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09 May 2013

Letting In The Light

Yesterday 588 people tuned in to watch a webcast of Leeds democracy in action.

That's the number of hits recorded on a new City Council website created in a bid to make meetings accessible to anyone with a broadband connection.

It might sound like a pathetically small number, compared to (say) Britain's Got Talent or Strictly; but putting it another way that's about a hundred more punters than could pack in to see a sellout show at the City Varieties, and it's fair to say any act filling that venue would normally be hailed a success. Not that I'd ever draw a comparison between a Council meeting and a pantomime. Perish the thought.

Even if we discount half yesterday's hits as being from people associated with the project - techies, PR types, friends and relatives - and knock off another couple of hundred for repeat visitors we're still left with more viewers than there are seats in the public galleries at the Civic Hall. When I turned up with two dozen journalism trainees to observe a meeting once it caused a bit of a stir among the elected members. They'd never had such a big audience.

Nearly 600 hits for an experimental webcast of a City Council meeting should be regarded as a success. Making democracy visible is important. 

Even though today's Councillors enjoy only a fraction of the municipal power wielded by their predecessors, who commissioned the fabulous Civic Hall in the last great depression as a Portland stone example of Leeds workers' building skills, they still control budgets of billions and carry prime responsibility for educating the city's children, caring for the vulnerable, housing the homeless and burying the dead - as well as dealing with more contentious issues like parking charges and dog mess on footpaths.

Back in the day when I reported Bradford in the 1980s such issues were scrutinised regularly by local radio, and in some depth by the Telegraph and Argus newspaper which employed its own formidable City Hall correspondent.

Today it's rare to see a journalist at any local council meeting. Instead 'communication teams' employed by councils feed copy-ready news releases to news organisations, and often deliver complete full colour newspapers through the letterboxes of council taxpayers. They'd never lie, but it's probably fair to say such comms teams tend towards a sunny interpretation of how well public services are being delivered.

Now I reject the view advocated by some career academics that news organisations swallow such spoon-fed stories uncritically. Of course journalists will rewrite notices and seek out alternative viewpoints. But crucially, without observing the debates which shaped policy, much of the context in which decisions are made is lost.

Local government enthusiasts such as the redoubtable Leeds Citizen fill in some of the missing background (and unearth some cracking stories in the process) but the truth is a lot of big decisions are made not behind closed doors, but in front of empty benches.

Decisions which involve spending huge amounts of public money. Decisions which may change the lives of Leeds residents forever. Decisions which are then publicised, selectively, by an in-house comms team. That process leaves this old hack feeling uneasy.

Lets hope the webcasting of a full Council meeting, which if not a pantomime is certainly the most theatrical of local goverment debates, is just the start of a process which makes decision making transparent to all who want to observe it. The real nitty-gritty of  negotiation and compromise happens in planning meetings; accountability is examined in Scrutiny Committees. These should also be on webcam.

More importantly the audio and video should be made available to radio and TV broadcasters, online news providers and dedicated bloggers who can redistribute it to wider audiences, subject to similar safeguards to those which apply to the coverage of Parliament.

Doing so can only increase coverage of council decision making. As a radio editor I can run a clip of the Council leader and an opposition spokesperson even if I can't spare a reporter to attend a lengthy meeting in person; and crucially I choose what clip to run.

From my conversations with the new Made in Leeds TV channel due to go on air in November I'm confident they would want to cover city issues in more depth than is possible on current Yorkshire-wide news and politics programmes on BBC and ITV.

There will be those who question the cost of webcasting in times of 'austerity'. It's a consideration. I don't know the figures but I'm sure it's cheaper than any full-colour Council-published 'newspaper'.

Above all, given the difficult decisions which must be made as Leeds struggles to make the cuts in expenditure required in the current economic climate, it's important to air the arguments in public. Just seeing the webcam winking in the corner should be enough to remind Members their words and deeds are being observed by those they represent.

That can only be a good thing.

+++UPDATES+++

4 comments:

  1. Fiona TitteringtonThursday, May 09, 2013

    I watched the last half, it was very good and enlighting about how democracy works!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I thoroughly welcome this, and because I was aware that we need to encourage it, was deliberately gentle rather than critical of the stuff I was witnessing. We need to get a to place where 2 way conversation and interaction online/offline enables everybody who has the smallest iota in what happens in their city to be able to participate.

    Therefore I would hope this is done regularly, well communicated in advance to the widest constituency. That we find away to enable different methods of consulting before/during/after online for those who can't/won't partake in their local forums once a month

    Whilst I enjoyed the 'theatre' of party politics as a spectator I found some councilors were not respectful of each other. I wouldn't want to sanitise this forum, but I also think that the time has come to ask how this can enable other forms of participation, not merely at the ballot box.

    I'd like some more context around the matters being discussed, and perhaps more online debate about it prior to and after the event. I appreciate this isn't all that we see in terms of local democracy, and would love to see the same transparency around plans panels and ward area decision making. That may be less practical.

    In all if we want to be involved in being empowered as citizens it's up to us to ask for what we'd like to see, but we need to move away from traditional models of 'consultancy' Twitter/Facebook and other online forums might be perceived as fun/temporary but they are where a lot on online conversations are happening amongst people who would love the permission to care about matters of the city, yet feel the party system isn't speaking for them as much as it may have done historically. Let's not see this space as less important for engaging people, bit another way to really look at democracy


    ReplyDelete
  3. I think Emma has hit on a number of really crucial points. The one about gentle criticism is interesting. I think it is important in these instances to be a "critical friend", welcoming the fact that this is happening, while reserving the right to be critical about the content. I remember making myself unpopular on a panel at Manchester Social Media Cafe by not condemning some of the "triumphalist" tweets (later deleted and apologised for) from Manchester police about the convictions of rioters. My point was that, while what they said was wrong, I think it is important that the police continue with open dialogue in public, and that over zealous criticism doesn't drive them back into their secret bunkers.

    Also, as you Richard, and Emma, have implied, streaming meetings doesn't do the whole job in terms of engagement with local politics. Here is something I wrote on this last year http://www.thejournalismfoundation.com/2012/03/the-hyperlocal-jeremy-paxmans-are-out-there-we-just-need-to-find-them/

    ReplyDelete
  4. I think Emma has hit on a number of really crucial points. The one about gentle criticism is interesting. I think it is important in these instances to be a "critical friend", welcoming the fact that this is happening, while reserving the right to be critical about the content. I remember making myself unpopular on a panel at Manchester Social Media Cafe by not condemning some of the "triumphalist" tweets (later deleted and apologised for) from Manchester police about the convictions of rioters. My point was that, while what they said was wrong, I think it is important that the police continue with open dialogue in public, and that over zealous criticism doesn't drive them back into their secret bunkers.

    Also, as you Richard, and Emma, have implied, streaming meetings doesn't do the whole job in terms of engagement with local politics. Here is something I wrote on this last year http://www.thejournalismfoundation.com/2012/03/the-hyperlocal-jeremy-paxmans-are-out-there-we-just-need-to-find-them/

    ReplyDelete