I thought filming at Cambridge City Council meetings, while far from encouraged, had become generally accepted and routine however my attempts to film the North Area Committee on the 3rd of October 2013 resulted in the committee’s chairman Cllr Mike Pitt (Liberal Democrat, West Chesterton) publicly accusing me of “antisocial behaviour” and harassment from his position in the chair.
Cllr Pitt also sought to impose highly restrictive limitations on my filming; ordering that filming had to take place from a fixed position, and the shot could only include councillors. Cllr Pitt sought to forbid the filming of any members of the public.
In my view Cllr Pitt has gone rogue; he acted against the express wishes of the full council which, in April 2012, explicitly decided to remove many of the previous restrictions on filming which had, until then, been imposed, such as requiring filming from a fixed position and banning panning or zooming the camera.
Cambridge City Council’s current “Audio and Visual Recording Protocol” as approved by the full council does not forbid the filming of members of the public making contributions to meetings; but does enable individual members of the public who don’t wish to be filmed to make that view known and allows meeting chairs to suspend filming. Cllr Pitt disregarded the clearly expressed unanimous view of the full council when ruling no members of the public could be filmed and not following the agreed “opt out” system.
The full council’s adoption of its current filming protocol followed consideration by the civic affairs committee, which I contributed to.
If the chair of every meeting is free to disregard the council’s agreed filming protocol there is little point having one; it also means the battle to film, photograph, or record proceedings is one which has to be be fought many tens of times for just this one council, and will have to be repeatedly fought as new chairs are elected to committees. The problem at the North Area Committee has arisen since Cllr Pitt became chair, on the toss of a coin, earlier this year; the previous chair, Labour’s Cllr Mike Todd-Jones (Arbury) had followed the filming protocol and I have filmed meetings without a problem under the current protocol.
What Happened on the 3rd of October
I arrived at the North Area Committee venue in advance of the 19.30 start of the main part of the meeting. I was straight away approached by the committee officer; I asked if the planning section of the meeting had concluded and if the main part was due to start shortly, I informed him of my intent to film the meeting, so he could tell the chairman. The committee officer told me filming would be restricted to a fixed position.
I was surprised by this; I didn’t know precisely what it meant. I didn’t know if I was being told I couldn’t pan the camera or if I just couldn’t walk around the room with it. I didn’t give the comment too much thought, or weight, thinking all that matters is what the meeting’s chair says, what the council’s policy is, and what the law is on public access to council meetings. There is also the repeated guidance from Local Government minister Eric Pickles who says local council meetings ought be open to those wishing to film them.
The fact the committee officer, in retrospect, appeared aware of a ruling the chair was to make when the meeting got underway, suggests the decision to require filming be “from a fixed position aimed just at the committee” was made in advance of the public meeting. Perhaps there was a secret pre-meeting at which a decision to restrict filming was made?
When the meeting got underway the following was said:
North Area Committee Chairman Cllr Mike Pitt (Liberal Democrat, West Chesterton): We have someone filming the meeting. It is from a fixed position aimed just at the committee so people who wish to contribute from the floor won’t be filmed. If when you speak you don’t wish it to be recorded please indicate and we will stop for that minute but our responses will be filmed.
Richard Taylor: Can I ask why I can’t film the public?
Cllr Pitt: Can you ask why you can’t film the public? Because we don’t want to put the public off contributing.
Richard Taylor: OK.
Cllr Pitt: We are quite happy to be filmed ourselves because we are here to be held responsible for our actions.
Member of the public Michael Bond: And some of us would not consent to being filmed.
This ruling came as a complete shock and surprise to me. I think it is interesting that Cllr Pitt stated “we don’t want to put the public off contributing”, his use of the word “we” rather than “I” appears to be an attempt to distance himself from his ruling, suggesting others may have been involved in the decision; again this makes me wonder if there was a secret pre-meeting at which the filming rules were discussed and the decision to ditch the council’s filming protocol made.
The rest of the meeting proceeded; there were many contributions from members of the public, none of whom asked that their contribution not be recorded before speaking (while Mr Bond had of course made his comment about filming even he didn’t take up Cllr Pitt’s invitation to request his contributions were not recorded).
