Finally journalists, bloggers and quite simply anyone who’s interested has the right to film town hall meetings. With last week’s signatures on the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014, local government secretary Eric Pickles brought in new rules designed to open up local decision making and bring more scrutiny to bear on everything from planning applications to policing policy.
Is this a new dawn for the UKs democratic process?
The new ‘right to film’ law has been widely welcomed by many who’ve been campaigning on the issue. If you missed the memo, in summary the law brought in last Wednesday means anyone can record meetings held in public which covers video, audio, Twitter or other ways to report what’s happening in committees and public bodies.
As Pickles said, there’s now no excuses:
Local democracy needs journalists and bloggers to report on and scrutinise the work of their council, and increasingly people read their news via digital media.
The new ‘right to report’ goes hand in hand with our work to stop unfair state competition from municipal newspapers – together defending the independent free press.
There is now no excuse for any council not to allow these new rights. Parliament has changed the law, to allow a robust and healthy local democracy. This will change the way people see local government, and allow them to view close up the good work that councillors do.
In some parts of the country, getting to this point has been often been a long and fractious fight. There’s been the well publicised flashpoints with evictions and arrests such as Keighley, Carmarthenshire and the Wirral.
There’s also been the steady plodding persistence of campaigns such as the coming together of the city’s journalism schools and a local blog in Leeds and even my own steady months of lobbying here in Richmond, North Yorkshire.
But will having won the right to film now translate into a boom in transmitting town hall decision-making to an engaged, informed local electorate?
One of those who has been at the forefront of the campaign and a prolific producer of video and twitter live content from his local council chamber has been Richard Taylor who is featured in the video above.
He spots the possibility of a unintended side-effect being reduced transparency.
Posting in the comments on his blog he explains:
There is still much further to go; in Cambridgeshire I’ve noticed increasingly “informal” meetings of public bodies are being held in private, or “pre-meetings” to which the public are not admitted and don’t feature on published calendars take place. I suspect often the real decisions take place at such meetings and the public meetings are just show-pieces.
A major reason we often don’t get to see the real debates and decisions in council chambers is the fact many of those who vote cast their votes for members of political parties. When you vote for a political party you are voting to give power to a small group of people who generally meet and agree a position to take in private. Party members will often have agreed to vote with their party’s position prior to hearing the debate in the council chamber.
There’s also the question of capacity, quite simply having enough people with the time and energy to get along to meetings to relay them to the local community.
Last week’s announcement prompted independent publisher, the Salford Star to start recruiting for filmmakers straight away, promising to start ‘a new YouTube channel called Salford Council Inaction, in tribute to the old and esteemed Granada TV production World In Action.’
And there’s probably many other requests for volunteers going out across the country from enthusiastic hyperlocal publishers but what’s happening across the mainstream media?
One important constituency that’s been fairly quiet on this issue to date is local media. The new local TV stations would seem an obvious starting point for a new wave of modern council reporting but the current financial situation, which includes the Birmingham channel going into administration and even the larger London Live applying to cut the number of hours of local coverage means expansion into this time-consuming area is unlikely just now.
It’s equally difficult to see how hard-pressed local newspapers, who’ve already suffered staff cutbacks and restructures in many locations, would be able to (or perhaps even want to) devote much time and resource to an activity with an as yet unknown public appetite.
So whether the new law does indeed result in a new dawn for local government reporting and accountability remains an unanswered question for now. Whatever does evolve from it is guaranteed to be an interesting journey and a topic we’re very much looking forward to hearing more about here at talk about local.