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.