In November 2014 Cambridge City Councillors unanimously agreed to update their constitution in light of the new law. Cambridgeshire County Council’s stance on filming has been compatible with the law for many years as it encourages filming, recording and taking photographs at its meetings.
Despite the clear law I have recently experienced some challenges filming Cambridge City Council meetings. I have had a council officer stand in front of my camera, a councillor ask me to stop filming, and a councillor, in public during a meeting, state I was putting people in danger by filming council meetings.
I want to see recording and reporting on council meetings become an easy, routine, thing to do. I want to help remove hurdles which might deter individuals, professional journalists, campaign groups, and indeed anyone at all, from videoing, recording and photographing meetings. I want to see more material from council meetings on the TV, on local news websites, and being shared by individuals and campaign groups. I want to see groups discussing how the city is run being informed by reports, and footage, of councillors’ deliberations and decisions.
Since the new law came into force three members of the public who have used public speaking opportunities at council meetings have objected to my filming. Two objections were raised as the individuals started to speak, and one individual approached me in a break in the meeting after they had spoken.
I have spoken to all these people, and two of them explained their views to me. In both cases their objections were not only to filming but also to reporting of their contributions. In both cases the public speakers appeared not to appreciate they were contributing to a council meeting in public, minutes of which would be published, and which they should reasonably expect to be reported on.
- Members of the public not wishing to be recorded, or reported on, at council meetings should be invited to speak to officers, or the meeting’s chair, prior to the meeting. This would enable the nature of a meeting, as a meeting in public, to be explained, and advice given on more appropriate routes to raise matters individuals do not want to raise in public. Encouraging pre-meeting discussions might reduce the incidence of people being recorded asking not to be recorded as they start to speak. People’s reasons for not wishing to be filmed, could if they wished, be made public at the meeting enabling those recording to consider them when deciding if to record, or subsequently publish the material. Exactly what an individual objected to: filming, minuting, reporting, audio recording etc. could also be clarified.
- The council should publicise the right to record meetings, both to encourage more reporting from council meetings and so members of the public attending and contributing to meetings are not surprised by recording and reporting. The council already place clear signs at meetings noting recording may take place so go a long way towards this.
- p176 of the Cambridge City Council constitution states: “Anyone who does not wish to be recorded should let the Chair of the meeting know.” This message is repeated on meeting agendas. Making this statement without noting the right to film and record can mislead people into thinking public speakers have a right to insist their contributions are not recorded, or even reported on. I have seen a meeting chair make clear they have no power to stop filming but such a statement is not routine. I think if any statement on filming, recording or reporting is made the right to record ought be mentioned.
- Meeting chairs, and councillors in general, should be aware that not all recording will be overt. Comments and directions relating to filming should be made to all present and should not specifically target those recording overtly. Councillors should take care not to try and control who can effectively report on council meetings.
- The council should open up formal routes for participating in council meetings without needing to appear in person.
Why Film, Record or Report on Members of the Public?
I think it’s important to address the question of why members of the public might be filmed or recorded at council meetings. One reason is simply they may be present in footage focused on councillors. Two problems I have experienced at the North Area Committee occurred when filming a councillor who had chosen to sit among members of the public rather than on the “top table” alongside other councillors. At some council meetings many councillors sit among the public.
In addition public speakers can, sometimes, have a huge influence on councillors’ decisions, which in turn impact many people’s lives, on occasion significantly.
Influence of Public Speakers
Public speakers can have a huge influence on decisions which councillors make. Recent North Cambridge police priorities focusing on anti-social cycling appear to have emerged as a result of public speakers at meetings complaining about cycling on pavements (with councillors not questioning speakers on if they were referring to legal use of shared use pavements or not).
Other clear cases of members of the public having significant impact on councillors have occurred. One came when Emma Chin made an emotive speech to the West Central Area Committee prompting councillors to support a shake-up in Cambridge’s residents’ parking permit regulations.
A further astonishing case occurred when councillors on the South Area Committee decided to allow a home to be split into two dwellings after a public speaker made an emotive contribution saying the extra rent which could be obtained for a split property was required to pay for care costs.