All public contributors were publicly named by chairman Cllr Pitt.
Cambridge News reporter Chris Havergal was present at the meeting. A number of the public contributions were reported live by him on Twitter (his tweets are displayed on the front page of the Cambridge-News webpage). My own contribution was reported as I was speaking:
— Chris Havergal (@ChrisHavergalCN) October 3, 2013
I say this to make clear that making a contribution to a council meeting as a member of the public is not something which is, or can be, done in private. It is a very public action; it is common for those making statements at such meetings to find what they say being reported, sometimes they are quoted on the front page of the printed local paper. Minutes are of course published by the council, and often, but not always, public speakers are named in those.
Following Cllr Pitt’s surprise ruling I was all of a sudden given a moral and practical quandary. I had to decide what to film, and if to obey the apparent ruling or not.
I made reference to this dilemma in my live tweets from the meeting:
— Richard Taylor (@RTaylorUK) October 3, 2013
— Richard Taylor (@RTaylorUK) October 3, 2013
Cllr Sales is sitting in the public seating, so presumably I can't film him? North Area Ctte #live
— Richard Taylor (@RTaylorUK) October 3, 2013
The ruling was unexpected, so as when making my request for Cllr Pitt to give his reasons, I had to consider my position on the spot. My view was, and remains, that Cllr Pitt had behaved inappropriately by banning filming of all members of the public. I thought the filming protocol agreed democratically and unanimously by the full council ought be given precedence to his ruling.
My understanding is that one of the reasons the professional media don’t yet film or record Cambridge City Council meetings is because of the potential for such dilemmas if councillors direct them not to film or record newsworthy material. A professional journalist could lose their professional credibility if they acceded to a councillor’s request that they turn their camera away from news.
I would like Cambridge City Council to encourage the filming of its meetings; and to enable everyone including the professional media, individuals, representatives of campaign groups, to film or photograph meetings, using mobile phone if they want, and without having to give notice. Currently we are a long way a way from that position even in meetings chaired by councillors who followed the protocol agreed by the full council.
I had not attended the meeting primarily to film it or report on it; I didn’t want to be thrown out before getting to make some points relating to the local police priorities, to listen to the police report, and to observe my local councillors during their opportunity to hold the local police to account and set their priorities.
I decided I would obey chairman Pitt’s ruling unless something especially newsworthy, or important, occurred. If for example someone had raised another case of the police not answering their 101 phone number for an extended period of time I thought I’d disobey Cllr Pitt and seek to film that on the grounds that getting those kind of reports to the Police and Crime Commissioner, who appears to believe he has solve the problem with the police not answering their phones, could, if the Commissioner took notice, have a substantial positive impact.
Had I known that one of the public questioners was (apparently so I’ve been told since) one of Labour’s prospective candidates for election in the area, I may have film his contribution too (asking the police to tackle drug dealing and use in vans parked on the pavement at the Green End Road / Green End Road junction).
I decided that if the police contributed from the public seating I would film them; and if any officers made substantive contributions from the public seating I would film them too.
Cllr Paul Sales (Labour, Arbury, Cambridgeshire County Council) was sitting in the public seating; this also posed a particular dilemma for me. Councillors sitting in the public seating areas of council meetings, particularly area committee meetings is quite common. Sometimes councillors move to stretch their legs or find a more comfortable seat; sometimes whole, or parts of, meetings are held in what the council call a “cafe style” format with councillors interspersed with the public sitting around tables. Sometimes particular councillors sit in the public seating to make a point they are “one of the people”; it is also quite a regular occurrence in Cambridge that councillors who oppose planning decisions being made at area committees, or who have another principled objection to making a decision, leave the committee table and sit with the public, however on these occasions they regularly still contribute, sometimes seeking to do so “as a member of the public” but more often seeking to retain their full speaking rights as a councillor and member of the committee.
I don’t think councillors should be able to “hide” in the public seating to avoid having their contributions filmed.
I decided that should Cllr Sales speak or vote I would seek to film his contribution but I would otherwise comply with chairman Pitt’s ruling.
