Cambridge City Council to Review Restrictive Filming and Photography Policy

Cambridge City Council’s Civic Affairs Committee on the 21st of March 2012 is to review the city council’s currently highly restrictive policy on filming, recording and photographing council meetings.

The report to the meeting contains the following statement:

Since the Committee approved the amendments to the audio/visual recording protocol in February 2011, there have been no applications to record council meetings. There is no evidence to suggest that the Protocol has put off the public from wanting to record.

I have made very clear that I have the equipment to record council meetings and I am willing and prepared to use it. I have attended council meetings and have mounted my camera on a tripod to actively demonstrate this. I have explained to a number of councillors and council officers why, under the council’s current rules, filming is impractical.

I have also previously spoken at the Civic Affairs Committee explaining the problems with the council’s protocol, and the way it is interpreted.

The key issues with the current protocol are:

  • Zooming and panning are banned. (See the declaration on the application to film form and the council’s filming protocol). This makes it almost impossible to obtain interesting and watchable footage. It is not permitted to move the camera to point it at each speaker.
  • Setting up must be done before the meeting starts. This has been interpreted by officers as requiring the person filming to leave their camera unattended during the meeting. In full council they are expected to leave the camera on the floor of the chamber and move up to the gallery, in committee again they are not permitted access. The council’s committee staff has to operate the equipment if the chair rules it is to be turned off. It is inconceivable the professional media would be prepared to operate in this manner.
  • Those filming a meeting are required to hold a copy of the unedited footage for a period of four months. The only way one can record, while away from the equipment, is to record an entire meeting. This creates huge files and imposes a large and expensive storage requirement on the person doing the recording.
  • I’ve been told by a number of professional journalists they would not be prepared to operate under a protocol where the chair was allowed to arbitrarily select which bits of a meeting they could and could not record. Those working for a number of the city’s professional media organisations have suggested to me they would cover the council more extensively if they could easily obtain photos, audio, or video to go with their story.

Additional Points

While the report states there have been no applications to record council meetings there have been a number of occasions the council itself has photographed council meetings. I have attended a number of area committee meetings where this has occurred.

I suggest clearly defining the ceremonial part of the Annual Meeting of the Council, is it everything until the meal break? I also think it is wrong and misleading to have one rule in place during a meeting where there are many people in attendance, giving an appearance of openness, and once the majority of people have left reverting to a more restrictive policy.

Councillors are exempted from the provision allowing people to opt out of being filmed, but council officers are not. The council has accepted senior council officers need to operate in a transparent manner but the current protocol does not reflect that.

I suggest the council, instead of being as restrictive and obstructive as possible to those seeking to publicise what councillors are up to are more helpful. I would suggest informing observers how they can use the council’s guest wireless internet (to help them get live, or near live, images and recordings out) as well as provide access to power points and additional “press” desks. The council could also consider the practicality of providing access to the sound feed from the microphone system to the press and public. The available power sockets and “press” desks are often fully occupied.

Recording is often a practical aid to following what is going on. For example if those unfamiliar with councillors wish to record a non-roll-call vote taking a photograph is one practical way to do it. Where meetings receive presentations a photo is a way of taking a note of what the committee has been shown, sometimes I personally use my camera in such circumstances to help me read the text.

If the council opened up its meetings and permitted recording in practice I think we would see more of the council’s business on TV, online and hear it on the radio. I think this would strengthen local democracy and increase awareness of what our local councillors get up to.

At Cambridgeshire County Council

Cambridgeshire County Council have recently (on the 1st of March 2012) introduced a new filming protocol.

It is short enough to reproduce in full here:

The Council supports the principle of transparency and encourages filming, recording and taking photographs at its meetings that are open to the public. It also welcomes the use of social networking websites (such as Twitter and Facebook) and micro-blogging to communicate with people about what is happening, as it happens.

There is no requirement to notify the Council in advance, but it should be noted that the Chairman of the meeting will have absolute discretion to terminate or suspend any of these activities if, in their opinion, continuing to do so would prejudice proceedings at the meeting. The circumstances in which termination or suspension might occur could include:

  • public disturbance or suspension of the meeting
  • the meeting agreeing to formally exclude the press and public from the meeting due to
    the confidential nature of the business being discussed
  • where it is considered that continued recording/photography/filming/webcasting might
    infringe the rights of any individual, and
  • when the Chairman, considers that a defamatory statement has been made.

In allowing this, the Council asks those recording proceedings not to edit the film/ record/ photographs in a way that could lead to misinterpretation of the proceedings, or infringe the core values of the Council. This includes refraining from editing an image or views expressed in a way that may ridicule, or show a lack of respect towards those being photographed/filmed/ recorded.

