The request – not to film, but just to record the audio – was put to a meeting of one of Leeds City Council’s watchdog scrutiny committees by its Labour chair, and unanimously turned down by the councillors present.
No information was given to the councillors about why the request was being made. No opportunity was given to the blogger to explain the request, and none of the councillors were interested enough to ask what it was all about.
“Nobody can bring a recording device into the meeting,” was the blunt contribution of one Labour councillor, who clearly felt no need to explain why that was the case.
“If the blogger wants a recording, we’ll provide him with one,” was the view of another, who clearly failed to grasp that the same words would be recorded on both, the only difference being that one would be available immediately, the other at the council’s whim.
No councillor spoke in favour of allowing the meeting to be recorded.
There was, in fact, no debate.
Not even when the chair told the meeting that Secretary of State for local government Eric Pickles had recently issued new guidance for local authorities stating that councils SHOULD allow their public meetings to be reported live via social media and recorded, including on film.
The information fell on deaf ears.
Maybe they think the guidance doesn’t involve Leeds. Or maybe they’re choosing to ignore it because it comes from London. From Pickles. Either way, they weren’t reacting.
Why was the request made?
Six weeks ago I wrote to the leader of the council, Cllr Keith Wakefield, asking to be allowed to record the audio of council meetings that are open to the public.
To tell the truth I ASKED because my mum told me to always be polite, even though I believe it’s my RIGHT to record.
Here’s what I asked him:
“I am writing to you in your capacities of chair of the General Purposes Committee and Leader of the council to ask whether I can record the audio of council meetings that I attend on my phone or tablet.
“Given the DCLG guide on the reporting of council meetings issued this week (see ref to Pickles above), the welcome introduction of tweeting from meetings by LCC councillors, and the very positive steps towards regular webcasting being discussed at General Purposes this week, I would ask that the council allow (informally if there needs to be a subsequent change to the constitution) journalists or bloggers like myself to record the audio of council meetings that are open to the public.
“Having a recording of the meeting would allow me (and others like me who don’t have shorthand) to report proceedings much more fully and accurately, mostly by being able to give verbatim quotes of contributions from councillors, officers and other attendees/witnesses.
“I realise that any act of recording would have to be unobtrusive and cause no disruption to the meeting. Perhaps a space could be found on one of the tables in the committee rooms where recording devices (usually a phone or tablet) could be left switched on but silent, much like is done at press conferences?
“Having the facility would serve as a very useful stop-gap while we await what I hope will be the eventual webcasting of all public meetings held in the main committee rooms. It would also go some way to opening up the reporting of council business to a wider variety of media – too often if the YEP isn’t at a meeting, it doesn’t get reported.
“I should add that all the efforts under way by the council to embrace social media and open up its business to new channels of communication with us citizens are genuinely welcomed.
“I look forward to hearing from you”
Told you it was polite. I may have looked forward to hearing back, but there was no response.
Citizen engagement? LOL
Now I’m not the confrontational type, so, given the silence from above, I wrote to the chair of today’s meeting at the end of last week, telling him I was going to record today’s meeting. I thought it was the courteous thing to do.
I even went prepared with a little script, thinking (innocent fool that I am) that he’d want my arguments (detailed above) to be put to the councillors at the meeting.
As if …
What’s really dispiriting is that, for all the fine words from the council’s leaders about a bright future of more “citizen engagement”, participation and transparency, today’s performance is a sobering reminder of the REALITY of Leeds councillors’ attitude to those issues.
They just don’t get it.
Over the weekend it emerged that the council is drafting a new policy on such matters as tweeting from meetings and recording them. But until that policy sees the light of day it is down to the members of council committees and boards (like today’s) to decide what should happen on a case by case basis.
On today’s evidence that’s bad news for democracy in Leeds.
I’m not the confrontational type, but it’s getting beyond a joke. Next time I turn up at a council meeting with my tablet they’ll probably have to eject me.
(Was your local councillor one of those at the meeting? Click here to find out)