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.