As it was I didn’t decide to move my camera to cover any of the public speakers. One of the contributions, from Mr Bond, complained about the lack of tea and coffee for the public at the meeting! I did though move my camera slightly so that I could get the Police Sergent Jason Wragg into frame when he addressed the meeting while standing infront of the councillors. Cllr Pitt made no objection to this move. I also panned and zoomed my camera on a couple of occasions to cover the councillor who was speaking.
As the vote on the local police priority setting approached I noticed my camcorder had run out of battery power, so I began to film on my phone to record the vote.
I saw that Cllr Sales was voting from the public seating so turned my camera to record his contribution; this prompted the following exchange:
Cllr Pitt: Do not film the audience please Mr Taylor.
Richard Taylor: Cllr Sales is voting from the public seating
Member of the Public: But the audience is behind him.
Cllr Pitt: But the audience is behind him.
Committee Officer: That’s fourteen votes…
Cllr Pitt: Cllr Sales will you please join us at the table
Cllr Sales: But there doesn’t appear to be enough room to join you at the table.
Cllr Pitt: Make space.
Cllr Sales: I’m quite happy down here with the audience.
Cllr Pitt: Will you stop filming the audience please Mr Taylor
Richard Taylor: Cllr Sales was making a contribution to the meeting. You can throw me out if you like
My point here was to suggest to chairman Pitt that he has to make a decision; he’s made a ruling, which he has repeated, which I’ve clearly decided to disobey; on the grounds that there is a councillor voting and speaking from the public seating. The power a chair has is to consider a member of the public is disruptive, and to order them to leave the meeting, in the past at Cambridge City Council and Cambridgeshire County Council I have seen this order enforced by the police, with the threat of, and with actual arrests.
Member of the public Clare Blair: That would so make your day Richard.
Cllr Pitt: I’m not going to make you into a martyr Mr Taylor, much as you would love to be. There are members of the audience who have expressed a wish not to be filmed, you heard them earlier in the evening.
All I was, and am, aware of was Mr Bond’s statement following the chair’s initial ruling at the beginning of the meeting. I am not aware of any specific requests not to be filmed by anyone else.
Cllr Pitt: It is an act of anti-social behaviour to act to fail to act to respect their views
Cllr Ian Manning: Applause (perhaps joined by a couple of members of the public).
Cllr Pitt: I agree that you have a right to film the meeting because it’s vital that people see the process of the meeting
Cllr Sales approaches the committee table
Cllr Pitt: … but I don’t think you have a right to harass members of the public. Thank you. Right. I’m going to repeat the vote now that Mr Sales, sorry Cllr Sales I apologise I keep doing that to people, has returned to the table
Cllr Sales: On that point….
Cllr Pitt: Oh come to the table. Right.
Responding to the Accusations
It was when I attempted to film the result of a vote on the area’s police priorities Cllr Pitt publicly accused me of “antisocial behaviour” and harassment from his position in the chair.
Sergent Wragg of Cambridgeshire Police was present when Cllr Pitt made his allegations but he did not take any action at the time, and I have as yet had no contact from the police since the meeting.
I am quite used to having ludicrous allegations made against me by members of the establishment when I’m doing what I consider to be something I consider right, legal, and in the public interest. It is still though a rather shocking experience.
It is interesting to see what is considered anti-social behaviour by those who set the local police priorities (the police report contains a large section on “anti-social behaviour”). I can now add filming a council meeting to “playing football during the day and “gathering on green spaces or outside shops” to my list of examples I’ve heard of what has been considered “anti-social behaviour”.
My Views on the Filming Protocol
I would like to see Cambridge City Council follow the lead of Cambridgeshire County Council and encourage people to film, photograph, record and report on council meetings.
There have been 280 views to-date on my 1hr 37m long video of the 20 June 2013 West / Central Area Committee meeting; I estimate that’s 20 times more people than were present observing directly. There are people who want to watch proceedings but who don’t for whatever reason, attend in person.
There are many videos I’ve taken of council, and other public meetings, on my YouTube channel.