Given the huge and clear influence public speakers can have on substantial civic decisions I think it is right to film, record, and report on what they say at public council meetings.
I think many councillors struggle to consider the wider public interest when faced with a person passionately putting a case directly to them.
Don’t the Minutes Suffice?
It has been suggested to me that the minutes of meetings ought be all that’s required to support reports and actions following council meetings.
Councillors at Cambridge City Council meetings generally vote by putting their hands up, votes by individuals councillors are rarely recorded. Video footage enables people to see how individual councillors have voted on particular matters. My first photograph at a council meeting was taken to record a very important vote where who voted which way was not captured by the minutes.
Minutes are not a complete record of what was said, they are generally a summary, and what goes in them is controlled by councillors. Minutes also take a long time to emerge whereas photographs, video and tweets from meetings can disseminate news, and decisions, much more rapidly.
Councillors’ body language, and reactions to other speakers, can also be of interest. A video or photograph can show if a councillor is listening to debate or chatting with others on the sidelines of a meeting.
A video clip, or photograph, is also simply more engaging than text buried deep on the council’s website.
Some have suggested a transcript of a meeting would preclude the need to film or record. Transcripts are very expensive and/or time consuming to produce. Recording would be needed to base any transcript on. Transcripts are very useful, I’ve produced a couple (eg. Labour Anti House Sharing Motion Defeated and Cambridgeshire Police and Crime Panel – March 2014). I think all means of reporting, recording and sharing what goes on at a council meeting should be encouraged.
September North Area Committee
I experienced some challenges filming Cambridge City Council’s North Area Committee, on Thursday the 10th of September 2015. What should have been something simple and routine turned into a very challenging and time consuming exercise.
I didn’t attend the meeting primarily to film and report on the meeting, I went to listen to my fellow local residents’ views and concerns and to observe my local councillors using their opportunity to hold the local police to account and set the area’s new policing priorities. I also went to participate, by lobbing councillors in public, via the routes for public participation in the meeting.
There were a number of reasons I decided to film the meeting. I thought it was something useful I could do for the society I live in; a way I could altruistically volunteer to do something of use to my fellow residents of North Cambridge. Filming meetings enables those who couldn’t, or didn’t, attend to watch what happened at a time that suits them.
I also think its valuable to publicise what our councillors do; I hope that greater transparency will lead to better councillors being elected which in turn will lead to a safer, more pleasant and prosperous city where more people can find an appropriate place to live, and where there are fewer crime and road related injuries and I and other residents will be in a better position to pursue the endeavours we choose.
When I lobby councillors I like to do so in public and filming allows me to share how I used councillors’ valuable time at the publicly funded event. I am a passionate believer in democracy and seek to engage with our democratic system as a route to solving problems, or capitalising on untapped opportunities, I have become aware of. I generally push for systemic change via our democratic system rather than focusing on for example direct action, or legal action as a response to matters I come across.
A video of the meeting enables me to support my tweets and other reports with additional evidence if their accuracy is challenged, it also helps when acting on occurrences and bringing them to the attention of others such as the established media, elected representatives who were not present themselves, and other campaigners.
I was aware that some councillors at the North Area Committee, and some regular attendees, opposed the filming of local council meetings, despite the new, clear, law. Perhaps weakly, and in the interests of avoiding conflict, I decided only to aim my camera at councillors, and “top table” speakers – public sector officers including the local police sergeant.
Signs were present on the doors to the meeting room, and at the front of the room, making clear to those attending that filming and recording may take place, inviting people who didn’t want to be filmed to let the chair know. There were also notices in the meeting papers. I filmed in a very overt manner with a camcorder on top of a large tripod.
Filming council meetings is becoming routine and for almost an hour I just left my camera running filming proceedings and no reference was made to it. (Others may well have been recording, and photographing, more surreptitiously).
No one during the whole meeting asked not to be filmed prior to starting to make their contribution.
