Saturday, 2 July 2011

Ceredigion to Trump Carmarthenshire Council in Filming Meetings?

My Ceredigion County Council colleague Cllr Alun Williams blogged here yesterday about the Council's decision on Thursday to investigate opening up its public meetings to film recording after the furore surrounding Carmarthenshire County Council a few weeks ago.

For those who missed it, Carmarthenshire County Council found itself in hot water for the way it dealt with a blogger who filmed a Council meeting.

Jacqui Thompson's arrest after filming a meeting of
Carmarthenshire County Council recently
The blogger in question was Jacqui Thompson whose critical blog on Carmarthenshire County Council can be found here. The full story and details of this incredible event was originally broken and can be viewed here on Carmarthen Journal journalist Alexander Smith's media blog.

It has since been taken up by the New Statesman, BBC Wales, Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and many bloggers.

A number of friends have asked for my thoughts on the matter as a Councillor from neighbouring Ceredigion County Council. I can only apologise for the delay - having been away at Andrew Reeves' funeral in Edinburgh when the news broke, I've had a rather fraught few weeks since with more funerals to attend. This blog post has remained partly written since and only now have I had the time to complete it fully.

Ceredigion County Council's Position
I've been a Councillor in Ceredigion now for 7 years and more often that not, there aren't any members of the public in the viewing gallery when we have our Council meetings. There are times to the contrary of course when emotive subjects like contentious planning applications are in front of the committee or the full Council is considering the future of small local schools, when the community turns out in force to listen to the debate.

I say that there are times when the gallery is empty but that isn't quite right. We do have one keen local resident, James from Borth, who sits in on every single public meeting. It might seem overly enthusiastic for some, but to me it's the mark of a democracy that anyone who has the time and inclination to attend every Council meeting, is allowed to do so.

There are of course occasions when sensitive issues are being discussed and when the Council decides to go into 'committee' which is when the press and memebrs of the public are excluded. As a rule, we only do so when necessary and there are very rarely complaints from those present in the gallery when we do - it is understood and accepted that there are times when this must be done.

But if the public can watch public meetings, why can't they film them if they so wish? The House of Commons finally allowed the cameras into the Chamber in the late 1980s and of course with the modern, devolved nature of politics, we are well used to watching our elected representatives in the chambers of our Welsh Parliament in Cardiff and likewise in Edinburgh and Belfast.

Why then is this not always the case in local government and certainly not so in Carmarthenshire? We complain about a lack of engagement between local residents and local authorities and bemoan the often low local government turnouts and yet, if there is an old-fashioned tendency to think ill of technology then we're going to find ourselves continuing to fall behind the ways of modern Britain. It was not that long ago that I can recall a colleague of mine, Cllr Amy Kitcher finding herself in hot water for Tweeting during a meeting of Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council - the horror of it! It does strike me as being completely backward that we can not grasp the opportunities that technology gives us to open up local government and to rid ourselves of the image of being old fashioned and averse to change.

On this point, I must admit that whilst not being the biggest of 'Tweeters', I did actually Tweet live from a Ceredigion County Council meeting last December when the Council voted to support the Yes for Wales extra powers referendum. I was so excited at the vote that I just couldn't contain myself and had to tell the world!

Having contacted the senior officers within the Council to clarify Ceredigion's position, I have had it confirmed that at present, the Chair has the discretion to allow the filming of Council meetings. In my memory, filming has been allowed for the BBC prior to the beginning of a conentious debate in recent years (I can recall now retired BBC journalist John Meredith taking shots of the Chamber in the minutes leading up to the start of a Council meeting) but was not continued during the meeting itself.

Support from Swansea
A more recent development came from a call by Swansea City Tory Councillor Rene Kinzett for Wales to follow the UK government's lead in allowing the public to film meetings of local Councils. I know Rene from when he was a Liberal Democrat member and though he defected to the dark side, it's good to see that he still has good liberal tendencies! His comments on the BBC Wales website make much sense.

He says:

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"As long as the filming itself does not interfere with the good order of the meeting, then there should be no objection to a taxpayer filming the proceedings of those we elect to spend hundreds of millions of pounds of our money at a local level.

"The involvement of the police and the arrest of a member of public and her removal from the public gallery in handcuffs is a deeply worrying development.

"The United Kingdom is a democracy and the right of electors to watch their democratically elected representatives at work, from the House of Commons, to the Senedd and down to our county and town halls, is a hard won right."

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Perfectly sensible words Rene. I couldn't agree more.

We've never had in my memory, such an embarrassing situation in Ceredigion as was experienced recently in Carmarthen. It does not do anything to enhance the reputation of local government and those within it to see what happened, occur.

There are as Alun said in his blog, differences in opinion within the Council as to whether the authority should film the meetings itself for the public to view or whether those in the gallery should be given the ability to film the Council meetings themselves if they so desire. These discussions will be debated when the report comes back to Council in the autumn I'm sure but the principle now seems set and positive progress, from Ceredigion's side of the border at least, is being made to open up local government to those we represent.

Because at the end of the day, if we can not embrace modern technology in local government, then we may as well all pack up our bags and go home.


  1. Mark,

    Was it not Ceredigion which experimented with webcasting its council meetings eight or nine years ago? I do remember trying to watch proceedings at that time, but with a very slow BT connection it was not practical.

  2. Hi Frank,

    I don't recall this being the case but if it was, it was before my time and I was elected on in 2004.