Tips for Observing and Reporting on Public Meetings in Local Government

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013. 10:28pm

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.

16 comments/updates on “Tips for Observing and Reporting on Public Meetings in Local Government

  1. Gwen swinburn

    great advice! Two more additional pieces!

    1. The Statutory Instrument 2012 no 2089 the one that gives the rights to filming – also gives many more rights to citizens and members!

    It includes citizen rights to have hard copies of agendas at each meeting.

    Paragraph removed by Richard Taylor on receipt [indirectly] of an email from Ian Floyd, the Director of Customer and Business Support Services, at City of York Council stating it was defamatory, and my agreement that it was potentially defamatory, see my comment below.

    But here is the proof people click on the link above and discover what you should be getting access to!!! And for committee papers particularly:
    “Part 2 – 7 (6) ..the relevant local authority must make available for the use of members of the public present at the meetings a reasonable number of copies of the agenda and reports for meetings!”

    And an apology forthcoming you might ask yourself? 4 requests, 2 to his Director and 2 to the Chief Executive of York City Council Kersten England, resulted in a big fat zero apology- arrogance beyond belief, how hard would it have been to just say he was sorry, or for his managers to insist upon it- says rather a lot don’t you think about the top management at York City Council.

    If you want to know a great series of examples about how a council, York City Council, beaches and abuses this legislation just contact me, or follow me on twitter @gswinburn
    City of York is mired in multiple complaints to the police, LGO, ICO and DCLG as their activities to keep citizens from proper oversight of their various activities!!! Judicial reviews and private prosecutions are all in the mix- it is a disgrace!

    PS read the legislation closely, it is only a few pages- you will not regret it.

    2. Secondly, upon being presented with correspondence regarding a request for citizens to have a blanket approval to film all public meetings the chair of the Audit and Governance committee- rather than welcoming the engagement of citizens, took it upon herself to whine about the tone of the email request, in front of the entire committee!!! Of course as they had no grounds at all for denying my request, she oh so graciously gave “her permission”. So standby folks when cornered they never give in gracefully!

    1. Richard Taylor Article author

      I have transparently removed a paragraph from the above comment by Gwen Swinburn having been passed a message from Ian Floyd, the Director of Customer and Business Support Services, at City of York Council, asking for its removal on the grounds it was defamatory. Mr Floyd’s message was sent from his council email address and contains a footer stating explicitly: “This communication is from City of York Council”.

      The paragraph I have removed referred to City of York Council officer Andrew Docherty, who is the Assistant Director Legal, Civic, Democratic and IT at the council on a salary of £73,401.00 per year. (Source Senior Officer Salaries Document [PDF]).

      In the paragraph the council has asked to have removed commenter Gwen Swinburn was apparently relating her experience of what happened when she turned up to meeting of the City of York Council and requested a copy of the meeting papers. It appears from her account that the council refused to provide her with a copy on the grounds the public have no rights to hard copies of meeting papers.

      Gwen Swinburn has assured me that what she says happened is true. Due to the current state of UK libel law though, and the fact I don’t know, and more importantly cannot prove, if it is or not, I have had to remove the paragraph in question.

      Schedule 1 Part II section 11(1)(a) of the Defamation Act 1996 gives a degree of privilege (exemption from Defamation law) to “a fair and accurate report of proceedings at any public meeting or sitting in the United Kingdom of … a local authority”, so if her report is “fair and accurate” (something I have no way of knowing) she ought be free to publish it, if the exchange in question is considered part of the proceedings of the meeting, which if it took place before the start, might not be judged to be the case. However there is a risk involved even with that as even defending a libel charge can be ruinously expensive and it is likely to be difficult to prove what was said in a conversation.

      If there is a problem with members of the public attending City of York Council meetings obtaining copies of meeting papers than the council really ought to address that rather than demand public discussion of the matter be censored, citing defamation.

      I have recently noted that at Huntingdonshire District Council meeting papers available to the public are unhelpfully marked “for information only – not to be taken away”.

  2. Richard Taylor Article author

    I suppose I should add another tip for observing and reporting on council meetings:

    Be aware of the current state of UK libel law. While a fair an accurate report of a local authority meeting is largely protected from libel action, publishing material in the UK is a highly risky business and you could face financial ruin. Every, and any, blog post, online comment, tweet, could cost you everything, even if what you are doing is entirely moral, right, honorable and defensible. (I’ve made a similar comment before).