During the policing item there was a discussion of enforcement of the overnight vehicle weight restriction which applies to Victoria Road. The local, Arbury Ward, County Council Paul Sales (Labour) was referred to in the debate, a resident speaking on the matter spoke of correspondence with him. Cllr Sales as the County Councillor would also be the appropriate elected representative to pursue various solutions to the problems such as better publicity and signage for the weight restrictions. Cllr Sales’ apologies for absence had been given at the start of the meeting and he was not present alongside other councillors at the table with microphones at the front of the room which I was filming.
When another public speaker began to make a contribution I turned round to listen and was astonished to see Cllr Paul Sales sitting in the public seating at the back of the room. I thought it was scandalous and appalling that he had not stepped up and identified himself when he, and his ward, had been mentioned. I thought it very important to record Cllr Sales’ behaviour and the way he was failing to take part in the discussion. I thought some Arbury residents might not realise their councillor was present. I turned my camera to record Cllr Sales’ presence in the room.
When I turned my camera around suddenly the individual speaking pointed at the camera and rather impassionedly, and loudly, said: “excuse me, I don’t want to be filmed will you please turn that away from me”, the speaker immediately repeated the statement saying “excuse me will you please turn that away from me and I want it recorded that I have asked for you not to record me”. By the time this statement had been made a council officer had taken a position in front of my camera obstructing its view and the individual stated “right thank you” and continued with their speech.
I note the request was specifically made towards me, it was a request that I didn’t film, it was not a notification to the chair that the individual did not want their contribution filmed, or recorded, by anyone present.
I did not take any action. The event was apparently over before I had even begun to take in what was happening.
I thought there was a significant public interest in filming Cllr Sales and was keen to keep doing so. I was not able to instantly determine if ceasing to film the individual complaining was appropriate, she may well have been about to make a newsworthy contribution to the meeting which there could have been a significant public interest in recording and publicising.
A few seconds later, after the member of the public’s speech had concluded, I turned the camera around to film a statement by the meeting’s chair, Cllr Mike Todd-Jones who said:
Can I ask Mr Taylor, erm, obviously you are allowed to film this meeting but can I ask you to respect the wishes of the public not to be filmed thank you.
I think it was wrong of the chair to address his comments to me. If he had wished to relate the member of the public’s request not to have their contribution filmed, photographed or recorded he should have addressed that to all those present; I don’t think he should have used his position to reiterate the individual’s specific request to me.
Imagine if a public speaker only wanted their contribution to be filmed by an individual, or organisation, they thought would give them favourable coverage for example. Consider a party candidate for election only allowing their contribution to the meeting to be filmed by one of their party activists – would such a request be endorsed by the chair in the same way?
I decided to use a valuable opportunity to address the meeting to explain my actions and seek confirmation for myself, and others, that the individual at the back of the room was, as I suspected, Cllr Sales. I put my hand up to indicate I would like to speak and waited to be called. A few minutes later I was able to say:
Could you clarify if Arbury’s County Councillor Paul Sales is present at today’s meeting. I thought I spotted him at the back of the room which was why I turned my camera towards him. He was mentioned during the item discussing Victoria Road and as correspondence with him was mentioned and a number of his constituents are here I thought it was right to try and report how he was performing this evening holding the police to account for the priorities set.
Once I had finished speaking the Chair, Cllr Mike Todd-Jones said:
Cllr Sales, would you like to join us?
Cllr Sales declined to move, saying something about waiting for an appropriate moment, he also emitted some unintelligible mumbling. Had Cllr Sales been at his seat at the table he would have had a microphone though which to address the meeting. Cllr Sales did eventually move to the front table but took no part in the discussion but did join in the unanimous vote to agree the police priorities.
I have filmed many public meetings and two times I’ve encountered a problem while filming related to my filming of Cllr Sales while Cllr Sales has chosen to sit in the public seating. (Article on the previous occurrence.)
Following the meeting the leader of Cambridge City Council has tweeted to support councillors choosing to sit in the public seating.
The public speaker who objected to being filmed was Kay Harris, a representative elected by Cambridge City Council’s tenants (there are around 7,000 council homes so at one vote each Kay Harris has a larger constituency than any North Cambridge councillor). While Kay Harris was not taking part in the meeting in her role as an elected representative councillors may have been aware of the role and given more weight to her contribution in light of it.
