As an activist trying to make the way our society is run more open and transparent I regularly observe, film and tweet public meetings of councils and other bodies in and around Cambridge. Based on that experience I am offering some tips for those planning to attend and report on meetings where councillors and others take decisions locally:
- Arrive at the building where the meeting is to be held in good time as getting in might be trickier than you expect. Anticipate finding the main entrance locked and having to rattle the doors or find a side entrance to gain entry. If you experience this why not try and encourage councillors and officers to open up the doors and welcome members of the public?
- Be prepared for the police to be called and the possibility of arrest, especially if you intend to film, photograph, tweet or take notes on a laptop. Think through in advance how you will deal with the police when they arrive; you could for example ask them to facilitate your right to observe the meeting so long as you are not being disruptive. If arrested, once removed from the council building, ask if your continued arrest can still be justified and ask to be “de-arrested” if it cannot.
- Consider taking your passport. Some public bodies require ID before allowing people to observe their meetings; others request visitors “sign in”. I’ve had a council officer ask for my name so it could be put to the chair to see if the chair will permit me to observe a public meeting and have been asked to identify and introduce myself once a meeting has got under-way. Such challenges, if you are prepared for them, can be an opportunity to stress public meetings ought be open to all, and access shouldn’t depend identifying yourself.
- Take a torch. On a number of occasions I have left the public gallery of a council meeting late at night after a long meeting only to find myself alone, in the dark, in an unfamiliar building trying to find my way out.
- Develop a strong bladder. While public meetings can drag on for hours often there can be no access to toilets for members of the public observing; councillors may have their own, strictly “members only”, facilities which they access using a special key fob.
- Find out about the council’s rules on filming, and reporting on meetings. This will enable you to respond to the almost inevitable challenges. Often these rules will be hidden deep within the council’s constitution, which is likely to be hundreds of pages long. Try sections relating to the conduct of meetings, or headed “rules of procedure”.
- Analyse the rules carefully. Try to determine if the chair has the power to expel members of the public for anything other than being disruptive. If they don’t, as is often the case, then presumably non-disruptive tweeting, filming and photography will have to be permitted. If challenged ask if you are being considered disruptive. A meeting’s chair can rule the act of silently tweeting is disruptive, as happened to me at Wisbech Town Council. Being on the receiving end of such a manifestly indefensible ruling can be useful though as it is an excellent basis on which to lobby to change the rules afterwards.
- Take binoculars. These can be useful for identifying what councillors are doing during their meetings. What magazines councillors are reading during debates and if they’re doing the Sudoku or the crossword to help pass the time, are, I have learned from experience, of particular interest to constituents following live tweets from meetings.
- Use the press desks. Having a place to put your notes, laptop and papers can make following proceedings much easier, some press desks even have access to a power point. Council officers may well claim they hold lists of accredited press representatives who they accord special privileges, such as use of desks, if so ask to see these lists and details of procedures for becoming accredited as they are likely not to exist.
- Follow Minister Eric Pickles’ advice and ask what facilities are available for citizen journalists. You might strike it lucky, and be offered access to guest Wi-Fi, or a photo sheet or seating map to help you identify participants.
- Take a flask and some snacks. Often meetings will drag on for hours, and at some point in the middle of proceedings councillors will take a long break for some, usually taxpayer funded, refreshments.
- Politely ignore council officers. Council officers may well try and prevent, deter, or obstruct you observing, recording, or reporting from, a meeting. Be polite, but don’t accept what they say, and insist on a ruling from the chair. If the chair seeks to address you in person, insist they make their ruling from the chair while the meeting is in session. People’s positions can change when they have declare and defend them formally and in public. I used this strategy successfully recently at Huntingdonshire District Council; prior to the meeting the chair was adamant I would not be permitted to film and ordered me to dismantle my camera, but when sitting in the chair at the start of the meeting did allow filming.
- Expect to be challenged by councillors on subjects such as your political affiliations, aspirations for elected office, and the technical capabilities of your equipment.
- Be prepared for the whole meeting to be a charade; with party members having already decided which way they will vote in private group pre-meetings. It’s not unusual for many councillors to sit in silence throughout proceedings.
- Follow any really silly rules to the letter. For example if councillors decide you can only film them from behind, and without panning or zooming the camera, don’t let this put you off. Film councillors’ balding heads as they speak away from the camera; put this unflattering footage on YouTube and eventually perhaps they’ll realise this isn’t a great way to portray their activities to the electorate and it could prompt them to modify their rules.
- Try to find the meeting papers online and take a copy along so you can follow proceedings. If unpublished papers are tabled at the meeting take care when asking to be passed a copy. I was once thrown out of a meeting for simply asking for a copy of a paper under discussion. Always be prepared for a sudden and unexpected turn of events; an unpleasant ejection can occur at any moment; keeping all your belongings in your bag so you can easily grab them as you are thrown out is a good idea.
- Ask to sit where you can see and hear proceedings. Often public galleries can be a long way from the action, and you might not even be able to see all those involved from them, and it can be difficult to hear what’s going on too. In some councils seats from which it’s easy to follow what’s going on are reserved for “honorary councillors” who are unlikely to be present unless there’s a lot of ceremonial dressing up going on or a particularly good meal on offer.
- If there’s a public speaking slot, try and find out the rules for contributing, questions may need to be submitted in advance and you might not be allowed to say anything you’ve not put in writing beforehand. Be prepared for public speakers to taken at the end of the meeting after the key decisions which the public have come seeking help to inform the debate on have been made. Expect councillors, if they’re still present, to actively ignore and show disdain for members of the public seeking to use the opportunity they’ve nominally put in place to show they’re keen to hear views from others.
- There’s unlikely to be a co-ordinated civic calendar available for your area; so information on what’s on has to be gleaned from various public bodies’ websites. Beware of calendars of events which are not comprehensive and from which key public meetings are omitted. Minutes of previous meetings and committee webpages can be good sources of information on upcoming meetings.
- Often even on the day of a full council meeting there may be no indication this is occurring on the front page of a council’s website and you will have to drill down through many levels of navigation to find out what’s on. Try and find a menu option or link such as “Democracy” or “Committee Meetings”. Even if a meeting calendar is available, be prepared for this not to link to the agenda and papers for the meeting, but to have to search for those elsewhere on the website.
These tips are all based on my own experiences trying to find out, and publicise, what those responsible for running my local public services and local councils have been getting up to.
I wrote this piece following an invitation from the Guardian to write something on my experiences for the “Local Leaders” section of their website. The piece was rejected by the Guardian though as they wanted something more along the lines of the type of thing they usually publish.