Making public meetings really public

Over many years there has been a requirement to allow public access to courts, council meetings and the decision-making sessions of other public bodies. It is something that we have a pride in as part of British life. It is that ability to be able to see what is going on even if you are not taking part.

It is only possible for a small minority of people to attend such meetings or court cases. In the latter case the numbers allowed in are often restricted or even seats are given up for the media or others. Not many have the time to be able to attend or the ability to get to the meeting. However, we prize the fact that we could if we had the inclination.

The media have been the people who until recent years have been relied on to provide the oversight of what happens at such key decision-making meetings. Their attendance at court, council meetings and other key agency meetings and subsequent reports are the way that we found out about what was happening.  But that was only if we bought the newspaper and we only got the detail that made the newspaper.

In 2010 the world has changed and we get our news in a very different ways. The growth of social media and hyperlocal websites gives us new opportunities of how to find out what is happening in the areas that we are bothered about. Any individual who attends such a meeting can instantly broadcast every aspect of it to their followers on Twitter.

It is something that the media are starting to realise is a big chance to diversify and drive people to their main product. The Manchester Evening News regularly tweets from council meetings and even meetings of the Greater Manchester Police Authority. It is a great opportunity for them to be able to go into detail about the items that are discussed. They can do this in a way that just wouldn’t work in the newspaper, where the details are précised.

This is developing further with Twitter being used to provide an insight into what goes on behind the scenes at policing operations. It has been used to show what goes into the control of a significant amount of policing resources managing protests and in tracking down wanted people. When it is done well it provides people with a chance to see things that they wouldn’t normally be able to witness.

When the journalists aren’t there what happens? The number of journalists is dwindling with cutbacks affecting staffing levels which often means that there is just not the staff to send out. It is in those cases that we can all become the reporter, using Twitter or other social networks as the way to share information.

We have the chance, whether as communication professionals or just members of our communities, to take access to public meetings to a whole new level. Offering people the chance to feel able to view events as though they were actually there. It just needs the support of agencies and individuals to see the opportunities and make it work.

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