Later in the meeting, still within the policing item, one of my local councillors Kevin Price (Labour) spoke to accuse me of being a threat to the safety of the area, saying:
Thank you chair, yes.
Given that the heading of this is “police and safer neighbourhoods” I do want to raise the issue of Mr Taylor earlier on refusing to accede to a member of the public’s wishes not to be filmed whilst addressing this meeting.
We as councillors know that we are here and you can film us that’s what we are here for.
You do not know Mr Taylor that any of the people in this room are not victims of domestic violence, that they are not reporting a crime for which there may very well be repercussions, when your video appears on YouTube.
So from my point of view, and I mean I hope I’m speaking for all of us. Film us. Film those members of the public that don’t mind you filming them. But when you are asked to stop filming them, stop filming them because you could be putting people in danger and I think I can’t stress that highly enough. You need to stop and grow up.
I have experienced something similar before when Liberal Democrat Councillor Belinda Brooks-Gordon claimed that my filming of meetings could result in her constituents being burgled.
An individual who I believe was regular North Area Committee attendee Leila Dockerill, apparently stirred into action by Cllr Price’s speech shouted out “you can take mine off then”.
Cllr Price was applauded by the deputy leader of the council, Carina O’Reilly and Cllr Margery Abbott.
I think Cllr Price abused his position to attack me. Had Cllr Price wished to report my, or any other individual’s, behaviour to the police, alleging that people are being put in danger he should have used a route other than a public meeting to raise those concerns about specific people.
I don’t see the relevance of any of those present being victims of domestic violence. Filming of public areas and events is common and if someone is in public they may well be filmed and their image put online. We have a clear law, and the fact filming may take place at the meeting was clearly signed. Those attending a council meeting should expect to be filmed, recorded, photographed. It is now common place for filming and photography to take place at meetings.
Does Cllr Price think that someone at a televised football match ought be able to suddenly declare they don’t wish to be filmed prompting broadcasters to immediately cease recording?
As for people reporting a crime for which there may be repercussions – that’s a bizarre statement as an area committee is not a route though which people can, or do, report crime. If someone did seek to report a crime I suspect they would be stopped by the chair or police and advised to use a more suitable route.
During a break in the meeting I approached both Leila Dockerill and Kay Harris, and offered them my contact details if they wanted to get in touch with me to set out any concernes they might have with my publication of material recorded at the meeting. Both declined.
The next filming related occurrence came as I was approached by Gaynor who had spoken earlier in the meeting. Gaynor claimed not to have realised I was “running that camera” and asked: “Did you film me asking that question?”, I said yes, Gayor then asked me to “remove it”. Gaynor’s field of work was cited as grounds for making the request.
I offered my contact details and invited Gaynor to write to me to explain what there case was for not publishing the material and gave an assurance to balance that against the public interest in publication. Essentially while as an individual I am not subject to much of the Data Protection Act I am prepared to go above and beyond what’s required of me and voluntarily behave as if I am.
I try very hard to act considerately and responsibly. I was filming a local council meeting in the area where I live.
I explained that my concerns about setting a policing priority to tackle vehicles disobeying a weight restriction, over crimes causing injuries and harm. Gaynor said: “so you’d rather put my life at risk… my personal safety”. Later Gaynor clarified she was happy with my publication of her first name and voice but wanted her image and surname to be removed from my publication and reporting. Cllr Kevin Price assured Gaynor that her name would not be included in the published minutes (public speakers were named in the previous minutes, and names were requested on the question submission from, and read out by the chair). I doubt Cllr Price was in a position to give the assurance he gave but it will be interesting to see if councillors debate Gaynor’s request at the next meeting.
I do not think Gaynor’s claim that her life, or safety, would be put at risk by publishing her image or surname is credible. While I am not publishing her surname here I am not concerned about publishing material which could identify her. Gaynor publishes a detailed LinkedIn page which shows she is an ex Cambridgeshire County Council officer, it gives details of her current work as a consultant to local councils. Gaynor works through her own consultancy business (apparently as a sole trader) which is listed on various websites including 192.com and Hoovers.com giving a domestic residential address (Gaynor claimed to keep where she lives private). A photograph of Gaynor can easily be found online. Gaynor’s work for local councils is published with her name on it, and it has been covered in the national media, with her name mentioned. It doesn’t appear to me that my publication of a surname and image would add to the information already openly available, some of which is published by Gaynor directly.