Those intending to bring large equipment, or wishing to discuss any special requirements are advised to contact the Council’s Communications Team in advance of the meeting to seek advice and guidance. The use of flash photography or additional lighting will not be allowed unless this has been discussed in advance of the meeting and agreement reached on how it can be done without disrupting proceedings.

At the beginning of each meeting, the Chairman will make an announcement that the meeting may be filmed, recorded or photographed. Meeting agendas will also carry this message.

Clearly the County Council’s protocol is much less restrictive on those seeking to film or otherwise record meetings. I note at the County Council meeting chairs are only able to ban filming if continuing would “prejudice proceedings at the meeting”. At the city council, under the current protocol a chair’s permission may be not given or withdrawn without any reason being given.

I think the County Council’s provision on enabling filming to be stopped following a defamatory statement being made is odd; as all it stops is the filming of the part of the meeting which occurs following that statement. I suspect that part of the policy is not written as intended. What might make sense is the chair drawing the attention of those filming the meeting to the potentially defamatory statement and perhaps urging them to take care if and when they decide to publish it.

What I Would Do

If I was a councillor on the committee I would opt for one of the optional alternative recommendations provided:

Permit recording at any meetings, with no restrictions other than those meetings or part of meetings which are exempt from the public

In addition I would suggest that the council’s existing officers consider filming council decisions of major public interest.

I would not allow members of the public to opt out of being filmed; if you decide to speak at a council meeting you are doing something in public. In my experience almost all of those speaking at council meetings are seeking attention for the cause which they are arguing for and would love to have it filmed. Often speakers attend on behalf of campaigning organisations and a film record would be useful for them to report back to their members on what happened.

Unfortunately despite there being a majority of Liberal Democrats on the committee there are no councillors who I would expect to be pro-openness. Rosensteil, Boyce and Herbert were on the committee when it brought in the restrictive protocol and Stuart was the Mayor shown in the video accompanying this article and Marchant-Daisley has let me know she will be absent. That just leaves Liberal Democrat Cllr Brierley who might stand by his manifesto commitments to openness and join me in calling for the relaxation of the restrictions on filming, he rarely makes substantive contributions to meetings though.

See Also

5 responses to “Cambridge City Council to Review Restrictive Filming and Photography Policy”

  1. I have written to the councillors on the committee pointing them to this article and the County Council’s policy.

  2. Well done Richard, I think, in the interests of democracy, it should be compulsory for all meetings to be recorded and archived with public access to the recordings. Maybe our MP could bring the subject up in Parliament.

  3. I attended the civic affairs committee meeting and used the public speaking slot to make most of the points noted above.

    The Decision

    The committee unanimously agreed (by nodding rather than a proper hands up vote) to recommend that the full council ditch the current restrictive filming protocol and take a much more liberal and minimalist approach. The exact wording of the proposal to be made to full council is to be agreed by the chair and opposition spokesperson, but it is to be based on the alternative option presented which was:

    Permit recording at any meetings, with no restrictions other than those meetings or part of meetings which are exempt from the public [ie. those parts from which the public are excluded due to confidential material being considered].

    An additional factor the committee decided was important, and which they added to their recommendation, was:

    • Members of the public attending a meeting should be given the opportunity to ask not to be filmed/photographed/recorded. (This applies to all members of the public, those who are just observing and those making use of public speaking opportunities).

    This is clearly fantastic and not far off what I was calling for.

    Councillors on the committee were assured that the details of the new lightweight procedure would be debated at full council so not having precise wording to agreed at the committee wasn’t a problem. The council’s Chief Executive proposed an additional point saying that filming must always be overt and the chair ought be aware of it, this however leads back to having to seek permission to film/photograph/record which the committee appeared to want to move away from.

    I think the details of what is proposed to the full council will need to be carefully looked at as if officers are involved in drafting the proposal I think there’s a chance it could end up being more restrictive than councillors would like. Councillors were clear that they wanted a situation where the expectation would be that council meetings may be filmed/photographed/recorded and this would be made very clear to the public via the agendas, the website, and by officers and the chair at meetings, but that members of the public would be given a chance to opt out of being filmed.

    One concern I have with the detail here is that it wasn’t clear if meeting chairs would be given the option to accept or reject a member of the public’s request not to be filmed/recorded. Personally I would like to see meeting chairs consider the public interest in a specific case and if they were to make an order banning filming clearly explain why. Should developers, or representatives from supermarkets, have any request for their contributions to planning and licensing meetings are not filmed granted? I’d argue probably not. What would happen if a councillor from another authority (eg. the County Council) wanted to use a public speaking slot and not be filmed, or more realistically, what if a senior police officer attending a committee didn’t want to be filmed what would happen then? In those cases I’d like to see chairs free to reject such requests if they thought it appropriate.

