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.
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:
FILMING, VIDEOING, PHOTOGRAPHY AND AUDIO RECORDING AT COUNCIL MEETINGS
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.
- Cambridge City Council Bans Filming Meetings – November 2010
- Speaking About My Filming Ban at the Cambridge City Council Civic Affairs Committee – November 2010
- Seeking Permission to Record Cambridge City Council Meetings – September 2010
- Cambridge City Council Complaints Investigator Reports on Filming Protocol – November 2010
- Message from the council claiming I breached their photo policy by photographing a publicly funded buffet at a council meeting – July 2009