I am concerned that Gaynor is someone who thinks that feigning upset and claiming her life could be put at risk by the publication of her name and image is a way to dissuade reporting of her public, civic, actions.
My conclusion is that publication of the surname and image would be perfectly reasonable and could not conceivably create any increased risk to Gaynor’s safety. I removed Gaynor’s image from my initial publication of the video from the meeting to allow Gaynor to write to me to explain why she thinks I should not publish footage of her at the meeting. At the time of writing, well over a month later, I have received no such correspondence.
Arguments for publication include enabling those not present at the meeting to see a fuller, less censored, version of events. Around 37,000 people live in the area covered by the North Area Committee and only a handful were present observing the meeting in person. Not censoring Gaynor’s surname might it easier for people to get in touch with Gaynor – perhaps local media might want to invite her to debate her views on the policing priorities in other fora such as TV or radio interviews, or in the newspapers. A robust public debate might then help inform the next round of police priority setting by councillors.
I have also considered that councillors considering engaging Gaynor to carry out work for them perhaps ought be aware of Gaynor’s fears that her work could put her safety at risk – something which might have an impact on what she includes, or omits, from reports.
Leila Dockerill then approached me, pointed at the camera and said: “If I’m on there I’ll sue you”. I offered my contact details again, I think her reply to me was: “I don’t want to talk to you” and the line “if I’m on there I’ll sue you” was repeated. As of over a month later I’ve not received details of any claim, no letter before action, and indeed no correspondence at all from Leila Dockerill.
In response to me offering my contact details to Kay Harris I got the response: “I’ll just knock on your door and speak to you because I know where you live”. I replied “yes, you’re welcome to do that” I have not had any visit in-person and no note through my door to suggest a visit while I’ve been out.
The further individual who had not spoken during the meeting and was interfering in my conversation with Gaynor said: “I will put in a formal complaint” expressed a desire for me to be banned from attending council meetings. Given correspondence following the meeting I believe this to be Aslan Shand. I have briefly responded to the messages I have received from Aslan Shand to state they do not accurately reflect what occurred.
Despite acting in as careful, and responsible, a manner as possible and trying to avoid conflict, after filming the meeting I was subject to a couple of days of persistent opprobrium via Twitter from people opposing my actions. Some people including who was at the time a councillor support the recording and publication of full, unedited, recordings of meetings.
I would like to see filming, recording, and reporting council meetings become easy and routine. I would like to see the established media filming and photographing meetings. My experience shows there is still work to do to change the culture to make it easy for people to use their right to film and report.
I am very concerned that by acting in a responsible manner and editing out individuals from my footage while considering publication I am setting a high bar for others who may wish to record, and report, on council meetings. I suspect many more people will have the ability to use a mobile phone to record, and share, a clip of a council meeting than will have the equipment, capability and time to selectively edit, crop and censor footage. There is also a question of how many people will be willing to put themselves in a position where they are at risk of being attacked for their activities by councillors and the wider public.
A journalist who was a member of the National Union of Journalists, and subject to their rules, which include a code of conduct would be required to resist “threats or any other inducements to influence, distort or suppress information”. I’ve certainly censored my footage from North Area Committee as a result of attempts to make me do so. I hope that my being open about what has happened and why I’ve taken the action I have goes some way to mitigate the impact of my decision.
I have spoken to many professional journalists about recording council meetings, for publication / sharing in Cambridge and while time and resources is the top reason given for not doing so a close second is concerns about how to respond to requests from councillors, or members of the public, not to film or record and the potential for conflict. I should note I have been aware a number of journalists, and others, recording meetings, but not in a particularly overt manner, so not attracting comment from councillors or public speakers.
As for publishing the removed material from the September 2015 North Area Committee, I have considered this and think that the additional benefit gained by the publication, now I have published a redacted version, does not make it worth doing.
