No tweeting – by order of the council

There must have been a few raised eyebrows when people heard about the plans by West Lancashire Borough Council this week. For those who missed it the local newspaper the Champion reported:

“A ban on members of the public and journalists from recording West Lancashire Borough Council meetings is to be agreed tonight (Wednesday, February 23, 2011).

The Tory-controlled council is expected to recommend changing their constitution to forbid tweeting and blogging proceedings live from meetings.”

The reason they have taken this unusual step is uproar that followed an incident in December 2010 when a journalist was reprimanded for recording the meeting on her Smartphone, which halted the meeting.

I had to read this story twice to ensure that I wasn’t missing something in the detail of why they wanted to take such a radical step. At a time when the judiciary is outlining the circumstances in which tweeting will be allowed in court, a small local authority is taking an opposing view of social networking. The courts have recognised that there needs to be some restrictions around allowing the use of social networks in the legal process. But one thing they have not said, so far, is that they will be banned outright.

So, why does a local authority take such a step? Why did they not consider outlining in what circumstances social networking would be allowed? In many local authority meetings and in police authority meetings it is now becoming standard practice for local journalists to tweet what is happening.  It is seen as a way to demonstrate openness and give the public an opportunity to be involved in their local agencies.

Council meetings are public and preventing journalists from using the latest technology to assist them in fulfilling their role is surely undemocratic. It is backward-thinking and is massively out of step with the views explained by communities and local government minister Eric Pickles also this week. His local government minister Bob Neil has written to councils saying the allowing new media improves public scrutiny at a time when local accountability is critical.

This makes the approach by the West Lancashire council even more bizarre. What is it that they are concerned about? What do they think is going to happen by allowing someone to tweet about the discussions that take place? Or do we get back to the age-old issue that they believe there is a loss of control by allowing this to take place?

I have written a lot in my blogs about the changes that are taking place and the fact that senior staff and communication professionals have to relinquish the element of control in their work. The arrival of social networks and their increasing integration in daily life, helped by the developments in technology, are redefining the way we communicate and share information.  Is the decision by West Lancashire Borough Council then a reaction to the loss of this control they have so far been able to exert?

There must also be a way that this is challenged and ultimately removed. One thing is clear, in taking this step the council have effectively become isolated from the community that they are supposed to represent and serve. It is surely a decision that will be tested by journalists and bloggers, or at least I hope it will be.

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6 Responses to No tweeting – by order of the council

  1. Mike Rawlins says:

    So, just how does this fit in with the letter from Eric Pickles MP? They had the letter in the morning and had the meeting in the afternoon.

    His letter was quite clear
    Credible local blogs should be given the same access and support as traditional media
    There is no reason why a member of the public cannot and should not record a public meeting.

    This is a massively retrograde step.

    So we get a group of bloggers to go to the next public meeting, one person starts recording it until they are asked to leave, then the next person starts and repeat..

    • amandacomms1 says:

      It would be interesting to link with the local newspaper and see if some local bloggers can get together to challenge this. Or for them to ask Eric Pickles what he thinks of the situation.

  2. This is an utterly bizarre proposal – thanks for highlighting it. To my mind it begs the question – what harm does the council believe is caused by real-time reporting of meetings? Does it fear unpopular decisions will be protested in real time, or that individual councillors will feel unable to speak their minds because they may be held more personally to account? Is it obstruction for control, as you suggest? Or is it simply a desperate misunderstanding of the technology?

  3. Hi Amanda,

    West Lancs Borough Council is not seeking to ban Twitter/Facebook etc from its meetings.

    The recommendation from council officers is as follows (directly quoted from the publicly available report):

    “The use of Mobile phones/devices to send texts or emails, access Facebook, send tweets, take notes, open emails, access the internet etc should be done discreetly and with common sense and should not cause a disturbance to the smooth running of the
    meeting.

    “The Mayor/Chairman has discretion to require that mobile phone/devices are not used as at above if a disturbance to the smooth running of the meeting is caused.”

    Hope this clarifies the issue.

  4. David Sudworth says:

    Amanda,

    These were the original reccomendations – there was never a plan to ‘ban’ Twitter etc…

    It appears there has been some confusion in interpreting the officers’ report.

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