    There was some discussion about including wording from the County Council protocol asking those who filmed, recorded, or photographed, meetings to refrain from editing an image or views expressed in a way that may ridicule, or show a lack of respect towards those being photographed/filmed/ recorded. There appeared to be some support for that. I wouldn’t be surprised if that is considered to be the view of the committee and for it to make it into the new lightweight protocol too.

    Meeting Report

    Cllr Rosensteil spoke to me before the meeting and said things at the County Council were very different because they didn’t have public speakers on planning and licensing applications. I addressed this point, in addition to those outlined in my article, while speaking to the committee and noted that representations from the public in writing on such matters are made public and I didn’t think there was any reason also be able to publicise comments made in person at committee meetings (which can only come from those who’ve made written representations).

    The council’s Head of Democratic Services Gary Clift (Salary undisclosed) was invited by the committee to respond to the points I made.

    Mr Clift gave an assurance that the practice of requiring those filming to sit away from their recording equipment would not occur in the future even if the protocol remained unammended. Mr Clift promised that a more practical and accommodating approach would be taken in the case of any future filming and council officers would not be asked to turn equipment on and off.

    Mr Clift stated that city council officers were exempt from the provisions of the protocol and hence had been able to take photographs at area committee meetings without making applications to do so.

    The Chief Executive (Salary a hefty £117,859 every year) made a comment, she stated that the filming protocol had come into existance following a complaint from a member of the public about the filming of a meeting. The highly paid Chief Executive had her time line in a muddle because the protocol was agreed at a Full Council meeting held on Thursday July 22, 2010 and the complaint related to the North Area Committee on Thursday the 30th of September 2010. It is true though that the Civic Affairs committee recommended modifications to the protocol following the complaint and the report into it by the council’s independent complaints investigator and these were adopted by the full council.

    Cllr Simon Brierley asked what the nature of the complaint was. The meeting’s chair, Cllr Boyce ruled this could not be revealed in public session. Cllr Brierly asked for the information which could be given in public to be given to him, in outline form, the Chief Executive stated she wasn’t sure of the details but thought the issues related to a member of the public saying they were not aware filming was in progress. The details of the complaint have never been made public, she offered to research the position and let Cllr Brierley know.

    Mr Clift pointed to the letter from Local Government Minister Bob Neil which urges councils to be more open.

    Mr Clift noted that when the committee decided to review the implementation of the protocol after a year they had not expected there to be no applications to film/record/photograph to review.

    Mr Clift said there was a wide range of practice at other councils, ranging from a complete ban on filming to the situation at Brighton where he said they were very proactive about filming and spent £26K/year on it, and were renewing their contracts, he said that the filming in Brighton, implemented by a Green controlled council, had resulted in public engagement in the budget process.

    Mr Clift said that the functioning of council and its committees had to be the priority.

    The committee was told that professional filming of all council meetings would cost about £14,000 / year in Cambridge (I suspect this means formal full council meetings and not committees). They were also told that just recording the budget meeting would cost £2.5K.

    Mr Clift was asked about how much notice officers needed of a filming application. Mr Clift said that depended on where the meeting was held, and if signs were available; he said the more time available the less chance there would be for something procedurally to be missed.

    Labour Leader Cllr Herbert

    Labour Leader Cllr Herbert said he would support the council doing some filming itself, using a contractor, to record selected meetings. He suggested the annual statement, the best bits of the budget, and one other meeting. He told the meeting that he had watched the Brighton budget debate and thought the filming there had opened up that budget process to public scrutiny.

    Cllr Herbert said he understood the reservations about filming, but that thought the current restrictions, such filming from a fixed position was counterproductive and resulted in films which were unflattering. He noted he had been filmed from behind while projecting his voice in the opposite direction from the camera.

    Cllr Herbert proposed the committee adopt the alternative option of permitting recording at any meetings open to the public, but with a restriction that members of the public ought be able to ask not to be filmed. Cllr Herbert made clear he thought “councillors are fair game”.

    Liberal Democrat Cllr Rosenstiel

    Cllr Rosenstiel spoke to say he thought it was important members of the public were not surprised by filming. He then asked officers if there was any legal distinction between the press and the public (when I addressed the meeting I added that I didn’t think there ought be any such distinction). Rosenstiel noted the council’s custom and practice was to offer facilities to the press and noted that in the 1970s as a student he had attended a council meeting and sat at the press desk as a result of holding a press card as a student journalist.