I face risks to my own reputation from any course of action I take. Reputation matters as without it I can’t as effectively campaign to remove injustices I have experienced and observed in our society and try and make Cambridge, the UK and the wider world a more pleasant place to live.
I note that in Cambridge I report on and engage with, what our elected representatives do as an individual, I am not protected by any corporate body.
I think it is right to try and use our democratic system as a route to improve our society (as opposed to turning first to other options such as direct action, legal action) and publicising what our elected representatives do is a key part of how I am seeking change.
West Central Area Committee
At Cambridge’s West Central Area Committee on the 30th of September 2015 member of the public Richard Price asked not to be filmed saying:
No filming please.
as he began to speak. Cllr Marie-Louise Holland intervened to say:
So that needs to be respected.
Can you switch it off.
He doesn’t want filming.
Switch it off.
The meeting’s chair, Cllr Cantrill, said “Just turn the camera away from the resident…. he wasn’t keen on ermm… I’m happy to be filmed …. at my face”
Mr Price made a contribution to the meeting on air quality and later urged councillors to ask the police “if some very serious examples could be made of” cyclists, he said:
A small minority of cyclists are continuing to behave dangerously. My wife, at two o’clock this afternoon was almost felled by a cyclist on the corner by the Cambridge University Press Bookshop and it’s cyclists going too fast, cycling the wrong way down a one-way street, cycling fast along pavements, and jumping red traffic lights, all of these things, ignoring pedestrian crossings, and it really is a discouragement for pedestrians and the older one gets the more timid one becomes, because cyclists can be very aggressive. I’m sure it is a minority but I think it would be helpful if some very serious examples could be made of some of these people so that the message gets across
While at this meeting councillors ignored Mr Price’s comments at other meetings public calls for action against cyclists have resulted in policing priorities being set targeting cyclists.
I’m concerned that priorities by councillors putting too much weight on emotive, in person, speeches from people like Mr Price claiming his wife was “almost felled” by a cyclist and not putting enough weight on what causes injuries, what causes serious injuries, what crimes impact people in other ways and the costs of crime.
If councillors had accepted Mr Price’s wishes we could have seen unfortunate students, new to Cambridge and perhaps new to the UK, arrested and charged with serious crimes for failing to rapidly get to grips with Cambridge City Centre’s complex rules on where you can and cannot cycle. (I personally didn’t spot the cycle by-passes to no-entry signs until reading the Cycling Campaign / County Council cycling map years after I arrived in the city).
I spoke to Mr Price after the meeting, he was keen to see cyclists dealt with as violent offenders or those threatening violence would be. While he wasn’t clear in the public session of the meeting he told me he was happy to have his voice recorded, but didn’t want to be filmed. When I noted there had been some response on Twitter to his choice of language he said he also didn’t want his comments reported.
Mr Price until recently has been a committee member of the Park Street residents association and appears to remain a committee member of the apparently inactive Jesus Green Association.
I mention this because Liberal Democrat Cllr Ian Manning has suggested anyone representing a lobby group ought not be able to opt out of being filmed. Cllr Manning has not proposed a motion to either Cambridgeshire County Council or Cambridge City Council’s North Area Committee seeking to get those bodies to take a stance of opposing the law giving a general right to film local council meetings. Similarly Cllrs Holland, Price, O’Reilly and Abbot have failed to back up their comments with proposals to change their council’s rules.
My Views and Suggestions
I’m generally very happy with the current position – we have a clear right to film local council meetings set out in law.
I think Cambridge City Council’s position of inviting those who don’t want to be filmed to let the chair know, might give people a false expectation that they have a right to demand not to be filmed at a council meeting. I thought Cllr Blencowe’s statement to a September 2014 East Area Committee was fairly clear, if a little garbled, he said :
I can request and I will happily do so if necessary that filming proceedings that those who may not wish to be filmed may be stopped on polite request to the person filming but unfortunately I cannot require that person to stop filming if they do not comply with that polite request. I can of course stop recording if it disrupts the meeting itself.
Explaining more clearly that the law does not give the council, or individuals, a right to stop or prevent filming might help prevent people being surprised by recording and reporting of meetings. I think that once the existence of the law permitting the filming etc. of council meetings becomes more widely known the problems will disappear.
