Tuesday, March 01, 2011

New media creeps into Birmingham

Last week, the Department of Communities and Local Government issued a letter to all local authorities encouraging them to open their council meetings to the mainstream broadcast media and to the new stream of hyperlocal bloggers and tweeters.
Council meetings have long been open to interested members of the public and recognised journalists, and with the growth of online film, social media and hyper-local online news they should equally be open to ‘Citizen Journalists’ and filming by mainstream media. Bloggers, tweeters, residents with their own websites and users of Facebook and YouTube are increasingly a part of the modern world, blurring the lines between professional journalists and the public. There are recent stories about people being ejected from council meetings for blogging, tweeting or filming. This potentially is at odds with the fundamentals of democracy and I want to encourage all councils to take a welcoming approach to those who want to bring local news stories to a wider audience. The public should rightly expect that elected representatives who have put themselves up for public office be prepared for their decisions to be as transparent as possible and welcome a direct line of communication to their electorate.

With this in mind, I thought I'd ask Birmingham City Council what their views would be on improving coverage of their meetings. Oddly, the chamber has had an impressive automated camera system which would take little adaptation to provide a live internet broadcast feed, a connection that has been a couple of years in not coming, but I understand that it may finally be coming to fruition.

I've had responses from Dr Mirza Ahmad, the Corporate Director of Governance (might as well start at the top) and he stood up for local democracy, arguing that despite ministerial advice (which has been flowing from DCLG like a river in recent months), decisions on filming, recording and photography are put to the Council Business Management Committee (chaired by Mike Whitby) and without approval from that committee, the Lord Mayor is likely to resist any attempts of that nature.

He was more forgiving when it came to using mobile devices, which essentially came down to advice that users would probably be OK if they didn't get caught or disrupt the council meeting. A further communication from the media team - top marks to them for getting involved - who confirm that there is no problem with text blogging from a mobile device or laptop.

I'm not really in a position to rebroadcast sound or video, so that's an area for other social media specialists, but transparency is a key element of democracy. Modern broadcast media have shifted and they now need sound and/or pictures to flesh out packages for broadcast, so we can't complain too much if their coverage of council matters is relatively poor if they aren't given the materials to work with. Sometimes, restricting scrutiny suits elected members, but if the Tories are going to walk the walk on transparency, times have got to change.

Assuming I can get in - this afternoon's budget-setting meeting promises to be the hottest ticket all year - I'll be liveblogging and tweeting from the event.

1 comment:

Daniel Cremin said...

I also have followed the positive waves of interest for webcasting council meetings flowing from DCLG.

Seeing how things are also going across the US & EU and recognising the swell of interest across the UK for opening up council meetings more to the general public via web video, it has seemed to me for some time that it would be a case of ‘When’ rather than ‘If’, UK councils will eventually start to webcast. http://tiny.cc/oi4c8; http://tiny.cc/c9smh

In resent years Birmingham has been at the forefront of social media and social web developments; Rhubarb Radio, Birmingham it’s Not Shit, Social Media CafĂ©, CivicoLive to highlight just a few. By webcasting its International, National and Locally focused Open Gov events Birmingham has played its part in leading a new intersection between the public and the public sector, for a modern world immersed in on online living. Hello Digital, Beyond2010, EuroCities, Digital Britain Report. In fact today 2nd March 2011, Local Government representatives from across the UK will be descending on Birmingham’s Town Hall to attend the long since sold out ‘Transforming Local Government’ Conference, which shall showcase and share insights, experiences and lessons learnt from Birmingham’s journey of business transformation.

Bringing the public closer to its council and visa versa by harnessing the capacities of social web technologies to extend civic meetings and local democracy as is being recommended by Eric Pickels and the DCLG, it would seem to me that Birmingham is well placed to lead the way and step out for this important area of Local Government transformation, the first of which would be to better understand and meet those resistances that there maybe; be they structural, procedural or operational.

Clearly council meetings have a certain civic dignity and don’t easily lend themselves to some populist forms of video capture and distribution or the implied potential for disturbances of council process. Especially when done badly, some council may even feel that some of these forms of data capture and distribution could them selves “be at odds with the fundamentals of democracy” and may not over the longer term strengthen the crucial role of citizen journalism.

A problem I have come to realise in my research of local democracy webcasting is that simply webcasting the monolog of a given council meeting or event is not in its self going to be enough to fully re-engage the public with their local democratic processes. Or will it enable journalist and hyper-local bloggers to access the relevant information in a way that is easy to manage, retrieve and redistribute.

Though I would say it, a more meaningful civic engagement platform is going to be one that goes beyond just offering live and archived webcasts to offer greater opportunities and the practical means to enable genuine democratic dialogue at the intersection.

Daniel Cremin