As far as I’m aware I’m the only person (other than Andrew Bower who volunteered to use my camera to film a meeting when I was banned from filming myself) who follows the city council’s filming protocol and notifies meeting chairs before recording, photographing, or filming meetings. Taking photographs at meetings has become relatively common, with Cambridge News Journalist Chris Havergal taking, and tweeting a photo of a protest banner unfurled at a council meeting; a meeting during which there had been no filming announcement by the chair, so presumably no permission given, and during which officers asked me not to use my phone camera when I was seeking to use it to read the banner from the public gallery.
Councillors have also taken photos during council meetings, apparently without permission, one was of the same protest banner. The unfurling of the banner did not prompt any response from councillors who continued their meeting, with no reference to it.
I have even experienced a councillor taking photos of the public gallery.
It appears to me that the council’s rules on filming, photographing and recording meetings are not consistently enforced.
I am concerned the council’s requirement:
must be overt (i.e clearly visible to anyone at the meeting).
is open to interpretation and it isn’t clear if someone could meet this requirement by taking their phone out their pocket and taking a picture. Quite how one is suppose to ensure the fact they are making an audio recording is “clearly visible” to anyone at the meeting I don’t know; perhaps those seeking to make such recordings are expected to invest in large boom microphones with dramatic wind-shielding, or use large brightly coloured microphones with names of their broadcasting organisation on them as seen in American press conferences?
Possible Explanation for Cllr Pitt Going Rogue
Cllr Pitt was not a councillor in April 2012 (he was elected to his current office in May 2012 and previously represented Kings Hedges between 2007 and 2011). I wonder if Cllr Pitt had failed to follow the changes to the city council’s filming protocol which occurred while he was not a councillor?
I considered the possibility of complaining about Cllr Pitt’s ruling and allegations. Ignoring the view of the full council doesn’t appear to me to be a breach of the council’s code of conduct for councillors, and in relation to councillors the only complaint the council will consider is that they have breached the code of conduct.
I am also considering using the public speaking slot at a relevant future council meeting, perhaps the full council, perhaps the civic affairs committee or perhaps a future North Area Committee to make the points I’ve made in this article. If I was to attend and seek to speak at such a meeting though there are other matters which I’d have to consider raising as more important.
I’ve decided to write publicly about what happened, hopefully this will prompt an apology, retraction, and change in policy from Cllr Pitt.
By “rogue” in this article I am intending the meaning as defined by an online dictionary : “Operating outside normal or desirable controls”.
All Footage Obtained
I would welcome any comments on my actions during the meeting, and on what if anything I should do next, and if I should change my approach in any way when filming future council meetings.
My own view is that in retrospect I would stand by the decisions I made in the pressured and hostile environment of the meeting. I think it was right to ask Cllr Pitt to justify his decision to restrict filming (especially given the way the North Area Ctte generally accepts contributions from the public, I wouldn’t heckle a full council meeting in the same manner); I also think it was right to film Cllr Sales while he was voting and speaking, and to explain to the chairman why I was doing so.
I have considered simply staying silent in response to meeting chair’s rulings however I feel this can appear ruder than providing a brief response.
I aim to be polite, and to do the right thing, in all that I do. I think I achieved that during this meeting and Cllr Pitt’s allegations of anti-social behaviour and harassment were baseless.
I have written extensively about my experiences filming council meetings:
- Battle to Film at Huntingdonshire District Council – June 2013
- Cambridge City Council Bans Filming Meetings – November 2010
- Cambridge City Council to Review Restrictive Filming and Photography Policy – March 2012
- Asking to Film and Ask Public Questions at Cambridge City Council – April 2012
- Seeking Permission to Record Cambridge City Council Meetings – September 2010
- Speaking About My Filming Ban at the Cambridge City Council Civic Affairs Committee – November 2010
- Cambridge City Council Complaints Investigator Reports on Filming Protocol – November 2010
- Cambridge City Council Seek To Control Use of Footage of Councillors – April 2012
- Tips for Observing and Reporting on Public Meetings in Local Government – July 2013
- Minister Eric Pickles Cites My Tips for Reporting on Local Councils – August 2013