Cambridge’s North Area Committee currently requires public speakers to give their names, names are recorded in the minutes. I have tried using a pseudonym but the chair insisted on calling me by the name he knew me as.
Councillors may want to consider allowing people to submit questions without giving their names. I have suggested making it possible to submit questions to council meetings via an online forum enabling participation by those who can’t, or don’t want to, attend meetings in person. Online deliberation could advance debate, and enable information to be gathered, making better use of the time at the public meeting.
Councillors may wish to adopt procedure for people to make submissions anonymously in person – akin to those used for an anonymous witness in court. I don’t think an area of a meeting room which is not visible from permitted camera positions is practical – how would you control who can access the private area, and how could you stop people inside recording?
I’ve thought about the kind of situation where such a facility might be sought – for example a scientist who conducts animal experiments wanting to support a planning application for an animal research laboratory in the face of threats to their life from animal rights extremists. I think even in that, most extreme of examples, if someone wants to take part in a public meeting they need to be prepared to be filmed and reported and if the actions of criminals are threatening the functioning of our democracy and preventing or deterring people from taking part then we, and our councillors, should ask our police forces to facilitate democratic decision making.
I want to also add that the fall out from what ought to have been a simple civic action, filming a local council meeting, turned into a highly stressful experience both at the meeting itself and afterwards as it has been very time consuming editing footage, dealing with debate on Twitter, and preparing this article.
Some, but not all, of the challenges I have faced have occurred during the policing agenda item at area committee meetings.
It is notable that filming of Neighbourhood Panel Meetings in Swavesey, by the police themselves has been controversial. The police live stream the meetings and make the footage available online.
The neighbourhood watch village co-ordinator has resigned in protest and the parish council has written to the police, their MP and the Home Secretary to complain. Chief Insp J Sutherland has responded:
On the subject of the live-streaming of meetings: this was a pilot attempt to increase participation and inclusion. I am keenly aware that not everyone who would wish to attend the panel meeting is able to do so due to traveling times or work/family commitments. I strongly believe that we need to do everything we can to make these meetings open to all and that policing decisions should be made as openly and transparently as possible. I would also stress that these panel meetings have always been public, never closed, and that they have never been the correct forum for sensitive or confidential matters to be raised. We emphasis this point at our meetings and our staff make themselves available after the meeting for any private matters to be raised confidentially. The email to which you refer was not a notification of a change in format but rather an attempt to publicise the live-link to the panel meetings.
In the event, the live-streaming was a considerable success. We received many positive emails and comments in person. We were subsequently advised by one of the regional NHW co-ordinators that nobody had raised any concerns to him about the live-streaming and no other concerns were made to us – quite the opposite. The overall ‘look and feel’ of the meeting was not affected and nearly 250 people logged in over the course of the three evenings, compared to about 60 people who attended in person. We were able to engage with people on-line in real time and this now makes it possible for anyone in South Cambs to attend these meetings irrespective of their personal circumstances. Furthermore this was achieved at virtually zero cost to the tax-payer. In my view this represents a successful experiment in digital democracy and we intend to carry it on, while ensuring that the appropriate safe- guards are in place for those attending the meeting in person.
I agree with what the Chief Inspector has said and think the same case can be made for filming, and publicising meetings in Cambridge where police priorities are set after hearing from the public and where councillors get the opportunity to hold the police to account locally for their performance.
Changes do upset some people. Those such as neighbourhood watch co-ordinators and people purporting to represent others via residents associations might well see their power and influence eroded by opening up meetings to the public more widely. I don’t think this is a bad thing, you can’t always avoid upset when things change and you have to take a balanced view weighing up any individual upset against the public benefits.
Chief Executive’s Letter
The Chief Executive at Cambridge City Council wrote to me on the 13th of September 2015:
Dear Mr Taylor
I have been reading your tweets to day suggesting that you are considering making available footage from last week’s North Area committee which includes footage of people who specifically asked you not to film them or show film of them.
Please do not do this. I am not asking you because the council does not want the content of their questions in the public domain, but because those individuals have specifically asked you not to do this . I believe it is a reasonable request that a reasonable film maker would listen to and act upon.
