Cambridge City Council has banned all videoing, photography, and recording of its meetings just a few weeks after it allowed the practice for the first time. The first deliberations of the council ever to have been recorded on film were at a planning committee meeting on the 22nd of September 2010, by the 21st of October a ban on filming public speakers had been imposed, and a total ban on filming has been in place since the 3rd of November 2010.
Despite the full council approving a protocol permitting filming meetings, my attempts to record meetings in over the last few weeks have been frustrated by meeting chairs, including the mayor, who have in some cases ignored, and in other cases gold-plated, the rules approved by councillors.
I have been:
- Denied access to my camera during proceedings. ie. unable to start or stop filming or to change memory cards or batteries.
- Banned from panning or zooming the camera.
- Prevented from filming public speakers; and executive councillor’s responses to public questioners.
- Denied permission to film / video / record all council meetings – ie. my blanket request was turned down. Individual requests are required in advance of each meeting.
- Expressly denied permission to make audio recordings, or take photographs – even completely unobtrusively from the public seating area. Only my requests to video have been approved.
- Asked to avoid filming a specific council officer who objected to being filmed
- Asked not to publish film containing the voice of a member of the public who had not opted out from being filmed
- Subject to having my camera location, and camera angle, set and approved by councillors and council officers
- Required to allow council officers to turn my camera on and off when directed by the meeting’s chair
I can’t imagine television professional television news crews leaving their filming equipment in the hands of the council’s committee services officers in this way, or being prepared to accept that the footage they’re allowed to obtain is being so controlled. One thing I’m trying to do is push for the evolution of the council’s rules so these problems get addressed and it will become practical for the media, campaign groups, and others to record councillors’ deliberations and decisions.
Current Ban on Filming
The reason for the current total ban on all filming or other electronic recording of council meetings is a complaint from a member of the public who attended the North Area Committee where I had been given permission to film. This individual’s complaint is not that they were unaware that filming was taking place, but that they were “not made aware the filming was being done by a third party and therefore that person had not given informed consent to be filmed and to have voice, name etc. published on the internet”.
My view is that council meetings ought be held in public; and people ought be able to video, photograph and record what goes on so long as they don’t disrupt the meeting.
I think banning all filming in response to a single complaint is a massive over-reaction; and may reflect the fact that many councillors and council officers don’t appear too keen on the added transparency and scrutiny recording meetings brings. The ability to reliably back up what is being quoted might well encourage more people to comment on council proceedings in public.
The council’s independent complaints investigator is considering the complaint; and requests to film are expected to be accepted again by the council once that process is completed.
Opt In for Public Speakers
Meeting chairs have all ignored the filming protocol’s provision which states:
The chair will ask any members of the public whether or not they agree to be filmed/ recorded/ photographed. This will be done on an opt-in rather than an opt-out basis to ensure individuals do not feel pressurised.
I think those who make use of the public speaking slots at council meetings ought realise they are speaking in a very public forum. They should expect, as often happens, for their names to end up in the official minutes published online and for people, including local papers, to report on what they have said.
There have been cases of people using council meetings, particularly area committees, to report crime. I think those members of the public going down that route ought be advised by the chair when they are using the public meetings for something which might be best communicated privately directly to the police or ward councillors.
The mayor banned video recording during the whole of the public speaking section at last week’s full council meeting. The justification for the opt out is that some people might be intimidated by being filmed. I hardly think the presence of a camera would have in any way intimidated the likes of Cambridge Socialist Tom Woodcock or the President of Cambridge University Students’ Union. I expect they would have liked those they represent to be able to see them fulfilling their roles.
21st October 2010 Full Council
Cambridge City Council’s meeting on the 21st of October 2010 was the first ever full city council meeting to be filmed. I have made video of the debate on the Liberal Democrat ruling group’s plan to privatise council house maintenance available on my website.
Despite public speakers significantly influencing debate, points they raised being quoted several times, and information they provided being cited often, the mayor banned filming their contributions.
The mayor, Liberal Democrat Cllr Stuart, had explained that one of the public speakers had asked not to be filmed; however she had already ruled none of the public speakers’ contributions or councillors’ replies could be recorded. Before the public meeting the mayor explained her ruling to me in-person, saying she felt turning the camera on and off during the public speaking item would be too disruptive.
The city council’s filming protocol contains a procedure whereby each public speaker ought be asked if they would like to opt-in to be filmed; despite this protocol being approved by the full council the mayor did not follow it. I do not think the mayor’s position is tenable if she is going to ignore the wishes of the council.
I was informally advised that speaking about the filming rules during the public speaking item would be out of order as I had not arranged to speak in advance. Speaking without notice is only permitted in relation to items on the agenda. In retrospect I should have argued that I wanted to speak about the public speaking item, and the public speaking item was on the agenda, but I didn’t think of that in time and in any case there were many public speakers and the matter can probably be better pursued at a Civic Affairs committee meeting which is where I would expect councillors to review the outcome of the investigation into the complaint that has been made too, so it will be timely.