    Cllr Rosensteil said that the public might report elements of council proceedings which the professional press would have the good sense not to report. He said “members of the public reporting on council meetings go places the serious professional media wouldn’t go”. Rosenstiel urged some kind of self regulation of those reporting council meetings.

    Rosenstiel said he wouldn’t want to see a member of the public exposed to public pillory as a result of something they said when addressing a council meeting. He said it was more important for for the council to hear from the public that it was to show itsself off to the world.

    Mr Clift responded to this saying the officer position was that the integrity of the meeting was paramount.

    Liberal Democrat Cllr Stuart

    Cllr Stuart said she had been the mayor when the first request to film a full council meeting was made.

    She said she was nervous about the filming as she was not comfortable with public speaking. She indicated that she now felt her actions restricting the filming of the meeting were not right, and said that she now supported the Labour proposal to delete the council’s filming protocol.

    Cllr Stuart spoke positively about the County Council’s protocol, and particularly urged taking the paragraph about not ridiculing or showing a lack of respect to councillors through the way material was used.

    Labour Cllr Benstead

    Cllr Benstead said that while it pained him to say it: “we need a more liberal view”. He added though that this had to be balanced with a need to “protect the public”, he said he didn’t want members of the public to be deterred from attending and participating, particularly in area committee meetings.

    Cllr Benstead expressed surprise at the high costs quoted for filming council meetings, and joked that at those prices we ought be getting a famous director producing the video.

    Liberal Democrat Cllr Brierley

    Cllr Brierley made a proposal to have a zone in the chamber which isn’t filmed/photographed, which members of the public not wishing to be filmed could sit in, and to put up clear signs that filming/photography etc. could take place.

    Liberal Democrat Cllr Boyce

    Cllr Boyce said there were three things he was concerned about:

    1. Protecting the public
    2. Making sure filming/photography/recording was overt
    3. Ensuring confidential material was not filmed or photographed

    Cllr Rosenstiel said there had once been a case of someone listening in on a closed council meeting through the door.

    Cllr Herbert

    The discussion closed with Cllr Herbert restating his proposal which he introduced by saying it would send the message “we are open”.

    It was unanimously accepted.

    A few other comments were made, primarily on the point that it needs to be very clear to those present that filming/photography may take place.

    Councillor Rosenstiel claimed that sometimes members of the public making representations to the licensing committee introduced details of their personal circumstances, he gave this as an example of the kind of thing he thought meeting chairs might, on request, prevent being filmed/photographed/recorded.

    Officer Mr Clift shared his view that the council was in a transition period. He said the direction of travel was moving from not permitting filming/photography, through the period of heavy restrictions and that it would now begin opening up. He suggested that at some point in the future there would be an expectation of complete openness. Notably his comment indicated he didn’t think that exception was the current state of affairs.

    I think this gets to the heart of the issue, that some people, currently, are not expecting a council meeting to be filmed/photographed etc. While I think cases for being permitted to address council meetings without being filmed or photographed are very rare I can see that councillors are only reflecting the current expectations of those they represent by seeking to enable members of the public who wish to to address meetings without being filmed or photographed.

    Next Step

    The new minimal lightweight protocol will be presented to full council on the
    19th of April 2012
    , councillors will be able to debate it, amend it, and adopt it should they wish. One thing to watch is that the committee was assured it would be open for debate despite some wording suggesting otherwise, and their decision was based on this information.

  4. The council’s current Filming and photography protocol (PDF) states:

    1. Anyone wishing to record must let the Chair of the meeting know and the recording must be overt (i.e clearly visible to anyone at the meeting). The Council will supply signs which will be deployed at any meeting all or part of which is to be recorded.
    2. The Chair of the meeting has absolute discretion to stop or suspend recording if in their opinion continuing to do so would prejudice proceedings at the meeting or if the person recording is in breach of these rules. The circumstances in which this
    might occur include :

    • – recording is disrupting the proceedings of the meeting
    • – there is public disturbance or a suspension of the meeting
    • -the meeting has resolved to exclude the public for reasons which are set down in the Council’s Constitution

    3. Any member of the public has the right not to be recorded. We ensure that agendas and signage at, council meetings make it clear that recording can take place if anyone does not wish to be
    recorded they must let the Chair of the meeting know
    4. The recording should not be edited in a way that could lead to misinterpretation or misrepresentation of the proceedings or infringement of the Council’s values or; in a way that ridicules or shows a lack of respect for those in the recording. The Council would expect any recording in breach of these rules to be removed from public view.

    The requirement to let the chair know means that it is not possible to spontaneously record if something interesting happens; or to record if you arrive late.

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