I know you have a strongly held view that people who are at public meetings are in the public domain and you may not be able to empathise with the distress this is causing them. But it is causing them real distress that could be easily be alleviated by you not showing this footage.
I would be more than happy to meet with you to discuss how we can balance your desire to film all aspects of future council meetings with the needs of those individuals who wish not to be filmed. Because it is something where I believe we do need to find a balance and it would be helpful to try to find a way through this before you film another meeting where similar issues might arise.
I don’t think the Chief Executive of a council should be writing to those reporting on meetings in this way. Before becoming Chief Executive this same officer wrote to me to pass on a councillor’s complaints about my reporting of a meeting.
Personally I would find it harder to report as fully and comprehensively on the content of public questions raised at council meetings if I was not able to record them.
I have now, in this article, made a number of suggestions for reducing the chances of members of the public being upset by recording and reporting of council meetings.
As well as being published online via Twitter, YouTube, Vimeo and my own website footage I have taken at public council meetings has been published on the Cambridge News website and broadcast on the BBC and ITV, it can clearly help get what our councillors’ antics in front of a much wider audience than are ever present observe in person. There is also an indirect effect as published footage enables others wishing to report, second hand, from meetings to obtain quotes and records of votes.
I think there is clear value in recording and reporting from council meetings in the way I do. I equally think that if someone just wanted to use their phone to record an exchange for their own personal purposes that would be an equally valid exercise of the right to record at a council meeting.
To an extent I use technology to make up for what I am unable to do without it. It enables me to see further – to read name plates and work out who is speaking for example and to play back comments made a number of times to try and work out what was said. Restrictions on using technology would make meetings less accessible to me and I expect more so for others who rely on technology even more.
I have in the past, before the new law came in, been asked by meeting chairs and officers not to film children taking part in council meetings. Children can be used by parents to present views to councillors, and people who may well be children, the mayor’s cadet and the mayor’s work experience student, play a role in council meetings. Children are on occasion observers of council meetings; generally a class or two will be invited to the council’s annual general meeting for example. Prior to the law coming in Cambridge City Council’s rules allowed people to opt out of being filmed, I took the view that children were not capable of making the opt in/out decision so did not film their contributions to meetings, or them observing. Now I think that parents ought be aware that council meetings are public places where all those present could be filmed and filming all those present and taking part is reasonable. I would oppose any system which involved asking people their ages before allowing participation.
I’ve seen comments made at council meetings by members of the public appear on the front page of the local paper, my own contributions have been live tweeted onto the Cambridge News website front page. Council meetings are clearly public events where what anyone says and does ought be expected to be reported and shared in all manner of ways.
I hope that the problems I have experienced will go away as people become more used to council meetings being events which are routinely recorded and reported.
- Cambridge City Councillors Considering Updating Filming Rules Following New Law – September 2014
- Lights, Make-up and Extra Pay Required if Councillors to Be Filmed – March 2014
- Live Streaming of Special Cambridge City Council Full Council on the Local Plan – February 2014
- Video – Cambridge North Area Committee – 21 November 2013 – November 2013
- New Law on Filming Meetings of Local Government Bodies – November 2013
- Cllr Mike Pitt Goes Rogue Restricting Filming at Cambridge North Area Committee – October 2013
- Minister Eric Pickles Cites My Tips for Reporting on Local Councils – August 2013
- Tips for Observing and Reporting on Public Meetings in Local Government – July 2013
- Battle to Film at Huntingdonshire District Council – June 2013
- Cambridge City Council to Review Restrictive Filming and Photography Policy – March 2012
- Cambridge City Council Seek To Control Use of Footage of Councillors – April 2012
- Asking to Film and Ask Public Questions at Cambridge City Council – April 2012
- Speaking About My Filming Ban at the Cambridge City Council Civic Affairs Committee – November 2010
- Cambridge City Council Bans Filming Meetings – November 2010
- Cambridge City Council Complaints Investigator Reports on Filming Protocol – November 2010
- Seeking Permission to Record Cambridge City Council Meetings – September 2010