Monday, March 08, 2010

Anger over council 'ban' on tweeting by bloggers

A Guardian blog has today reported that a council has effectively banned bloggers from tweeting from council meetings in a move which it says is 'part of its commitment to increasing involvement in the democratic process. '

Ok, to be fair, I have twisted what the council actually said. Very slightly.

The council concerned is Tameside in the north-west and it was questioned by Sarah Hartley, the editor of Guardian Local, about whether or not it allowed people to tweet during council meetings. The council's response included this sentence:
Following requests the Council has authorised the Manchester Evening News, Tameside Advertiser and Tameside Reporter to use twitter in each of the Council meetings they have requested to do so, as duly accredited representatives of the press, as defined in the Local Government Act 1972.
and this:
As you can see the Council allows the use of ‘twitter’ during Council meetings by duly accredited representatives of the press as part of its commitment to increasing involvement in the democratic process.
According to Sarah, at least one blogger has been thrown out of the council building for attempting to tweet when he was not 'authorised.'

Every fibre in my body shudders at the thought that a council is going to 'authorise' who can report and the fact that someone wants to use Twitter as the platform is completely irrelevant in my opinion. What's worse, I'm not sure the council has the legal right to ban someone from tweeting in the public gallery - although this may be debatable and certainly Sarah says she thinks the council acted legally.

According to Tameside it ' follows the legislation governing the conduct of Council meetings and in particular the recording and transmitting of meetings which are set out in Section 100 (A)(7) of the Local Government Act 1972 .'

And this is what the Act says:
Nothing in this section shall require a principal council to permit the taking of photographs of any proceedings, or the use of any means to enable persons not present to see or hear any proceedings (whether at the time or later), or the making of any oral report on any proceedings as they take place.
So what exactly in that paragraph says anything about Twitter? It says the council can decide whether or not anyone can take photographs or use anything that allows people outside the council chamber to see or hear the proceedings. It also says that a council doesn't have to allow anyone to make an 'oral report' of proceedings while they are taking place.

But Twitter doesn't do any of those things. It quite obviously does not allow anyone to see or hear the proceedings and it doesn't involve the making of an oral report. That's not all that surprising given that the Act dates from 1972, long before the Internet was around, let alone Twitter.

So that's my first objection to this: it doesn't look legal to me. I also had a chat this evening with a media lawyer who said he couldn't see how the clause could be used to ban someone from tweeting a meeting.

But just as bad is that the fact that even if the council could argue that somehow the paragraph did relate to Twitter - or blogging for that matter - it would only give it the right to ban it. It doesn't say it should ban anything, just that it can. Why would any council want to?

Of course, Tameside says it doesn't want to - it sees Twitter as a way of underlining its ' commitment to increasing involvement in the democratic process.'

That's great. I'm all in favour of using anything possible to increase coverage of council decisions.

But how on earth can anyone argue that they support increased involvement in the democratic process and, in the same breath, say they will only allow 'duly accredited' members of the press to report on proceedings?

I'm sorry, but I don't want to be 'duly accredited'. I don't want any special priveleges and I don't want community journalists obstructed in any way: the more the better in my view.

We've been working for some time with Citizens' Eye and the community news hubs in Leicester as I believe we all have a role to play in local democracy. To be fair to Leicester City Council they appear to be happy to help the community journalists as they look to build on local coverage, but if it was ever to come to it, I would be happy to join the fight to protect the rights of others to report.