, unfourtunately, not been lucky enough to make it to the short list.
However @caebrwyn’s (Jacqui Thomson) blog has made it to the short list, and a very well done to her! There is a ‘people’s choice award’ for the blog where you all can vote, and so I urge all of you to go and vote for carmarthenshireplanning.blogspot.com. The blog has been working constantly to open up local government decision making, and to attain the right to film at council meetings, a cause fully supported on this blog!
It been a couple of months since I began enquiring into local authorities’ attitudes to blogging, tweeting, and in particular filming at their meetings. All of Wales’ 22 authorities have sent a reply to my enquiry into policies they have on this issue which can be seen here. It would seem that most councils do not have extensive or definite policies on the issue of the public filming at council meetings. What is clear is that most councils leave permission to film at council meetings at the discretion of mayors or, in most cases to the council chairperson. This is, of course a reasonable policy, however there are no guidelines for chairpeople to follow, which outlining under what circumstances can they allow or refuse filming. When I attempted to ask about such guidelines my requests were refused due to their “similarity” to my initial requests.
It is interesting to note, however, that the Welsh Government has not given any information or guidance to Welsh councils on this issue. I asked,
“Under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, please provide copies of
B) discussions (emails / memos)
sent to all or any Welsh councils relating to the following:
1) filming of council meetings
2) tweeting at council meetings
3) blogging of council meetings”
The response was:
“I have not found any information that fits this description. The Minister for Local Government and Communities has not issued any advice, directives or memos to Welsh councils regarding this matter.”
Of course the Welsh Government would argue that they leave such issues to the local authorities, however, this lessaiz fare attitude isn’t always the case in Welsh Government and local authority relations.
With Carmarthenshire County Council continuing to show the rest of Wales how to avoid scrutiny and stifle the democratic process, I received a response from my regional AM concerning filming at council meetings. Ok it wasn’t a response from my AM as such, rather it was a relaying of the Local Authorities Minister’s view. Here’s Carl Sargeant reply.
It would seem that the minister thinks that filming without prior consent shouldn’t be allowed; fair enough say you, however this is just licence for controlling chief executives, mayors and chairpersons to avoid transparency which suppresses local democracy. The minister also explains that he disagrees with filming people without their knowledge and permission, again fair enough; however, councillors are public representatives and are acting publicly in council meetings, so should be ready for people to film them while debating and voting on matters that will affect their constituents.
However, I contacted the AM regarding her view on the principle of filming should be allowed in council meetings. However, the principle isn’t expressly discussed in the reply, but the minister does outline that the Welsh Government does support councils’ engagement with the public. The minister has not, as of yet, set out guidelines for councils on this issue as shown in my recent FOI request, he does encourage councils to make the maximum effort in engaging the public in their proceedings. However without guidelines councils won’t do anything they don’t have to. This is all ambiguous stuff, with the minister relying on good will, and as we have seen, some councils are short of that.
It was good to see that the minister commends Carmarthenshire’s plans to webcast proceedings, and that it is an example to other councils. However a similar idea (Carmarthen TV) has been mooted for a while and as of yet is still to be seen. I suppose time will tell.
I must apologise for my blog being quiet recently. Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about letting you all know about my findings regarding my FOI into filming. I have had a few responses which I will blog about, needless to say there will be a theme running through the responses I have received.
Tonight I received a reply from Swansea council regarding filming and photography at council meetings. It would seem that a councillor has already fallen foul of their policy of taking photographs at meetings, where he was forced to remove photos he had taken down from his Facebook page.
This isn’t something unusual with our local authorities. Neither is the standing order requiring permission form the chairperson to take photographs or film at council meetings. However, after asking, and gaining permission to take photographsother Swansea councillors objected to this claiming that it would be an invasion of their PRIVACY!!!
Below is the relevant part from the minutes of the meeting where this was discussed (31/3/11)
201. PHOTOGRAPHY AT A COUNCIL MEETING
The Leader of the Main Opposition Political Group stated that Councillor R Speht had breached Council protocol and had taken photographs at a Council meeting and had published them onto his Facebook account. He asked Councillor R Speht to remove the images and to apologise for his actions.
Councillor R Speht stated that the images had now been removed and offered a full apology to Council for his actions. He also sought permission from the Chair of Council for him to be allowed to take photographs at this Council Meeting.
The Chair of Council allowed the request.
(Note: A large number of Councillors objected to this and stated that they wished to maintain their right to privacy and that no image taken by Councillor R Speht should be published without those Councillors in the picture giving their consent.)
Surely standing, and getting elected isn’t the best idea if you want to protect your own privacy! These people claim public money in expenses and yet are quite content in blocking transparency in their meetings!
Today another of my FOI came to fruition with Powys county council replying to my request about filming tweeting and blogging at their meetings. It is quickly becoming clear that councils tend to only allow filming at meetings with permission from the chairperson. However no council go on to clarify what the criteria chairpeople use to make the decision to allow filming or not. Here’s what Powys has to say in their rules and procedures document,
“20. RECORDING OF MEETINGS OF THE COUNCIL
No recording shall be made of the proceedings of meetings of the Council whether audio or visual and by whatever method except with the express authorisation of the meeting. If a person records the proceedings of any meeting (or causes such recording to be effected) without authorisation then the Chair will order their removal from the meeting room and shall not permit them to be admitted to a further meeting except on a written undertaking to desist from such recording ”
The same applies to all committee meetings.
Yesterday I received a reply to my FOI request from Anglesey regarding their stance on filming, tweeting and blogging at their meetings (Link below). To put it simply, Anglesey has no policy nor any standing orders regarding filming at council meetings. However in an e-mail released under the request it is made clear that “Historically,it is unlikely that the recording of public meetings by the public would be tolerated.” It does, however concede that media are allowed in to film beginning of meetings (councillors entering etc.)
It is, however, to note that the council are piloting audio recordings which will be put on their websites, post meeting. Why pilot audio and not film? It is also worth noting that the arrest in Carmarthenshire of @caebrwyn has gained the attention of council officers in Anglesey at least.
After submitting nineteen FOI requests to Welsh councils, I have heard back form one. Rhondda Cynon Taff have recently amended their constitution (20.1) to include the following rule on filming and taking photographs at their council meetings:
“Proceedings at meetings may not be photographed, videoed, sound recorded or transmitted in anyway outside the meeting without prior permission of the Mayor. Failure to comply with this rule may invoke Rule 19.4 (Members to leave meeting) and 20.1 (Removal of members of the public).”
So what would happen to you under rule 20.1? Well the following…
“If a member of the public interrupts proceedings, the Mayor will warn the person concerned. If they continue to interrupt, the Mayor will order their removal from the meeting room.”
It is unclear how holding a phone (or any recording equipment) up in the public gallery could “interrupt proceedings”. It is also unclear on what criteria the mayor will allow or disallow filming at council meetings. I have replied to the council to clarify this point, and I am currently awaiting a reply.