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21 October 2013

An Open Letter on Open Democracy

I've written here before on the topic of open democracy. In particular, on why we should make the workings of Leeds City Council available to residents through the audio and video recording of meetings.

Such openness is a relatively new idea.

Cameras and microphones can be scary things (it appears) for some Members, and the Council still has to formulate a policy on what it's going to do with journalists, students, bloggers and others who want not only to attend meetings but also report, comment and share what happens with audiences and varied communities of interest.

The waters have also been muddied by Eric Pickles. The Conservative former Bradford Council leader tried, 30 years ago, to drive through a raft of often controversial policies on the casting vote of a sometimes bemused Lord Mayor. Now on the Westminster stage as Communities Secretary he's thrown his considerable weight behind open access. Which is a good thing. But that support has inevitably politicised an issue which otherwise would be purely administrative, with some Labour supporters opposed to cameras in Council 'because Pickles wants it'.

The issue of access is to be discussed by the Council's General Purposes Committee on 28 October. What follows is a letter I drafted together with colleagues from the other Universities in Leeds who teach Journalism urging members to allow greater access. It's reproduced here in the same spirit.

Dear Members,

We write to you as Journalism course leaders from the three Universities in Leeds with regard to protocols currently being established concerning the audio and video recording of Leeds City Council meetings by journalists and others with an interest in particular matters being discussed.

You will be aware that Leeds is an established centre for the training of journalists. Alumni from our courses at the University of Leeds, Leeds Metropolitan University and Leeds Trinity University occupy key roles in radio, television, print, magazine and online newsrooms nationally, regionally and in other regions of the UK.

Our current students regularly attend Council meetings as part of their studies. The material they gather is broadcast and published across the city through the public-facing TV, radio and online output they produce.

We believe that allowing media organisations, our students and concerned individuals greater access to record and publish audio and video from such meetings, subject to safeguards outlined below, will enhance such output and is in the wider interests of open democracy.

At a time when important decisions are being made about the future of our city, the statutory and discretionary services provided for our citizens, the built environment, transport, education and other vital matters it can only be to the benefit of Members to ensure that the process of decision making is transparent.

To be fully informed residents need to know not only the decisions reached, but also the discussion that leads to these conclusions. More than ever Members bear heavy responsibility for representing residents, businesses and institutions, and we believe they should be both seen and heard making those representations.

Disseminating audio and video from Council meeting can open the process to many more residents than are able to spare the time in busy, hard-working lives to attend meetings in person. Technology has moved on from the era in which the magnificent Civic Hall was built.

A typical smartphone is capable of recording audio and video to broadcast standards, subject to the skill of the operator. The internet allows interaction with residents and service users, real time discussion and sharing of information which can only be enhanced by the inclusion of extracts from debate and scrutiny.

We would therefore urge that Members should allow recording of audio and video by any interested party in all circumstances in which the press and public currently have a right to attend meetings , subject to the following safeguards:

1)      Recording must not be intrusive. Individuals using recording devices should remain in those areas of the meeting room designated for press and public use, or they should by agreement place a device in a suitable location for the full duration of the meeting being recorded. Devices must be in silent mode and no flash or other forms of additional lighting should be permitted. Individuals should remain seated in one position unless it is possible to stand or change position without obstructing others or causing a distraction to proceedings. Existing rules of common courtesy which apply to behaviour in public galleries should be the guide to what is permitted.

2)      Any recording published in any form must be accompanied by a statement of when and where it was recorded, the context of the discussion and with clear identification of main speakers and their role or title.

3)      There should be no internal editing of published extracts. Recordings may start at any point and end at any point but the material between those two points should be complete. Users should otherwise comply with the general spirit of the more complex rules in the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines which govern the broadcast of the proceedings of Parliament.

Many meetings are of course already audio-recorded through the systems installed at Civic Hall and elsewhere. We understand it has been the practice of some individual Chairs to deny individuals the opportunity to record, but instead to offer to supply a copy of the ‘official’ audio transcript. This would appear to be an unnecessary waste of time and resources when individuals are able and willing to make their own recordings.

Some meetings of Council are already webcast and it would be helpful if a clear statement could be issued allowing extracts from such webcasts to be used on the same terms as outlined at point (3) above. We understand from the webcaster Public-I that copyright in such broadcasts resides with the Council.

With regards to issues of balance and impartiality any use of material in any radio or TV outlet regulated by OFCOM (which includes many web-TV operations) is already covered by the provisions of the relevant OFCOM codes.

The draft protocol provides that Members may be minded to allow audio recording, but not video. We would urge Members to consider the benefits of video; not least in allowing the clear identification of speakers in a debate, which can be difficult in an audio-only recording without commentary.  They should also reflect on their own expectations, especially of web-based news reports.  

Allowing video recording would also further the Council's wider aim to improve engagement with citizens. We are sure you are very well aware of the increased need to engage citizens in the work of the Council and to encourage people to have a better understanding of what the Council does. Allowing both video and audio recordings is more likely to allow this.

In summary we believe allowing the recording of audio and video in Leeds City Council meetings has huge potential benefits for Members, for our students and for the wider Leeds community. By throwing light on the proceedings of Council it should make these proceedings more transparent and relevant for residents and thereby encourage greater participation in elections, in consultations and in the democratic process. We urge all Members to offer their support to this.

Yours Sincerely,

>Sean Dodson, Senior Lecturer and Leader, Postgraduate Journalism, Leeds Metropolitan University.

Julie Firmstone, Lecturer in Communications Research and Programme Leader BA Broadcast Journalism, Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds.

Richard Horsman, Associate Principal Lecturer and Programme Leader PG Broadcast Journalism, Centre for Journalism, Leeds Trinity University.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent letter which I wholeheartedly support. An additional point that I would make is that one reason this is important is that for democracy to function effectively it must be scrutinised. Local media is under increasing budgetary pressure making it harder, in fact impossible, to adequately cover all public meetings of the council. However, councils also face budgetary pressure and I don't think it is as simple as saying that the council should record and publish every meeting as the costs to do it properly could be significant. Allowing members of the public, and indeed councillors themselves, to record and publish would provide the required access without unnecessary burdens on the council itself.