  3. Gwen swinburn

    Thanks, for the advice Richard- the meeting was between me and the Director who had invited without telling me, the Monitoring Officer- I was peer sharing some of the many democratic challenges I had identified over the last few years- including the fact that citizens were not given hard copies of agendas as required by law when they attend meetings (reasonable number).

    Proof of the pudding is in the eating- we get copies now!

    Next lesson, attend all private meetings with a witness!

  4. Alan Perrow

    Although councillors and council officers can sue for defamation, council cannot:

    I have published that Craven District Council, my local council, is corrupt on several occasions, for I believe that to be true. Regrettably most councils in my opinion are also incompetent, and officers, instead of assisting elected members, attempt to rule them. As far as your video goes, if there is anything which should be illegal in that, it should – IMHO – be the chairman’s haircut. Private Eye describe it as ‘amazing’ and who would disagree?

  5. Robert Sharp

    At the Libel Reform Campaign, we campaigned to have the ‘Derbyshire’ principle (a council cannot sue its citizens) enshrined in statue of the Defamation Act 2013 … so that bloggers such as yourself and commenters like Gwen Swinburne could have certainty when discussing this sort of thing.

    Sadly the Government did not accept Labour proposals on this point, so the law remains ‘case law’ and open to interpretation.

    But yes, the current case law is that councils themselves cannot sue. However, *individual officers* of the council, and councillors themselves, can sue. That feels right – They do have reputations, after all, and we do not operate a ‘public figure’ system as they do in the USA.

    So whether the officials at the council were right to write to you depends whether the communication from York City Council said that the message was defamatory to the council, or to Andrew Docherty himself.

    Interestingly, Section 5 of the new Defamation Act 2013 would give you, Richard, more protection. Under the new Act (which is not yet in force, so hold your horses), you could pass the request onto Gwen for comment. If she is sure of her facts, she could choose to stand by her words, and you as the ‘website operator’ would be protected from prosecution. I doubt that many bloggers would realise this, and many will continue to take down comments unnecessarily. The libel chill in force.

    DISCLAIMER: Despite my confidence in the information abovem I’m not a lawyer – just a campaigner. For God’s sake don’t act on the words above without asking a legal professional about it first.

    1. Richard Taylor Article author

      This case illustrates that only those with a relatively good knowledge of libel law are free and able to comment on public affairs. You have to know that the law lets you accuse the council of something, but not make the same accusation of an identifiable officer, even if they have personal individual responsibility, without risking legal action. This, in my view, is one of the things which sets a very high bar to entering public debate.

      When I wrote to my MP in 2011 with some suggestions on Libel Reform I suggested senior officers acting on behalf of a public body ought, like the bodies themselves, not be able to sue for libel.

      As for the new defamation act I note I do not generally hold information on those who comment on my blog so wouldn’t be able to point the complainant to the commenter and benefit from the provisions of the new law. Even if I did have such contact information and was prepared to disclose them (which I wouldn’t be without a court order, or in case of an emergency following a written request from a senior police officer), my commenters have no ability to delete or edit comments they have made, only I control what continues to be published on my website, so ultimately a complainant would have to come to me, or I surely ought be a party to any court case or pre-court arbitration.

  6. Richard Taylor Article author

    I have removed a comment on the grounds it was only tangentially related to the subject of this article; and pointed to another libel case which I don’t think it would be wise to permit, and thereby potentially encourage, discussion of on my website.

    One thing of relevance the commenter did say was:

    It is true that those who know a little about libel law are able to speak more freely.

  7. Loverat

    Hi Richard

    If that is the only part of my comment you are going to publish I would not bother at all frankly. I have always felt that it is a pointless exercise leaving a brief comment simply agreeing with the previous poster.

    Anyway, the post whilst not directly addressing reporting on public meetings, does follow the preceding posts which discuss attitudes, opinions and interpretations on the libel law. It is expanding on those points and offering a valuable insight into some cases for people who use blogs and criticise public officials. it uses analogies to do that.

  8. Richard Taylor Article author

    Cambridge’s East Area Committee on the 28th of November 2013 was held behind locked doors; with no signs outside the building.

    One councillor suggested unlocking the doors via Twitter, but didn’t raise it with the chair during the meeting:

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