Could new councils be more transparent from the start? Pickles, Castlereagh & a journalist ejected for tweeting

In England …

Local government secretary Eric Pickles issued a guide in June to remind English local authorities that under The Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 they must allow the public to film and record meetings. He said:

Every decision a council takes has a major impact on the lives of local people so it is crucial that whenever it takes a significant decision about local budgets that affect local communities whether it is in a full council meeting or in a unheard of sub-committee it has got to be taken in the full glare of all the press and any of the public.

Margaret Thatcher was first to pry open the doors of Town Hall transparency. Fifty years on we are modernising those pioneering principles so that every kind of modern journalists can go through those doors – be it from the daily reporter, the hyper-local news website or the armchair activist and concerned citizen blogger – councils can no longer continue to persist with a digital divide.

Meanwhile, back in the dark ages Northern Ireland …

Members of the public attending Lisburn City Council meetings will find a laminated card on their seat remind them that the use of cameras and other electronic equipment is prohibited in the council chamber. It’s a pen and paper council.

I remember sitting one night before the meeting started, prodding at an iPad deleting some mail. A council official walked over and reminded me that I’d need to put it away before the council meeting started.

The same evening I noticed that a son of a councillor sat a few seats away and was not approached at all despite him clearly continually stabbing away at his phone with his thumbs (texting?) during the meeting. Different rules for different surnames? A few years before, his elected father sat reading Slugger O’Toole on a council laptop while fellow members paid tribute to a recently deceased councillor.

Perhaps it is entirely appropriate that Lisburn will be twinned with Castlereagh under the local government reforms. Castlereagh will win no prizes for transparency or accountability.

castlereagh borough council logoThe minutes from Castlereagh Council from Thursday 26 September 2013 are a reminder of how difficult it is to report council meetings (even as a journalist) as well as the practice of moving much business “in committee” and keeping discussions out of public record.

2013/480 : MINUTES (7.24 pm)

Councillor Long referred to the Council minutes of 22 August 2013 and proposed that Minute Ref: 2013/474 be amended to include a comment made by Alderman Spratt in the words “Slap it up you and slap it up the rest of you”.

The proposal was seconded by Councillor Kamble. Alderman Spratt denied that he had used those words.

The proposal was put to the meeting and 5 members voted in favour, 13 members voted against and 3 members abstained. The proposal was therefore declared not carried.

A journalist in attendance rather succinctly captured this debate with her tweets:




Ten minutes later the council meeting was adjourned when the reporter was discovered to be at work.

Alderman Spratt advised that it had come to his notice that a journalist present at the meeting had been taking photographs and was tweeting in relation to proceedings at the meeting. It was proposed by Alderman Spratt, seconded by Councillor White and

RESOLVED (7.35 pm): that the meeting be adjourned and that the Chief Executive remove the journalist from the Chamber.

The meeting was then adjourned while the Chief Executive escorted the journalist from the Chamber. The meeting reconvened at 7.36 pm.

Different councils have different rules and very different appreciations of what should be allowed – for journalists, never mind the public. Belfast City Council is remarkably transparent when compared with its neighbours.

Worth noting that a councillor must have been distracted from the meeting and looking at Twitter to be aware that this had happened during the meeting! And if Alderman Spratt had checked the time stamp he’d have noticed that the single photo of a relatively empty chamber was tweeted at 7.01pm, twenty minutes before the council meeting started at 7.24pm. So hardly the crime of the century.

A few minutes later, council business resumed with a discussion about press attendance at council meetings.

Alderman Spratt expressed concern at a reporter tweeting about Council discussions during the course of the meeting and pointed out that the minutes of this meeting would not be ratified and released to the public until after the next Council meeting. He suggested that mobile phones should be removed from journalists prior to the meeting. He pointed out that the Council had previously agreed that photographs or TV filming would be permitted prior to meetings if approved by Council but not during meetings.

It was proposed by Alderman Spratt and seconded by Councillor Chambers that, with immediate effect, a secure box be provided for journalists attending the meeting to place their mobile phones and any recording devices for the duration of the meeting.

It was then proposed by Councillor Chambers and seconded by Councillor Skillen that that this matter be referred to the Central Services Committee with a view to having an appropriate provision included in the Council’s Standing Orders.

Alderman Rice recalled that there had been previous occasions when the press had been allowed to record Council debates. She expressed concern as to whether the proposal would impinge on the freedom of the press. Councillor White stated that it was his recollection that any recordings of meetings had had to be approved by the Council beforehand.

Alderman Beattie stated that journalists using a recording device without the agreement of Council should be asked to leave. He expressed concern that new technology meant that it would be possible to record and publicise proceedings while they were still on-going and without the knowledge of Council. He stated that it was important that the Council should be allowed space to discuss and debate issues and come to decisions before these discussions were broadcast.

Councillor Vitty queried whether any journalist should be in attendance at the meetings without having sought prior permission from the Council. He felt that it was inappropriate for photographs and recordings to be made without the Council’s agreement. He stated that the discussions taking place had to go through due process before being included in the official Council minutes.

Since then, reporters attending Castlereagh council are being asked to sign a piece of paper to say they won’t “transmit” from the sessions – though some councillors seem confused whether “transmitting” includes tweeting.

Today on Good Morning Ulster we learned that since 1997 the DUP have had a ‘special’ seat on the council’s management committee. Castlereagh Alliance Councillor Michael Long had to use FOI to access the minutes of the special management team meetings having been initially refused by Castlereagh council. Looking at the issue for the second time, the Audit Office say there may be a “lack of transparency” over the role of the councillor sitting on the special management team.

Surely it’s time for Environment Minister Mark H Durkan and NILGA – and indeed, individual parties and councillors – to commit to ensuring that transparency and accountability are written into the new councils from day one, with equal access to journalists and members of the public, and reasonable live online reporting.

Given that journalists can now often tweet from court – even in Northern Ireland – surely the public as well as the press should be able to talk about proceedings in real time.

We seem to be in a cycle of debating whether Northern Ireland needs parity with the rest of the UK on various policy issues: prescriptions, plastic bags, equal marriage, adoption, blood donations, welfare reform and bedroom tax. It’s hard to sustain an argument against a more liberal reporting approach being taken at our councils.

To finish some extracts from the English guide:

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.

Will I be able to tweet or blog council meetings?

Similarly under the new rules there can be social media reporting of meetings. Thus 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.

Updateanother post looks at the draft Local Government Bill and assesses how far it pushes transparency and accountability when compared with the 2012 English legislation.

(Photo by chrisinplymouth)

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.