Councils should open up their public meetings to local news bloggers and routinely allow online filming of public discussions as part of increasing their transparency, Eric Pickles said today (23 February 2011).
To ensure all parts of the modern-day media are able to scrutinise local government, Mr Pickles believes councils should also open up public meetings to the ‘citizen journalist’ as well as the mainstream media, especially as important budget decisions are being made.
Local Government Minister Bob Neill has written to all councils urging greater openness and calling on them to adopt a modern day approach so that credible community or ‘hyper-local’ bloggers and online broadcasters get the same routine access to council meetings as the traditional accredited media have.
The letter sent today reminds councils that local authority meetings are already open to the general public, which raises concerns about why in some cases bloggers and press have been barred.
For example Tameside Council has accredited professional journalists to report from meetings using Twitter. The decision means local bloggers, the public and even councillors are not permitted to tweet because they are not considered members of the press.
Eric Pickles said:
“50 years ago, Margaret Thatcher changed the law to make councils open their meetings to the press and public. This principle of openness needs to be updated for the 21st Century. More and more local news comes from bloggers or citizen journalists telling us what is happening at their local council.
“Many councils are internet-savvy and stream meetings online, but some don’t seem to have caught up with the times and are refusing to let bloggers or hyper-local news sites in. With local authorities in the process of setting next year’s budget this is more important than ever.
“Opening the door to new media costs nothing and will help improve public scrutiny. The greater powers and freedoms that we are giving local councils must be accompanied by stronger local accountability.
“We are in the digital age and this analogue interpretation of the press access rules is holding back a new wave of local scrutiny, accountability and armchair auditors.”
The letter also reassured councils that giving greater access will not contradict data protection law requirements following concerns over personal information. In the majority of cases the citizen blogging about how they see the democratic process working is unlikely to breach the data protection principles.
Chris Taggart, of Openly Local, which has long championed the need to open council business up to public scrutiny, added:
“In a world where hi-definition video cameras are under £100 and hyperlocal bloggers are doing some of the best council reporting in the country, it is crazy that councils are prohibiting members of the public from videoing, tweeting and live-blogging their meetings.
“Councils need to genuinely engage their communities and giving wider access to their meetings through these technologies is one way they can do this.”
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The Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960 opened up meetings to the public, allowing members of the public and press to attend meetings of certain public bodies including councils. Margaret Thatcher was the backbench MP who championed this as a Private Members Bill.
The Local Government Act of 1972 states that ‘duly accredited representatives of newspapers’ should be afforded ‘reasonable facilities’ to attend council meetings ‘for the purpose of reporting proceedings for those newspapers’. It also sets out that for those parts of council meetings that are open to the public, councils are prevented from ejecting members of the public unless they are guilty of disorderly conduct or other ‘misbehaviour’.
The Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 provides for greater public access to local authority meetings reports and documents subject to specified confidentiality provisions; to give local authorities duties to publish certain information; and for related purposes.