Monday, 19 December 2011

Lights, Camera, ACTION!

Reasonably interesting response back from Information Governance today (and can I say a big hats off to them for getting it in just on the last day, even with it being the run-up to Xmas).

A few months back I wrote about the trials and tribulations of Welsh blogger Caebrwyn who was arrested for trying to film a council meeting. I thought this was a bit unreasonable so I thought I'd try and find out what NCC's attitude would be if someone tried the same trick. I have to say there's not much chance of me actually trying this but, in this time of austerity and cuts, somebody may do when face cuts to their school/leisure centre/care home etc looming.

In the meantime, the issue got a bit more local when there was a hullabaloo when somebody allegedly tried to film a meeting and the police were called. The miscreant legged it and has not been identified but interestingly the police said that as no offence had been committed they would not be taking any further action.

So, back to what Nottingham said.

I first asked whether meetings were recorded at all already, to which the answer was no but -

"...with the exception of full Council meetings where a tape recording of the meeting is taken in order to facilitate the verbatim recording within the minutes of the answers provided to Council and Public questions at the meeting."

So, presumably such recordings are available to members of the public then?


Erm, really? You haven't heard of the Freedom of Information Act then? Their justification is that the verbatim answers are provided within the minutes of the meetings which, of course, are published.

That's sort of fine except they imply that the whole meeting is recorded in which case the rest of the recording would be quite interesting to hear. However, former Cllr Alex Foster (refugee of the Lib Dem wipeout) had earlier annotated my request saying that the recording stopped after the first part of the meeting. Oh the uncertainty...

I next asked whether NCC was considering recording and/or webcasting meetings and the reply was that they are

"...currently exploring the costs and implications of webcasting council meetings."

I suspect that holding our breath on this one is not a safe option.

Lastly, I asked whether NCC would allow a member of the public to film a public meeting and whether there was any policy and/or legal justification for a refusal. The answer to this was that there was no policy and the decision to allow or not it would be down to the Chair of any meeting to make. So they are clearly of the view that the Chair has carte blanche to stop someone filming and, presumably, to eject them for doing so if they refuse to stop. Whether they would or not remains to be seen of course.

The problem with that is that the legal position is not exactly crystal on the subject. S.100A of the Local Government Act 1972 (as amended) deals with the right of the public to attend council meetings and stipulates when attendees can be excluded. Apart from the provisions for excluding the public by resolution for reasons of confidentiality there is the following -

(8)This section is without prejudice to any power of exclusion to suppress or prevent disorderly conduct or other misbehaviour at a meeting.

So to my reading, if somebody decides to film a meeting of the council and politely refuses to stop when asked, in order for the Chair to eject them it would have to be classified as 'disorderly conduct or other misbehaviour'. I reckon that's a bit of a stretch so if you fancy having a go remember to be scrupulously polite and otherwise co-operative at all times.

NCC would, I think, be on slightly stronger ground if they agreed a policy on the issue to be included in its standing orders. This would be a good idea in this era of camera phones and tiny camcorders, although a decision to ban would no doubt attract significant negative publicity. Until then (and I still wouldn't be certain), I honestly don't think it can legally stop you filming and it certainly can't require you to delete any footage you do take, like they tried to do in Ashfield.

1 comment:

caebrwyn said...

Interesting - and will be added to my list of responses to this question. I think most councils will be uneasy about introducing an outright ban so the whole issue will remain largely a grey area with neither the Chair or the police (of course) being in a position to prevent a member of the public filming as long as it is done quietly, sensibly and without disturbing the meeting. As for webcasting, estimated costs seem to vary considerably depending on which council is asked - in Carmarthenshire the current estimate is the equivalent of one issue of the council rag. Neither should webcasting be justified on the predicited viewing figures - it's never going to match Eastenders but will open another window of transparency.
I was also interested to see that NCC let you know how much the foi response has cost - I wonder how this figure is evaluated. I can see the logic to dissuade entirely frivolous requests but it may also dissuade others from asking pertinent questions for fear of upsetting the taxpayer.