• Blogs, recordings, hearsay, ‘misquotes’ and facts …

    7th June 2012 | News | Claire
  • The item was on the agenda following a request from by Cllr Roger Giles at a full council meeting earlier this year.

    The meeting was peppered with thinly veiled criticisms of my blog.

    As a member of the scrutiny committee, I spoke up strongly in favour of webcasting, an extremely useful facility, which has been used by Devon County Council for some years.

    Aside from myself and Cllr Derek Button, who spoke at length of the importance this issue was for democracy and transparency, other councillors were less keen for meetings to be webcast, apparently on the grounds of cost.

    A report to the scrutiny committee put the cost for installing a webcasting system at between £14,000 and £16,000, with further costs relating to installing another internet access point in the council chamber, electricity running costs and an operator to control the cameras.

    Communications portfolio-holder, Cllr Ian Thomas, said that although in theory he supported the idea of webcasting, he doubted that many people would really be interested in watching meetings.  He queried whether the level of interest ‘would rival the x-factor’ and told the committee it would be a ‘flawed route to go down’, as there would be an ‘empty auditorium.’

    He also claimed that the cost of installing a webcasting system would be around three times that quoted in the report.

    Cllr Thomas, however, was more open about the idea of sound recording by others as long as it ‘did not disrupt meetings.’ 

    Democratic Services officer, Debbie Meakin told the committee that if sound recording by members of the public was allowed, it was advisable for the council also to record meetings.

    Cllr Thomas added that he would not want to stop the flow of social media, however.

    Cllr Derek Button said that he could not disagree more with Cllr Thomas and he hoped from the report that the subject of webcasting would be pursued.  He added that EDDC needed to act quickly to get in line with those councils that are already webcasting.

    Cllr Button added that the pressure of the public at certain meetings causes a disruption in itself and webcasting reduces the need for people to travel.  He asked what the costs were for the council not to have these facilities and suggested that a recent complaint against the council took an entire day to hear, with people arguing about what was said.  This could have been settled in 15 minutes if there had been a recording of the meeting, he said. 

    Cllr Button asked for a cost analysis of dealing with complaints which involved arguments over what was said or agreed at meetings.  He said there was no reason whatsoever, not to record meetings.

    Cllr Peter Bowden told the meeting that in many respects Cllr Button was right in that recording meetings could end speculation or inaccurate reporting of what was said at meetings.

    He then went on to describe a complaint from a constituent based on him being misquoted on ‘a social media site.’  He claimed that he had been unable to defend himself. 

    He added that the council ‘should not try half-baked solutions that won’t work’ – however, it was unclear exactly what Cllr Bowden was referring to here.

    Cllr Bowden’s remarks sounded remarkably like heavy hints that I had misquoted him, so when it was my turn to speak, I suggested that if Cllr Bowden was hinting that I had misquoted him on my blog, he hadn’t mentioned it to me.

    I went on to say that we should (as councillors) remember what we are here for – and that members of the public would welcome greater access and transparency in the council. 

    I read out quotes from a letter from Bob Neill MP, who wrote to councils in February 2011, making a direct plea to councils to allow bloggers and ‘citizen journalists’ to record meetings.  He urged councils to: ‘do your utmost to maximise the transparency and openness.’ 

    I suggested it was difficult to accept the justification of cost as a barrier and the budget already being set, when a £40,000 reputation manager post had just been agreed, after the budget had been set.  Webcasting would be of real value to residents and is a cost I thought, that would be supported by many people.

    I said I found it hard to believe that the cost would be up to £50,000 as had been claimed by one councillor.

    I added that the new ‘social media apprentice,’ (role currently advertised on the EDDC website and also established after the budget had been agreed) would seem to be the ideal postholder to include camera operator in its duties.

    I told the committee that the council did not have to launch into webcasting and record everything, it could be a gradual process, of recording one or two regular meetings – monitoring it – and building up to covering more meetings in the future.

    Cllr Peter Halse, EDDC chairman, said he thought there was a lack of public interest in debate and only a small number of people would watch a webcast.  He asked why the council would waste £50,000 on webcasting when people would not use the service.  Such a move would ‘play into the hands of councillors who wanted to be controversial,’ he added.

    Cllr Graham Brown said he didn’t believe there was a justification for cameras in the council chamber.  He said that councillors should ‘be able to speak without fear or favour’.  He added:  “In my view a camera pointing at someone would be totally intimidating and would stifle debate.”

    Next it was Cllr Tony Howard’s turn to have his say:  “We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t,” he said.  The younger generation are using this media and it is ‘not about what we want’ but ‘what the public expects of us.’  But Cllr Howard was also concerned about the cost of implementing a webcasting system.

    Cllr Mike Allen said: “If the Local Plan Panel meetings had been recorded things could have turned out differently on Friday 25 May.” (the date of his standards committee hearing)

    He added:  “I would rather there was audio-visual recording than a record put on someone’s blog as hearsay.”

    Cllr Allen said he would support an inexpensive system to record meetings as an ‘experiment’. 

    Adding:  “The public is not terribly interested in us being transparent.” 

    He said: “I appreciate Cllr Wright queries everything, which is a talent valuable in some hands.” (I wasn’t sure that I – or anyone else in the room – understood this remark).

    Cllr Peter Bowden replied to my query over why he had not raised any ‘misquoting’ issue, with me.  He said:  “It is difficult, when I only found out three weeks later, to know how to address the issue.”

    Cllr Ian Thomas finished by saying ‘in case he was misquoted’ that he did support broadcasting meetings in principle, but was concerned about cost. 

    He said that the point he was hearing from councillors was not related to ‘transparency’ but more to do with ‘protection and verification’ of the facts.  This was something which could be successfully implemented by using audio recording facilities from existing equipment, he said.

    The vote for the aforementioned Watery Recommendation was unanimously supported (including by me on the basis it was about as much as we could currently hope for, given the views of ruling party)

    The Watery Recommendation was: 

    – “The committee note the positive benefits of webcasting and indicative cost.

    – The committee receive a future report, to look at the audio/visual recording of council meetings, including the use of social media, with a view to reviewing a draft policy to recommend to council.

    Of course, the key to this recommendation and issue is that those councillors who do back transparency and wish to see the introduction of webcasting at EDDC, must keep pushing the timescale, or the danger is that it will simply get kicked into the long grass.

    That said, the notion of sound recordings may have more traction if Cllr Thomas’s final speech is anything to go by. 

    At the end of the meeting I asked whether the sign displayed in the council chamber that reads:  “Sound recordings by any means is not permitted during meetings,” can now be removed. 

    Cllr Ian Thomas replied that he had discussed this with legal adviser, Rachel Pocock and there were some legal issues to be addressed first. 

    This is something else that must be followed up.  Surely, this sign represents a bygone era that needs spring cleaning right out of Local Government?

    What would Bob Neill MP make of this sign, I thought.